The death of any child is a catastrophe. But a death caused by a tree is somehow an unbelievable or even an unnatural seeming catastrophe. The parents and family of the young Sydney girl crushed by a tree branch last week must feel devastated by this unreal tragedy and my heart goes out to them.
Trees are associated with life; with the future; with security. When we plant a tree we are surely thinking about our children and their children who will be the ones to see it in its maturity and future majesty. There is even a theory that modern-day humans still associate trees, especially those with spreading crowns, with the safety and security they offered our remote ancestors in the African savannahs. Even people raised in cities in the absence of trees, associate images of trees with home, safety and beauty. So what happens when the nature of things goes astray and a tree kills a young girl who was simply sitting in its shade, enjoying her lunch with her teacher?
The first response is to cut the remains of that tree down (which has already been done) and then inspect the trees of city to remove all that might be unsafe. My neighbour, a retired School principal agreed that that's what they proposed in Canberra too. "Its not that uncommon for trees fall on school kids" he said, "remember, about 10 years ago, a little girl was swinging on a low branch in a school playground and it broke and crushed her?" Canberra has about 2 trees planted for every person here, so checking all 600,000 trees would be a big task. They couldn't check them all in Canberra then and they won't be able to do it in Sydney now. Besides, what would you check for? Aparently there was no external evidence that those tree branches were going to fail. And if you cut into a tree to check whether there is any internal evidence of a problem, you'll simply be introducing a place for the tree to fail. You cannot remove all the risk of a tree causing a problem, and we certainly live with riskier objects. For example, there are at least 5 times as many planted trees in Canberra as there are cars, but while a tree has killed one person in the last 10 years, cars kill at least a couple every year. So cars are at least 100 times riskier than trees, but we don't stop driving.
But I can understand parents who are scared of trees now and want to keep their kids away. In the same way, people who survive an earthquake might feel unsafe in any sort of building - especially if friends or family died. Can you compare a falling tree with an earthquake? I think you can as both feel unnatural, both cause some place that used to feel safe to now feel threatening, and you cannot ever totally remove the risk of it happening again. One day, the earthquake victim will have to enter the building, and one day children will be near trees.
So if Mencken is right and the first response is wrong, what do we do? Do we stop sitting in the shade of trees? No, because that is something that humans need to do for the good of their spirit. Do we stop kids climbing and playing around trees? No, because that is something humans need to do for the good of their health. Do we teach our children and our parents that trees too are complex living things that are born, and live, and offer wonderful gifts, but eventually die? No one can take away the hurt of a child killed by an unnatural seeming accident, just as no one can ensure it wont happen to another child again. But we all can appreciate the joy of children playing and growing in the shade of the many thousands of safe trees, while remaining vigilent.