By Jim Hornsby
As winter’s chill settles into the area, many will head south to vacation in the sun. And while I don’t want to dampen that spirit, I have become aware of information that suggests an under-reported danger to beach vacationers, and I feel an obligation to pass along the facts as they came to me: palm trees are killing people. The BBC has reported that falling coconuts in the Solomon Islands are as much a threat to public health as automobiles, and George Burgess, a director at the Florida Museum of Natural History and a noted shark researcher, is quoted as saying that 150 people are killed annually in coconut related incidents. By his calculations, you are 15 times more likely to be hit by a falling coconut than attacked by a shark.
Regrettably, there is a Daffy Duck image to falling coconut injuries that makes it difficult to discuss them with a straight face. In fact, some people openly make light of the statistics. An organization calling itself the ”Coconut Palm-Related Injuries and Deaths Awareness Group” jokingly suggests that we wear a helmet and safety goggles when we lounge on the beach, and cautions that drinking around coconut palms can contribute to injury. (That part I don’t doubt).
But however you see the degree of danger posed by falling coconuts, there isn’t much doubt that they are dangerous. Authorities tell us that the average coconut, weighing approximately nine pounds, can fall with an impact velocity of fifty miles per hour and exert a striking force of more than a ton – pretty impressive credentials for a piece of fruit.
The question in my mind is: Why? Here in Tennessee trees just don’t do that sort of thing. People get hurt around trees, but it is rarely the tree’s fault. And if some trees, like our native cottonwoods, can procreate with a puff of a seedpod only slightly heavier than the breeze that carries it, why has the coconut palm chosen to drop something closely akin to a bowling ball from sixty feet in the air?
I am not a botanist, but the only reason that comes to mind is that coconut trees want to “cause serious injury or death.” Why? My theory is that they are carnivores. That’s right, big, armed-to-the-teeth, out-to-get-us carnivores.
I suspect that in the distant past, when the beaches teemed with crabs, lizards, and the like, falling coconuts killed a few and their decomposing bodies nourished the roots of the tree. Tasting blood – or whatever that stuff is that oozes from crabs and lizards – and liking it, the trees progressively evolved their arsenal to bag larger game and the result is the coconut of today – a fifty-mile-an-hour, one-ton striking missile that can flatten an ox.
With that kind of fire power, life was good for coconut trees; cracked crab with every meal. But these days, the average coconut tree rarely makes a kill, and even when it does, some grounds keeper or emergency medical technician rushes in to whisk away the carnage before it can be properly digested. That must be frustrating for the trees, but they can’t do much about it. Even if a coconut tree gets really mad, all it can do is drop another coconut, and that could take days or weeks.
But what about the future? Nature instills a strong tenancy in carnivores to fight for a kill, and it concerns me that coconut trees may be gearing up genetically for a stronger stance. Some plants can fling their seeds a long distance, and coconut trees could be heading in that direction. If, like me, you see them as a dangerous breed now, think what life will be like when they can spiral a coconut forty yards with NFL accuracy. Panic may be premature at this stage, but all the same, I hope someone is looking into the situation.
This article, packed as it is with hard, cold facts, will probably not convince you to wear a helmet and goggles on the beach. And once you are there, under that tropical spell, with palm trees waiving and calling like mythic sirens for you to join them in the shade for a cool pina colada, the temptation will be great to sit down and relax. But of course………..that’s just what they are waiting for you to do.