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“On Killing a Tree” written by Gieve Patel literally describes the difficulty of cutting down a tree. On another level, the poet writes about nature and the sturdiness and longevity of the tree. Only man would want to fell the tree.
The third person narration describes the tree graphically comparing the bark to a leper’s skin and sores. Because it has lived for so long the tree has deep roots which enable it to recoup from attacks by the axe. The attitude of the poet seems neutral, but on closer examination of his vocabulary choice, he casts a sardonic look on the cutting down of an important part of nature.
It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth,
Rising out of it, feeding
Upon its crust, absorbing
Years of sunlight, air, water
When the tree is small, it takes only a little area to live. After time passes, the tree takes more room through its feeding from the earth, the sun, the oxygen, and water. This is not the poem for a lumberman who takes his skills seriously.
To the environmentalist, the man who cuts the tree hacks at and chops it, irritating the tree on the surface; however, this will not bring down the tree. The watcher feels the pain of the tree as the bark gives off the sap which produces little trees that will sprout if nothing stops their growth.
The question comes to mind: Why is it so difficult to cut down the tree? Does Mother Nature forestall the killing of the tree because it deserves to live on without being hindered in its life? The poet seems to say “yes.” Trees are a part of the scheme of life and provide homes for many creatures in the woods and forests. They prevent erosion and land problems.
To kill the tree or anything else, the heart of the thing has to be destroyed. The root of the tree has to be cut away from the earth that holds it down. How is that done? With these harsh words to fit the task—roped, tied, pulled out, snapped out, and exposed—the white, sensitive roots that have been protected by the earth will die. Man extinguishes a tree that has taken hundreds of years to propagate and grow.
After the root is exposed to the elements, it will brown, harden, wither, and die. Then, the work is completed. Man has devastated another part of nature. Hopefully, one of the sprouts will keep its life and renew the cycle of the tree. Of course, that will take many years of care by nature to bring another of the great trees to its glory.
On a figurative level, the poem may also speak to the destruction of a man. It is not so easy to kill a human being. To kill a person, it is only through his heart (or root) that the deed can be done. When the heart stops, the man will die. A human being can recover from injuries: a cut, an amputation, a brain injury. It is the heart that provides the life blood to keep the man alive.
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