Throwing Shade

The Trouble With the Trees

Just how lovely, dark, and deep are the woods, anyway?

By Jeff Balke January 4, 2015 Published in the January 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Jason Ford

“There is unrest in the forest. There is trouble with the trees.” —Rush

This month, when Greg Abbott is sworn in as the 48th governor of Texas, we will be thinking about trees—or rather a tree, the one that fell on Abbott on July 14, 1984 while he was jogging, leaving him wheelchair-bound, as well as the recipient of an estimated $10 million settlement against the homeowner, River Oaks lawyer Roy W. Moore, and the Davey Tree Expert Company, which Moore had hired to ensure the health of his trees. 

Down the rabbit hole we went, soon finding ourselves considering the exact spot where the mighty 75-foot oak that crushed Greg Abbott’s spine had stood, which is to say in the front yard of the fancy home on Inwood Dr. where Moore lived. And that got us thinking about trees again, specifically the many 75-foot oaks around that haven’t fallen yet, beautiful ticking time bombs that no one—not millionaires, not future governors, not any of us—is safe from. 

“You get a 20-pound limb that falls from 40 feet and it can kill you,” said Barry Ward, confirming our suspicions when reached by phone. “It doesn’t happen a lot, but…sooner or later, somebody’s going to get hit.” We found it hard to square such a message with the fact that the messenger is the head of Trees for Houston, an organization that actually wants to plant more of the things, but then, the woods are rife with contradiction.

“People tend to think of trees in only the most passive terms,” Ward went on. “People don’t think of a tree actively unless it’s exceptionally beautiful or in a new place, or it’s fallen on your car.” As it happens, he was in his own car as he said this, at one point passing a billboard. Behind it loomed a sickly tree in need of care, he told us, possibly a sycamore. You mean possibly a deathtrap, we thought.

“Nobody puts up a street light or a billboard or a cell tower and thinks, ‘I never have to maintain it and there will never be any danger,’” he said. “You don’t build a house and say, ‘I’m never going to paint it.’ You shouldn’t plant it and think, ‘I’m never going to have to take care of it.’” 

It seems that trees, like all living creatures, are not immune to the consequences of neglectful parenting. Thus do delinquent maples and thuggish pine saplings eventually come to tear at the fabric of our canopy, having grown up in a culture of violence, of which 2008’s Hurricane Ike and the 2011 drought are but two examples. Those that aren’t trimmed properly, or are otherwise unwell due to environmental conditions or disease, are at increased risk of toppling over during severe weather. 

“Trees that were hammered by the hurricane and then the drought, some are recovering, some are not,” said Ward. It took nearly a year to clean up after Ike, and dead and dying trees from the drought are still being cleared away. Nevertheless, he said, these Operation Green Sweeps of a sort, and the resources marshaled in their aftermath, ultimately create a healthier and better-maintained canopy.

Some say that what our trees need is tougher law enforcement, but that simply isn’t practical, said City of Houston forester Victor Cordova, noting that there are more than a quarter-million trees within city-owned public spaces alone, and that’s just inside Loop 610. “We’re a reactive system,” he told us. “If you call me with a tree issue, then we go. I’m afraid if you don’t call, we can’t solve the problem.” 

And Houston is hardly the only metropolis facing such concerns. In 2012, the New York Times reported that shortfalls in city revenues there led to an axing of funds budgeted for eradicating rotting or dead trees, which itself led to more accidents and, invariably, costly lawsuits. After Chicago actress Molly Glynn was killed by a tree in a park last September, her husband filed suit, claiming the city and county knew there were trees in the park that were “diseased, defective, [and] weakened” and “presented a risk of harm.” 

Clearly, what we are faced with here is a complex societal issue with no easy answers. Yet, we still found ourselves asking that age-old question: if a tree falls in the forest—on someone, that is—who’s really to blame?

Good trees can go bad without warning. A majestic, healthy-looking live oak can actually be a dead oak that poses a serious threat.

The problem is compounded by its insidiousness. Good trees can go bad without warning. A majestic, healthy-looking live oak can actually be a dead oak that poses a serious threat. The oak that came down on Governor Abbott, for instance, looked to all the world like a normal tree, betraying no evidence of a rotten interior and the violence of which it was capable. And while professionals can be brought in to assess a tree’s health, they are often poor predictors of mayhem, as Abbott and other victims of our culture of violence would readily admit. In other words, “sometimes it is impossible to tell,” as Ward put it. 

By this time, our adventures having led us to the edge of arboreal panic, it occurred that perhaps this was just another instance of crime hysteria. How big is the danger really? We came across a 2009 study declaring that 407 people had been killed in the US by falling trees and branches between 1995 and 2007. As for Houston, “Since I’ve been here, we’ve had three close calls,” said Cordova, ruminating upon his 25 years with the city. A few years ago, it seems, “a tree limb fell on a lady and she had to be hospitalized. The other two, trees fell and squashed the backs of the cars.” 

All of which is to say: you have less chance of being killed or injured by a tree than being struck by lightning, and both of those less than being struck by lightning while under a tree. Still, tree anxiety, once planted, is unquestionably difficult to shake. 

Case in point: we ventured outside—cautiously. Everywhere we looked, we saw them, the trees, adding color and cooling shade. Still, what is shade, we found ourselves asking, but a foreboding shadow? We took a seat at the base of one particularly massive creature. We looked up and were reminded again why we love these mighty natural monuments. Slowly our fears began to fade, cast out by the dappled sunlight filtering through leaves that fluttered in the breeze from the ends of innumerable branches, including one that was—quite large

Huge, really. 

That branch alone could crush us, we thought, forget about the whole tree. We knew we were wrong to worry, we knew the threat was minuscule, we knew we were succumbing to timber profiling. And yet, we scooted to the other side of the oak anyway. 

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