[ ECOLOGICAL ETYMOLOGIST ]
My teacher tells me I can’t use nouns as
verbs (for example, I can’t gift something).
But I can think of lots of examples of nouns
that make perfectly good verbs. Many are
animal-related: grousing about a homework
assignment, ducking a punch, bucking the
system. Are these words wrong?
Not a bit. Your teacher might not want to open Pandora’s box
here, but there are countless examples of English words shifting from one part of speech to another over time. And these
are all very old verbs. (Even gift dates from 1608.) We didn’t
have rules of written English until ordinary people started
going to school in the 1800s; the farther back you go, the less
rigorously defined word usage was.
Your examples each evolved in a different way. Grousing
seems to be an onomatopoeia and not at all related to the bird.
Buck has been a noun since 1300 or so and a verb only since
the mid-1800s. But duck seems to be a verb turned noun. The
Oxford English Dictionary cites its earliest use in 967, where
ducan described a bird ducking under water.
More interesting – and confusing – are the many other
things duck has come to mean. You’re probably familiar with
duck cloth and the pants made out of it, but what about the
sticks of beef or kindling that were known as ducks in nineteenth-century England? The Babylonians weighed goods for
trade with wooden ducks, which is why eighteenth-century
stock traders who couldn’t pay were lame ducks. You might say
they’d ceased to be effective – like a lame duck politician. Duck
was a derogatory term for Bombay soldiers, but a Bombay duck
is actually a fish, and a Sydney duck was a convict.
You can play duck (in which you try to hit a stone with
another stone) or duck and drake (which is skipping stones
on water) or score a duck’s egg (zero) in cricket. Your beloved
might be your duck (in Shakespeare’s time) or ducky (now),
but for centuries duckies also meant her breasts. In the
1600s, if you groped ducks you were wasting time with needless work, but if you had a duck in the mouth you’d earned
money. The Romans believed duck meat kept you healthy,
which is why they used tame ducks to lure wild ones into their
traps, or coys, though today you’d probably bait your duck-coy
with a decoy.
Of course, your teacher still won’t
approve of verbification, and it’s generally
better to stick to common usage. That
said, language is fluid, and sometimes
lexical convention gets shed like water off
a duck’s back.
overcrowded sections – to remove low-quality trees, leaving behind stronger
ones to keep growing and to seed healthy offspring that would now have
room to thrive in newly created open patches.
The land can look badly scarred after a timber harvest, even one that’s
professionally planned and carefully conducted. Standing trees can get
snapped off or dinged by equipment. Piles of branches and other woody
debris known as slash dot the woods. Rutted and often muddy logging runs
leave some parts of the land nearly unrecognizable. This battered appearance can deter nervous landowners from even thinking about logging their
properties – I was a bit overwhelmed during my first cut – but it doesn’t take
long for the woods to recover, for the mud and gouges to disappear, and for
rabbits and other wildlife to find homes in the slash, which decomposes to
replenish the soil.
Chip also suggested that I seek certification through the American Tree
Farm System. In New Hampshire, that requires, among other things, at least
10 acres (check), a written management plan (check), and “commitment to
harvesting forest products in a silviculturally sound manner” (check, I hoped).
After filing the paperwork and an on-the-land inspection, I was approved
in 1999. The green Certified Tree Farm sign, its four edges declaring the
program’s goals of Wildlife, Recreation, Wood, and Water, is proudly posted
at the entry to my woodland.
It’s been more than 40 years since I first fought an army of mosquitoes
to visit this land. It’s taken the contributions of many, including my current
forester, Charles Moreno, to get these woods into a condition that feels right.
Former skid runs now form a trail network across the property. White pine
and other species are thriving, to be harvested someday by me or some successor to keep up with the management plan (and to help pay the hefty New
Hampshire property tax). Mighty white oaks shed acorns to feed deer and
other wildlife, which find winter protection in the shelter of thick hemlocks.
Clear-cut patches yield new growth that provides food and building materials for beavers, who create ponds and wetlands that benefit two- and four-legged creatures alike. And I’m doing my small part to fight climate change:
an acre of trees absorbs as much CO2 in a year as a car emits in 26,000
miles of driving.
In 1998, I granted a conservation easement on most of the property to the
Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire, protecting the land from development. Well-managed forestry work is still permitted, even encouraged.
I don’t know who will own these woods after I become compost, but I hope
they do as well for me as I hope I have done for the owner before me, Mary
Folsom Blair. She was a conservationist long before the term was popular
and kept amazing journals. “Oh, the pink and white beauties half hidden in
the leaves, the brawling stream, the soft breeze, the balmy air,” this Quaker
school teacher wrote in a 1908 entry. “Then the next day by the meadow
dam, looking up at the blue sky from the foot of the pines. It is a long look up
to those pines. How they swing and sway so gracefully when the wind blows.
And Macduff and Box, the collies, on guard at head and feet. Such moments
are worth living for.”
I’m pretty sure I know exactly the place where she and her dogs were
sitting. The meadow is now a beaver pond. Tall pines still abound. May they
forever swing and sway.
Adapted for Northern Woodlands from an article that first appeared in Tufts
Magazine, that university’s alumni publication. This series is sponsored by
the Stifler Family Foundation, in support of forestry practices that promote
healthy and sustainable forests and wildlife habitat.