On Killing a Tree

by Gieve Patel

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How does Gieve Patel use irony in the poem “On Killing a Tree”?

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In “On Killing a Tree,” Gieve Patel uses irony when he talks about how the tree, quite unexpectedly, will not die when it is attacked from the outside. Its bark and boughs heal and live. Yet when the tree's apparently strong roots are pulled up, the tree dies. The tree's roots are ironically its most vulnerable part even though they give the tree its strength.

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Irony occurs when something happens that is the opposite of what a person would expect. Gieve Patel employs irony in his poem “On Killing a Tree” as he explores the way a tree dies. One would think that hacking and chopping would do the job. Such tactics certainly work on other living creatures. But a tree is much tougher on the outside. Its bark heals, the speaker says. Its boughs shoot out new “curled green twigs.” A tree's life is secure if it is attacked from the outside. Despite the worst wounds, the tree lives.

Yet ironically, the tree is most vulnerable where it seems to be the strongest. Its roots are sunk deep into the “anchoring earth.” They are the tree's strength, “white and wet,” yet they are “most sensitive.” If a tree is pulled out by its roots, “out from the earth-cave,” then those roots are exposed to “sun and air,” and the tree dies. These roots seem so strong. After all, they hold the tree steady for years upon years. They nourish the tree as they hide in the earth. No one ever sees them, and people often forget all about them. Yet they are the tree's weakest link. If they are pulled out, the tree dies. And there is the irony. These apparently strong roots are actually the tree's most fragile part.

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