On Killing a Tree

by Gieve Patel

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Student Question

What root formation is described in "On Killing a Tree"?

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In this poem, the speaker says, despite what one might think, it actually takes a great deal of work and effort to kill a tree. One cannot simply jab at its bark with a knife, or even hack at it with an axe, and expect it to die because it has risen from the earth slowly, taking nutrients from it, and absorbing the sunlight and air and water to grow tall and strong. It may take time, but the bark will heal and form new shoots close to the tree's base, shoots that will eventually become as strong as the original tree itself.

Instead, the speaker goes on, if one wants to kill a tree, one must pull out the root from the ground. One has to grasp it with a rope and yank it out—exposing it completely "Out from the earth-cave"—revealing the part from which the tree derives its strength. It is the tree's "source," its most sensitive and important part which has been hidden within the earth for a long time. Only with the roots exposed can they be scorched and killed because they have been rendered vulnerable. Below ground, they created a kind of cave where they were protected from the elements or any predators.

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