People exaggerate their proximity to death. "But I was just in Pittsburgh last spring!" I'm not sure why. To scrape up a frisson of excitement, I suppose. Or to feel significant, and turn attention back to themselves. Those sound right.
So I want to be careful when describing what happened Monday. There had been a big storm the night before, as you remember, heavy snow, high winds, flights cancelled, power lines snapping.
Monday morning, 6 a.m., my thoughts focused on firing up my mighty Ariens snow thrower, the pride of Wisconsin, a crouching orange beast with a light and its own little shovel, that had waited all spring, summer and fall under a tarp in my garage.
But my wife counseled that 6:30 a.m. is too early. People are sleeping. Why not walk the dog first? This seemed a shirking of my snowblowing responsibilities—I could have our block clear in a jiffy!—but I yielded to her good sense, and leashed our dog, Kitty.
Outside the front door, I thought I would address our front steps—easy to shovel before you trample down the snow—and Kitty went bolting off to a corner of our yard after a squirrel, which scampered up a walnut tree. That usually keeps the dog—whose brain is about the size of a walnut—occupied, standing on her hind legs, and looking up the trunk, waiting for the squirrel to come back down and be friendly.
I finished the front steps, scrapping away the dense, wet snow. I might have had less than a minute to live, depending on what I did next. I headed toward Kitty, but rather than wait for me, she bolted off toward the street. My neighbor, Bill, was walking toward us, heading for the train. He snagged her leash.
Normally I wouldn't engage in conversation—Bill has those trains timed to the second. But as I took the leash, he said something about the snowblower, or maybe I said something. I explained my wife had held me back, and asked if he wanted me to clear his walk. He said no, his high schooler was asleep, and he'd do it. I was standing at the foot of my driveway, just beyond a line of six 70-year-old, 50-foot-tall evergreen trees. Bill and I were maybe 15 feet apart, me on the sidewalk, he in the street.
There was a noise, a kind of piny rending. I looked to the left, and the trunk of the tree was moving.
"Step back! Step back!" I yelled, looking around for Kitty, who was leading the charge away.
When I turned back, the tree was across the street, spanning it like a bridge, blocking my view of Bill.
"Are you OK?" I said.
He was OK. Not a scratch. The tree fell between us.
Causes of death are in the news; the American life span is shrinking for the first time in nearly a century, thanks to suicide and the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of death for those under 55.
Where does being killed by a tree fit in?
I searched for stats and couldn't find any, but did find Prof. Thomas W. Schmidlin of Kent State University, who spent his career analyzing windstorms and their fatalities, and studied trees as a cause of death.
"That's why we did the research, 10 years ago," he said. "I was curious and couldn't find it."
They crunched data from 1995 to 2007 and came up with 407 fatalities over 13 years from "wind-related tree failure."
"It's not a big number, compared to all other risks we face in our daily lives," he said. "But it is important."
I sure think so, now. Though my brush with the Pale Rider was due to ice, not wind.
"We did look at that, yes," said Schmidlin. "We found 14 people - one a year - killed by a tree branch or whole tree overburdened by snow or ice."
Very rare, but it does happen. Schmidlin mentioned Molly Glynn, the actress killed in Winnetka in 2014 when a tree limb blew down and struck her while she was bicycling.
"The map of where these deaths occur from fallen trees are the intersection of where people and trees are," he said. "You don't see many deaths in the Great Plains, or the Rocky Mountains. All the fatalities are from Chicago and Houston eastward and in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of people and a lot of trees."
Here's the odd thing. My heart never raced. I was never scared. In the days since, a certain happy-not-to-be-dead sense has lingered. I can't help but think of all the places where I've been worried about my safety, from the waterfront of Naples to the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince. The times I screwed up my courage to head into a CHA housing project or joined a sandbag line trying to hold back the rising Mississippi. Every time I thought, "Oh, this is dangerous." And the closest I come to buying the ranch in my life is on an ordinary Monday morning, walking the dog in front of my house on a quiet street in a quiet suburb.
Well, that's life for you. Avoid those opioids. Trees, you're safe from. Unless you're that one person a year whose number comes up. Then you're not.