High Ground 24

Roger Swain

says our most painful garden lessons don’t have to be personal

CROSSING MY NAKED LEFT HAND and the pruning saw in my right recently landed me in the emergency room. There, holding myself together with a pocket handkerchief, I waited patiently for the necessary stitches. The doctor, though, was having problems of his own. It’s not easy pulling a latex glove over a hand so heavily bandaged that only two fingers are visible. “Hey, don’t call me a doofus,” he said before I had a chance to protest, “and I won’t call you one.rsquo;

The most embarrassing injuries are often the ones that result from doing something we know how to do and love doing. And yet some 20 percent of all emergency room visits are, like mine, the fruit of recreation. Downhill skiing was the doctor’s undoing, lilac pruning mine.

Almost everything a gardener chooses to do can be dangerous. There are ladders off of which to fall, riding mowers to roll over, chainsaws that kick back. And even if you play it safe by never using power equipment, never handling pesticides, never climbing up on anything, you can’t even trust good earth. “Have you had a recent tetanus shot?” the doctor always asks.

Sometimes the injury is novel enough to make medical history. Take the Canadian couple who spent a day unconscious and hallucinating after the wife, who was frying hamburgers, reached for some seasoning on the windowsill and mistakenly added to the pan the seeds of angel’s trumpet that she had been drying for next year. Other times the accident is simply so stupid that the victim deserves one of the Darwin Awards—those prizes given to people who have thoughtfully removed themselves from the gene pool. An Oregon man, forgetting that cutting wire ruins the blade of a pruning shears, used his to remove a fallen 7,500-volt power line. These are the mistakes others live to tell about.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the injury rate among professional landscapers and horticulturists rivals that of oil field workers and blast furnace operators. Backyard gardeners may not be far behind.

So how can we lessen the mayhem? Businesses can institute in-service training. The home gardener is usually left to learn alone. Yes, there are lots of warning labels and decals and an owner’s manual that you are supposed to read before operating the new tool. And still people get hurt.

Part of the problem may be that we repair ourselves so well. Who is to know about our respective moments of gross miscalculation? There’s something to be said for the dramatic scar, the missing digit, the eye patch. Like roadside crosses, these stand out on the human landscape, reminding us of accidents past and possible. But thanks to modern medicine and our own healing abilities, injuries that aren’t fatal usually leave scant trace. My doctor’s bandages and mine are long gone.

‘Always think about the people in your story,” an editor once said to me. The same, I think, applies to garden safety. Warnings don’t carry much weight when they don’t have a human face. My friend Carl teaches woodworking at a local school. When he talks about table saw safety, he gestures with his right hand, its index finger a joint short.

Think about the Grimm brothers’ Little Red Riding Hood. Or Hilaire Belloc’s Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion. Or Edward Gorey’s alphabet of disaster, the Gashlycrumb Tinies: “E is for Ernest who choked on a peach, F is for Fanny sucked dry by a leech.rsquo;

Let’s start telling tales ourselves. Surely each of us can benefit from someone else’s misfortune. “Never make the same mistake twice,” someone once quipped, “plenty of new ones are available.” But if to err is human, then emphasizing the humanness of it all may prove to be a good way to avoid error, too. The very best tales of garden injury and accident, of course, the ones that are the most memorable, won’t be third person. They will be the ones we tell on ourselves. So tell me what happened to you, and I’ll show you where I so neatly slashed my wrist. H

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