When We Turn Trees into Murderers


“As an instrument of planetary home repair, it is hard to imagine anything as safe as a tree.”
—Jonathan Weiner

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”
—William Blake,
Proverbs of Hell, 1790

A howl of anger and anguish shattered the quiet, perfectly peaceful early Sunday afternoon in my neighborhood several Septembers ago. The guttural shriek emanated from the home of my next-door neighbor, Chuck, a 50-something divorced man caring for his elderly mother.

We immediately knew what caused the howl; it was the three of us. We­ (myself a brother-in-law and is high school son) had resolved to take down a dying 30-foot maple in my backyard… and we took it down.

But, instead of the maple falling to the back of my property as we had planned, it stubbornly obeyed Newton’s Law rather than the stout rope that the three of us had been tugging on. The tree toppled toward Chuck’s backyard. On its way down it took out my neighbor’s cable and phone lines with it.

Chuck, just sitting down to watch an afternoon of football, wasted no time popping out onto his front porch to let us know what he thought of our tree removal abilities.

It’s likely the tree, falling in an unexpected direction, spared us serious injuries. The tree, crashing to the ground with branches whipping everything in their path, looked a lot more threatening than it did standing upright as we tugged on the thick rope. Given our inexperience with trees, that the downed lines were the only damage we caused probably turned out to be the best possible outcome from our foolhardy efforts.

This particular costly incident came to my mind while reading a recent news item about the death of a 33-year-old Florida landscaper struck and killed working on a storm-damaged tree this past August 13. The article said the young business owner, the father of three and well respected in his community, had apparently tripped to the ground while making a cut into the tree, and a large branch came down on top of him.

How common is a tragedy like this? Not uncommon at all, according to The Dripline. This is a website dedicated to domestic and international tree care news. It also maintains a running tally of deaths and injuries related to tree work. It is not clear how complete the list is or how the website collects the reports on the carnage. Even so, the list makes sobering reading.

Here’s a tally of some of the most recent tragedies appearing on The Dripline:

Sept. 8: A 68-year-old Maine man, cutting firewood in the back of his pickup truck, suffered severe injuries to his jaw to the middle of his chest when the saw he was using kicked back at him.

Sept. 7: A 50-year-old tree worker in Massachusetts became trapped between two trees 60 feet above the ground. Firefighters cut away limbs to free him before he was taken to a local hospital.

Sept. 5: A 70-year-old Indiana man died when a tree split and a large branch fell and struck him on the head. The man had gone to cut up some wood and was engaged in felling the tree when the branch broke loose.

Aug. 30: A 60-year-old Kentucky man suffered injuries when the tree he was cutting down fell and struck him in the head.

Aug. 29: A 44-year-old Pennsylvania man, harvesting logs on private property, died of blunt force trauma to the head when a tree fell on him.

Aug. 26: A 63-year-old New Jersey man cutting a tree with a chain saw had to be airlifted to a medical center after the tree snapped and fell on him.

Aug. 24: A backyard tree trimming job in Buffalo, New York, did not end well when the man and a large limb he was tied to fell onto the edge of the roof of his house. Firefighters lifted the limb off the man and took him to a medical center.

While most tree-related injuries and deaths occur to property owners and not tree care professionals, trees punish carelessness and on-the-job inattention of both with equal lack of conscience.