“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs […] [T]hey're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day... fifty the day after that... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are….”
? Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Adverbs are routinely disparaged in writing guides. Even Stephen King, the king of horror, is horrified by them—and by dandelions.
While weeding my lawn, I try out Stephen King’s likening of adverbs to dandelions. To try out is to essay. I’d rather be essaying indoors, but dandelions now demand all my writing time. There is nothing more trying than a dandelion.
I’m tempted to fertilize this field of screams with selective toxins, like my luscious-lawned neighbors, or at least target the suckers individually, getting trigger-happy with a bottle of liquid genocide. I’ve tried greener techniques like spraying vinegar, but it leaves acid burns under stick-figure dandelion skeletons. Someone recommended pouring boiling water on them, but please. So I essay to pull them up by hand, one by one.
I write not bird by bird but weed by weed, dandelionly. Trying to compose as I weed, I pull up only adverbs, like laboriously and resentfully. Over the course of a yard, these adverbs multiply like dandelions. “Like dandelions” is an adverbial phrase.
To maintain a lawn you must constantly fight the way of all flora. A lawn proclaims the mastery of the human ego over nature, but dandelions are the return of the repressed. Or so I tell myself to justify the dandelions multiplying like adverbs across my happily-ever-after.
I, myself, don’t much like nature, so full of weeds and bugs. I never wanted a yard, or even a house. But I was once a we, and half of that we wanted house, lawn, and garden. He promised to take care of it all. Then he went and died. Cancer, too, spreads with weed-like, adverbial insidiousness. It lends the verb metastasize to the lexicon of horror.
As an environmental engineer, my once-we knew the truth about herbicides; he studied them for a living. So our lawn was to be all natural. If he were alive, I could reason with him, plead for an exemption. Because this is ridiculous. But he’s dead, which trumps any appeal I could ever make. Using herbicides would feel like cheating on him, desecrating his life’s work.
There is no herbicide for adverbs, but as a makeshift adverbicide you can type “ly” into your Find function, then search and destroy, otherwise known as Delete. You must deracinate them one by one or risk losing words like rely and lyrical. Still, the suffix “-ly” is the telltale flowering head that can yellow a whole field of green prose.
Yes, flowering. Technically, the dandelion head is a flower, at least botanically speaking. I read up on my nemesis, trying to find its weakness. Taraxacum officinale—the binomial nomenclature for the common dandelion—is described as a “flowering plant.” If dandelion classifies as a flower, then what is a weed? (Next they’ll call adverbs poetry.)
Dandelions, I read, proliferate through asexual reproduction without pollination (not unlike adverbs), cloning themselves endlessly. T. officinale evolved 30 million years ago in Eurasia. They greeted the first humans. They paved the first roads to hell.
They weren’t always hated, these “monk’s heads” of yore. The ancients cultivated them, say anthropologists. The entire plant is edible and nutritious, the head high in potassium, like bananas, and the roots an effective diuretic. Taste one. At a mere 25 calories per cup they’re dandelicious. Instead of eradication, I could eat them.
Adverbs are edible but very fattening.
Just don’t eat dandelions if they’ve been anywhere near herbicides. The toxic chemicals get taken up in the plants’ roots. My dead life-partner used to study this uptake. The herbicides, chemotherapy for lawns, can ultimately be more toxic to humans than they are to plants.
Once herbicides get in the groundwater they can travel for miles, leaving cancer in their wake.
Damn him, my once-upon-a-we, for leaving me behind to deal with the dandelions. If I weed for an hour a day all summer long I still won’t conquer them. Unlike us, they’re immortal.
The nursery’s herbicides continue to taunt, tempting me despite my mortal partner’s immortal moratorium. It’s time for chemical warfare. It’s time for adverbs like recklessly and irresponsibly and traitorously.
Instead, guilt prevails, and I try the organic potion. “Kills weeds naturally.” Naturally, it doesn’t work.
Even synthetic herbicides, I know, only work for so long. Like chemotherapy.
But a dandelion is not a cancer cell. Adverbs are not malignant. If dandelions are like adverbs, cancer is a verb. Both dandelions and adverbs deserve better metaphors.
The French dent de lion, or lion’s teeth, refers to the jagged leaves, but I think of the flower head as a dandy, randy lion sporting a spring mane. Dandelion is King of the Lawn. It throws its golden head back and laughs at my vain efforts.
When you bend over enough dandelions, measuring their resilience against your tug, you develop a tactile intimacy with them. You feel the tenacity of their roots.
Sometimes I can’t help but admire the bastards. Despite all attempts to uproot them, they regrow overnight, stealthily, doggedly. They’re tricksters. They’re survivors.
Instead of fighting an unwinnable war on dandelions, I could try to accept their nature. I could essay to be more like them.
Or I could decide—decisively decide—that dandelions, like adverbs, are beautiful, and see them for the flowers they really are, their seed heads tiny fairy Afros. I could call my yard a flower garden and my adverbial prose a lyric essay, composed in lion’s teeth.