• Ginger Dawson

Thoreau and Tetanus

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

I am a lifelong reader. I’ll read just about anything that even remotely sparks my curiosity. Biographies, history, gardening books, Mark Twain, trashy rock and roll name it. I love them all. They are a window into lives and situations that edify and shape my intellect and world view. The best books start me on a journey that might have unpredictable side paths and reveal a depth of information that I had not counted on. You just never know what or when you’re going to learn something that is either shocking or useful.

This latest journey started with a book I picked up off the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I like to find books this way. It’s like finding a new kind of chocolate that you didn’t even know you wanted.

“Henry David Thoreau, A Life” by Laura Dassow Walls is my latest journey.

Now, I know many of you out there are familiar with him. “Walden”, being his magnum

opus, was so highly regarded throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries that even that high water mark, corporate commercial trademarking, was bestowed upon him. I imagine most of you over the age of forty will recollect a chain of bookstores called “Waldenbooks”.

Honestly, that’s about all I knew about him. Also, I had heard, in passing, about his hermit-like existence at Walden pond and his membership in that august group, the Transcendentalists. He loved nature and observed it closely.

I learned a lot about him and I am glad I did. I had always suspected I had some transcendentalist leanings.

Now, what does this all have to do with gardening? (I imagine you are asking yourself.)

Well, this is one those little side journeys I was referring to.

Henry had a brother named John. They were close in age, interests and attachment.

One day, when John was gardening (naturally, they were big into gardening), he accidentally sliced a finger. It bled a little, he wound a rag around it and went on gardening. Who among us wouldn’t do the same thing? (O.K., maybe we would use a band-aid instead).

Unfortunately for John, bacteria from the soil entered the wound and he contracted tetanus. As the disease progressed, he suffered from muscle spams and convulsions, which started in the jaw (lockjaw!), and died a terrible death in Henry’s arms at the age of 26. Common knowledge at the time called the affliction “Lockjaw”, but no one knew the cause was lurking in the soil. And, of course, no vaccine existed.

When did I get my last tetanus shot?! This is a big deal!

I know that medicine has advanced quite a bit since we finally at least learned that it was wise to wash your hands before delivering babies or cutting people open. However, even today, tetanus really has no cure. The only thing that can be done is to manage the symptoms until it resolves itself.

All of you organic gardeners out there, you know who you are! If you are using animal manure in your garden, and particularly if you cut yourself, you’re playing roulette if you haven’t had a tetanus shot ever, or longer than ten years ago. Heck, even if you’re into synthetic fertilizers you’d better do it too!

The tetanus spores are widely distributed in soil and are also in the intestines and excrement of horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs and chickens. That just about covers every critter we’re likely to come in contact with. Surely, the spores must be in the poo of raccoons, too. How could those onerous mashers be exempt? Impossible!

My job as hand-maiden to four cats suddenly has a new edge to it.

Having grown up on a farm, this is something that I had always been made aware of,

even if I didn’t know all of the particulars. Kids go in barns around old tools, farm equipment and the ever to be feared BOARDS WITH NAILS IN THEM!! That is the thing I remember most--BOARDS WITH NAILS IN THEM! To this day, I can’t be anywhere near a construction site without studiously surveying that possibility.

In recounting the story of John Thoreau, I wonder if I might not be performing a civic duty to some of my gardening friends who have grown up in the suburbs or cities who had not heard about the terror of BOARDS WITH NAILS IN THEM!

This is what I mean by the unpredictable paths that a book can take you.

Please everyone, get a tetanus shot!!

Early 19th. century tetanus victim. Don't let this happen to you!


Copyright 2018 Ginger Dawson

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