I was very safely up on the ladder cutting a large limb off of a dying dogwood. Since the whole tree was coming down I was not worried about the neatness of the cut. As is my habit I made the cut about a foot out from the trunk (this is always best to avoid bark being pulled back from the trunk of the tree). This was a large limb and I was barely halfway through it when it snapped, not neatly. I was safely out of the way of the kick back. Let me add here that when cutting down any tree or or larger shrub, the kick back of the trunk is very dangerous. If you are cutting while up on a ladder it is doubly dangerous. Don’t let your face be any where near the kick back zone.
Well, back to my story, I had been sensible about kick back but had not thought of one thing. The part of the limb that hit the ground first was the soft springy outside limbs and twigs, which compressed as the weight of the limb pushed it to the ground. It then sprang up with surprising force. On the way up the sharp end of the broken limb stabbed me under my arm pit. It cut fairly deeply and started to bleed immediately. Of course the first thing I thought of was that scene in Cellular where Kim Bassinger’s character kills the bad guy by cutting into his brachial artery. Thankfully the limb missed my artery.
Moral of the story – beware of kick back and bounce back when cutting trees.
The client mentioned to me that there was a fire ant hill down by the new outlet off the secondary pump near the small creek. So I went to check. I couldn’t find the outlet. But I did see, right by the small creek leading into the lake, a small utility box, maybe one by two feet, and about six inches high or deep. It had a lid. Maybe the buggers are in there I thought. So I leaned down to take the lid off the box. What greeted me was a large open white mouth of a water moccasin about two feet from my face. Needless to say, I said a bad word. I must have offended him (or her) or frightened him with my breath because before I could say lickety-split he dove head first into a hole, and I saw his body pop out of the creek bank into the water. Whew!
Though it is unusual to encounter a water moccasin, they being inclined to slither away quickly and quietly, copperheads are another story. They are pretty much all over the place. And good luck seeing them. I think copperheads are incredibly beautiful. They blend in so well with leaves they become invisible. Their reaction to possible threat is to be very still. I have been on more than one hike where it was the fifth or sixth person back who saw the copperhead coiled in the trail. Everyone else stepped over or by and did not see it. But step on or too close and they will strike.
Moral of the story – wear good boots when gardening.
I spend a lot of time pulling vines. One can’t really renovate a flower bed with decades of wisteria, Virginia creeper and smilax smothering everything. So this one place was downright Amazonian. The very think wisteria vine was all wrapped around a very large oak limb on the way up to higher limbs. I doubted I could budge it but I gave it a try. I didn’t even consider that the limb might be dead, and yes, of course, it was directly above me maybe 25 feet up. So, yank, snap, pull – POP - and the giant limb broke near the trunk and crashed behind me, missing me by maybe two feet. It would have smashed my skull and pushed my head into my torso I think! Really really dumb.
Moral of the story – watch out for limbs directly above you and on occasion wear a hard hat.
People often ask me if I am worried about getting bitten by snakes or black widow spiders, but when it comes to dangerous critters the one critter that does actually concern me is the common yellow jacket. I have managed to get completely swarmed by several nests of yellow jackets at least once a year each of the last four years, usually of course in the fall. Typically I get many dozens of stings and it hurts like hell. Thankfully so far I am not allergic, though an allergic reaction could develop at any time. The problem is yellow jackets stings are really hard to predict or avoid. One really has no idea where they are.
The last time I got swarmed I was casually walking through an open wooded area of a local property and saw a thick smilax vine. I sliced my transplanting shovel deep into the ground beside it and popped out the tuber. But as I realized later I also popped out the biggest yellow jacket nest I have had the privilege of seeing (since they can be hard to see being in the ground and all). I didn’t see it at first. You never really know you’ve stumbled into a yellow jacket nest until they start stinging.
Like fire ants, yellow jackets swarm first and sting second, all at once. I am familiar with the pain and now know how to react – and the key word here is calmly. Walk away swiftly, don’t flail around, and immediately start taking off gloves and long sleeves and pants if necessary. The little buggers like to crawl up under clothes. And then commence to squishing them as swiftly and as mercilessly as possible. In so doing you can reduce the number of stings by the scores. The pain and danger difference between a few dozen and several hundred stings is significant.
Moral of the story – pray you won’t stumble into a yellow jacket nest, think ahead how you will react if you do, and if you are allergic to bees, yellow jackets or fire ants keep an EpiPen handy.
I lived away from Columbia for 23 years, and though it may be hard to believe, I missed our summers. I mean, what is summer without miserable heat and humidity? I don’t really mind working in the summer either, much preferring the higher temps and lower humidity of the afternoons to the cooler temps and 100% humidity of the mornings. My work is vigorous and I lose a lot of water, so hydration is really important. I even worked the day it was 109 summer before last. I just poured water over my head every little while and was frankly very proud of myself. I need to get a tee shirt made commemorating the event, sort of like my I Climbed Mount Washington tee shirt.
But one must take the heat seriously. Last year I started about 11 AM one day weeding a hill that I had planted with Asiatic jasmine. It was tedious and took me close to three hours right in the middle of the day and in full sun. That was not smart. As we get older it takes much more energy for our bodies to regulate our core temperature, putting extra demand upon our hearts. This explains why we get more tired working or even standing in the full sun than we did when younger. If we overdo it our core temperature can rise, and rise dangerously. Heat exhaustion is not uncommon, and this, combined with dehydration can be deadly. In my case I started feeling light headed, then dizzy, then nauseous. I drank some water and kept going. More of the same. I noticed that my heart rate was quite elevated and decided I better stop. I just walked away leaving my tools and drove home and went to sleep. I was loopy.
Moral of the story – stay hydrated, wear a good hat, and remember, you’re not as young as you used to be.
Spearing, or Being Run Through
Pulling vines can be fun. I remember one place where there was a huge nest of smilax growing up into some very high very overgrown camellias and small cherry laurels. I cut the vines at the base, gathered them in my hands, and started pulling. Back and back I walked and pulled. The vines weren’t budging but the bushes and tress were bending. Now by this time in my gardening career I was wise enough always to look behind me in case the vines popped or loosened suddenly. In this case I did in fact slip, the the trees straightened and the vines dragged me swiftly on my derriere across the grass. I did it several more times because it was fun. Eventually I gave up and just cut the vines as high up as I could. But pulling vines can be dangerous. It is easy to fall, and often the vines let go or pop quickly.
A few months before I was pulling some vines in a crowded area where I had already cut some small saplings a foot or so high. I like to go back and dig them out and need to see them. So I was pulling some vine and it gave way and I fell straight back like Mohammed Ali in the first Ali-Frazier fight. I landed flat on my back about a foot from a sharp sapling stump I had just cut. That my friends could have been ugly.
Moral of the story – always ALWAYS look backwards when pulling vines and adjust your body when pulling so that you will fall on your side, not your back. Because you will fall.
Ok, so this one may go under the heading When You Wish Who Had Died Gardening. It was a beautiful day, early spring, and I was doing something I love to do – pruning camellias. I was standing firmly on the ground. Now camellia stems and leaves have this tendency to sort of droop down and the leaves then situate sort of flatly, horizontal to the ground. Camellia leaves as you know are pretty stiff and have serrated edges. So I am pruning away, and enjoying the beautiful day, when I did the unthinkable – I turned my body. I know…dangerous. Problem was I turned my head too, and as I did, just above the top rim of my glasses, a camellia leaf sliced across my eyeball. Yep I said that right. Now I am going to tell you – that hurt. My eye filled up with fluid and the sunlight was painful. Like a dumb ass I drove myself to the Doc in a Box. Thankfully the slit was only through the the cornea, and not quite deep enough to warrant stitches. I wore a patch for a couple of days.
Moral of the story – WEAR SAFETY GLASSES!
So, yes, I was pulling vines again, and in this case wisteria. I was in the back of a deep bed filled with very large old photinia bushes, in a cramped space, my back against a big wall. Wisteria vines were attached to a large tree high above. There was no angle, just a straight down pull. I tried a quick snap which often works for wisteria, but it didn’t budge. So I thought I’d try brute strength. I grabbed the vine with both hands and pulled straight down, using both my impressive gardening guns and my core muscles, as hard as I could for a sustained time. I was probably red in the face from exertion. Well, the vine detached or popped, and when it did my head jerked down so fast that my chin rammed my chest, and then my head bounced back equally fast against my upper back. Everything went black. I fell back against the wall and slumped to a a squatting position, staying still for some time. Slowly the cobwebs cleared, and with my eyes closed I started to assess if I had broken my neck. Was I breathing? Yes. Could I move my fingers, my toes? Yes. Could I see? I opened my eyes. Yes. Could I turn my neck (very slowly)? Yes. I sat there for a few minutes and then got up. I was fine, thankfully.
Moral of the story…don’t try to be a he man, and don’t be stupid.
The Walker Death
I have an old heavy mattock with a wooden handle that I have had for 35 years. I am partial to it for some reason. It comes in handy quite often, especially in getting out small stumps and smilax tubers. Mine is a pick mattock with one of the blades being an adze, which is like an ax but with the blade perpendicular to that of an ax, and the other being a pick, a strong pointed piece of metal. I use it a lot. I have never failed in all the years I have used this tool to look above me and behind me before every swing. Because the pick, on the back swing, could kill somebody as fast as heavy knife through a walker brain, the use of this tool is not to be treated lightly. I never assume with mattock in hand that I am alone. Nor should you. That people walk up behind me when I am swinging that thing mystifies me, but they do.
Moral of the story – never EVER walk up on a person swinging an ax, or mattock, or any tool really. And if you are the one doing the swinging always, ALWAYS look behind you first....
I have no decent ladder stories because for some reason, despite learning on the job many other ways to get hurt (and thus many ways to be careful), I have always been cautious on ladders. Falling from ladders is the most common cause of injury and death for homeowners working in a yard. The time it takes to secure a ladder is very important, and being sensible once up a ladder, even a step ladder, is crucial. Step ladders in particular can kick out sideways very easily with improper weight distribution, usually caused by leaning. Ladder injuries are all too common.
When I was a pastor, a fellow in our church had fallen off a ladder and was in the hospital in very very bad pain Let’s call the fellow Don. Don’s family had requested prayers on his behalf, and so I sent out an email bulletin to the congregation. I asked for prayers for Don and for the doctors as they decided the course of action. Don, I explained, had fallen off a ladder and injured his back, and specifically had suffered a slipped disk. Except, I learned after I sent the email, I had misspelled the word disk. Can you guess how?
Moral of the story – there are many ways to die my friend, many ways…