On Killing a Tree

by Gieve Patel

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Student Question

What does the poet mean by saying "no" at the beginning of the third stanza?

Expert Answers

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In the first stanza, the speaker says that it takes a lot of time to kill a tree, and then he explains why. One cannot simply jab at the tree's bark with a knife, because it has taken a long time to grow out of the earth: drawing strength from it, absorbing the sunlight and the water, and even growing leaves. In the second stanza, the speaker says that hacking and chopping at the tree alone will not kill it, even though it causes the tree a great deal of pain. He explains that the "bleeding bark" will, in fact, heal with time, and new growth will even sprout if allowed to do so. The word "No" stands alone as the first line of the third stanza, as if to say, No, nothing so easy will accomplish your goal or No, you cannot kill a tree by attacking its surface. The speaker says "No" here because, in the third stanza, he explains what one would have to do in order to kill a tree: one must pull out the roots, removing them from the "anchoring earth," because the tree derives its strength from the roots. If the roots are exposed and made vulnerable, then they will burn and choke in the sun, killing the whole tree.

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