On Killing a Tree

by Gieve Patel

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Student Question

What is the significance of the title "On Killing a Tree"?

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This poem can be read literally, as though it were simply an explanation of how much effort it would take to actually kill a tree, but it can also be read on another, symbolic level. The speaker describes the strength of the tree, how it can resist and recover from a "simple jab of the knife." It imbibes the sunlight and water and fresh air around it, growing in strength so that someone who "hack[s] and chop[s]" will be unsuccessful in ending the tree's life.

The speaker describes how one must rip out the tree's roots, exposing the most vulnerable part of the tree; this "sensitive, hidden" part is where one can strike the tree and end it truly. However, this tree could be a symbol of a person; it makes me think of a person, perhaps, whose home has been colonized by another country or group. To destroy that person's home and culture—their "roots"—is probably the most successful way to eliminate this person's sense of self and identity. People can withstand a great deal of "hack[ing] and chop[ping]," figuratively speaking. They can be imprisoned unjustly or become the victims of others' prejudice and ignorance and much more, but losing one's culture and connection to others in that culture might just be the only way to really eliminate a people, to truly "kill" them. Thus, the title can be read both literally and figuratively, and it allows the reader to make these connections and come to their own conclusions.

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