One woman's 'culch' will be another woman's treasure

"Time to tackle the culch pile!" I said to myself one morning, as I opened the door to my personal version of Fibber McGee's closet. I paused in surprise. Why had that word popped into my head? I hadn't heard it, much less used it, in years.

Reaching for childhood memories in the cluttered recesses of my mind, I remembered the culch pile leaning precariously against the barn wall. Farmer George was constantly warning us kids to stay away from this fascinating assortment of old tractor parts, scrap lumber, odd tires, and stray pieces of metal.

Did I remember the word correctly? A quick check of our dictionaries failed to find it. Welcoming any excuse to put off tackling the closet, I called a ranching friend of mine to see if she'd heard of such a word.

When I described the type of pile, Debbie was convinced I meant "clutch," not culch. Her husband had just such a pile of junk in their barn, made up of all the precious things he clutched to himself, rather than let her take them to the dump. She admitted that she had seen him mine the pile successfully for items to be used in other projects.

Another friend also thought the word I wanted must be clutch, as in all those pieces of farm equipment with burned-out clutches. I did find two people who knew the word culch, though one was convinced my spelling was wrong. Both friends had New England roots, as do I. Obviously the word was regional.

At the county library, I found a reference to National Clutter Awareness Week, in March. I wondered why. And why the name? Aren't most people aware of the clutter that surrounds them? Awareness isn't the problem. Doing something about it is.

But "clutter," though related, was not "culch." Further searching yielded the Dictionary of American Regional English. Aha! The book confirmed my belief that culch, (or "cultch") is a solid, rock-ribbed New England noun.

Fishermen once tossed culch - old shells, gravel, and other debris - into the ocean in order to attract and catch oyster spat - baby oysters in the swimming stage. Just like my mind attracts clutter today.

The word became attached to anything considered trash or rubbish, including "people held in low esteem." Yankee magazine (1977) referred to culch as anything unfit to eat. You could tell children to pick up the culch in their room, say a poor dinner was culchy, or even refer to inane conversation as culchy speech.

Culch didn't necessarily stay in piles, but could also fill up drawers and lodge on tabletops. A box of culch contained stuff that was neither treasure nor junk, but could become anything that an inventive do-it-yourselfer needed. The dictionary also mentioned that much New England attic culch is turning out to be of great value in today's markets.

There it was - the definition I was looking for. A culch pile, or drawer, or closet, is full of items considered useless today, but that may be needed tomorrow. What's more, the culch is often the treasure of the future.

So let the good people who think awareness of clutter is worth a dedicated national week put aside their fears. I, for one, am aware of clutter. There's no clutter in my house. Or my closet. There is no clutter in my mind, either. It's full of golden treasure, including culch - a word worth clutching to my heart.

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