Killing Trees

A few days ago, as I was doing some very informal research for a piece of fiction I’ve thought about writing (involving the commission of murder by intentionally cutting down a tree so that it will strike the intended victim—more about why this came up below), I stumbled across an account of a young woman’s horrific death in September 2012 in Kew Gardens. A large branch, described as twenty feet long and twelve inches thick, from a Cedar of Lebanon tree planted in 1730 crashed down from sixty-six feet above, killing the woman. A jury of inquest ruled that the woman’s death was an accident; her parents had blamed her death on Kew Gardens’ failure to properly trim the tree and its failure to post warnings about, or set up fences around, trees from which branches might fall. One of the expert witnesses engaged by the parents claimed the branch came down because of “summer branch drop,” an event that occurs when heavy rains fall after an extended dry period, which weakens branches. While the incident occurred following a downpour earlier in the day, another expert rebutted the claim, saying the summer of 2012 was among the wettest on record and the limb fell later in the year than “summer branch drop” events typically occur.

Subsequent research revealed that it’s not terribly uncommon for people to be killed by falling branches or falling trees. A University of Alabama study reported that 407 fatalities from wind-related tree failures occurred in the U.S. from 1997 to 2005. The most recent fatality I found reported took place last December, when an eight-year-old girl who was laying in a hammock attached to a termite-damaged tree died when the tree fell. Another of the more recent news articles I came across was about an actress, Molly Glynn, killed by a falling tree as she rode her bike on a trail in suburban Chicago in 2014.  An earlier death in 2014 occurred when a neighbor’s two-thousand pound palm tree toppled over on a man in East Los Angeles while the man was talking with the neighbor. Another death, in 2012, occurred in Bali when a durian tree fell on the house of an eighty year-old woman. A forty-five foot Corsican pine fell on an eight year-old girl in Surrey, England in January 2003, crushing her to death.

The idea for a murder-by-falling-tree scenario finally became plausible to me as I paused my channel surfing the other night long enough to watch a segment of ABC’s 20-20 program which dealt with tree-cutting/tree-falling mistakes that resulted in trees falling on houses, cars, barns, etc.  What triggered the idea that my idea was plausible was a scene in which a couple of guys, absolute pros, cut a huge pine tree so that it fell between two structures that were only a few feet apart. If they had not been so precise, the tree would have destroyed one or both structures.  Then the program showed a guy who owned property with a house he wanted to demolish; and he decided to do it by felling a tree.

Aha! The idea of murder by precision tree-felling was born! I just have to write convincingly about the face cut, the back cut, and avoiding cutting through the “hinge” on the tree after making those cuts. That, plus some other minor stuff… Look for it in your bookstore.  But be patient.  Be incredibly patient.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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