‘On Killing a Tree’ by Gieve Patel depicts a series of qualities in varying manners, including resilience, selfishness, arrogance, growth, and nurturing. These concepts are presented in various lights, all with the idea of the “tree” as a driving force. This “tree,” though it begins as something to be admired for its “strength,” changes in circumstance to become something worth pity since it ends while what it used and took for granted continues around it. In this, we can learn the value of resilience through this poem, but also see a warning of what can happen when we let purely self-driven resilience remain our sole focus. can read the full poem here.
On Killing a Tree Analysis
It takes much time to kill a tree,
Not a simple jab of the knife
And out of its leperous hide
These lines of ‘On Killing a Tree’ begin the tale of how “to kill a tree,” but they offer no reason as to why a person would wonder this question in the first place. Certainly, there are reasons “to kill a tree,” like cutting them down to construct a building of some kind, but none of that is provided in this representation. What this entails is that the actual act of “kill[ing] a tree” may not be the true focus of the work. If it were, Patel would have potentially given more information regarding the “tree” itself or even who is wanting to end it. Instead, he dives right into the concept that the “tree” is not easy “to kill,” which indicates the resilience is the topic of ‘On Killing a Tree’.
What is stated about that resilience is that “time” is required to accomplish the task, rather than “a simple jab of the knife” that does not pierce deeply enough. It is worth noting that “a simple jab” with a “knife” can be a significant wound under relevant circumstances. For the “tree,” however, the “jab” is far too small to destroy it because the “tree” is so resilient and strong.
The reason for this resilience is that it has “[s]lowly” “grown” to “consum[e] the earth,” “feeding” and “[r]ising” as it goes to “[s]prout” its “leaves.” This shows power over something as grand as “the earth” in that the “tree” has forced itself out of the ground and utilized the provisions “the earth” holds to achieve its current level of health and stability. In fact, this process is noted for “[y]ears” in regard to “sunlight, air, [and] water,” which indicates a situation of the “tree” “feeding” off of the planet. For something as large as “the earth” to basically be at this “tree[‘s]” beck and call makes the “tree” inexplicably significant in its circumstance like it is the center of its own universe that the “sun” caters to and to which “the earth” must submit.
In seeming contrast, the “tree” is noted to have a “leperous hide” from which its “leaves” emerge. This seems like a derogatory comment, particularly since it is misspelled, in that leprosy is not a good thing, and should this phrasing be connected to some other being, an insult could very well be happening. For “a tree,” however, a “leperous hide” is quite standard since it comes with the connotation of varying colors and roughness. The reader might wonder, though, why such an adjective would be employed to communicate what could be common with a “tree.”
The answer to this question might reside in how ill-used “the earth” is at the hands of the “tree.” Since the “tree” “absorb[ed]” its nutrients and needs from the planet and its resources, essentially, Patel has chosen a negative-sounding adjective that describes the “tree[‘s]” color and texture to represent this deeply rooted concept of undesirable selfishness. This selfishness, as well, is hinted by the grammar and punctuation errors in the work, like “leperous” in place of “leprous” and the “wont” in place of “won’t” in a later stanza. It is as though the “tree” is so consumed with itself that these tinier details do not matter, particularly since “wont” looks so much like “want,” as in what the “tree” wants is what matters.
Still, the “tree” reigns over the elements about it without any “jab” being able to affect it. When examining this in light of a human moral, this could note that a resilient person will find what they need to thrive, and though the exterior may be roughened by those qualities, the ability for survival can still linger. People who are this resilient can become numb to softer concepts of life since they are so caught up in persevering and winning, and they can even take from what is around them to better their stations. Selfish or not, the person can still stand, like this “tree” is not easy “to kill.”
So hack and chop
But this alone wont do it.
Which if unchecked will expand again
To former size.
These lines of ‘On Killing a Tree’ continue with the resilient qualities of the “tree” in that “hack[ing] and chop[ping]” “won[’]t” destroy it, nor will “pain.” This commentary is given like an invitation as if Patel is inviting the reader to try to “hack and chop” the “tree,” particularly with the “So” beginning. It is conversational, like an obvious next step for this poem’s progression is to invite the reader to attack the “tree.” This shows a level of arrogance that comes with the prospect of the difficulty of “kill[ing] a tree.” It is not enough to say that the “tree” will not be ended by these measures, essentially. Patel takes it a step further to welcome the challenge, like there is no reason to doubt that any attack would be in vain.
There is reasoning behind this challenge that runs deeper than showcasing such arrogance connected to the “tree.” This reasoning falls in line with the idea that “bleeding bark will heal” and “[m]iniature boughs” “will expand again” in response to the attack. Not only will the “tree” not be destroyed by the attacks, then, but it will grow because of them. This indicates that someone grounded in resilience can grow from controversy—that if they do not let it take them down, they are capable of achieving more by pushing against confrontations. Even if they do not “expand” past where they were before the controversy—remember that the new “boughs… will expand again [t]o former size”—there is still life and possibility to be had from surviving confrontation.
The root is to be pulled out –
Out of the anchoring earth;
It is to be roped, tied,
And then it is done.
In these final lines of ‘On Killing a Tree’, Patel reveals how a person must approach “a tree” “to kill” it, and it is a thorough process that includes “the roots” “be[ing] pulled out” “of the anchoring earth,” followed by a series of actions that include “be[ing] roped, tied, [a]nd pulled out” “from the earth-cave.” From there, “the strength of the tree” is “exposed” for “scorching and choking,” among other rough actions, until “it is done.”
First, let us look into how differently “the earth” is portrayed in these lines. Earlier, “the earth” seemed to be used by the “tree,” but in these lines, the relationship of “the earth” seems different. Here, “the earth” is “anchoring” and a “cave,” like it is the entity that matters in the situation. Though it is still used, here it feels like “the earth” is the significant piece of the equation—so significant that it willing shelters and nurtures the “tree.”
This could be an indication of how perception can change when in trouble. When the “tree” was well and thriving, everything else was secondary. Now that the “tree” is being destroyed, anything that provides it assistance matters, particularly with the knowledge that while the “tree” will die, “the earth” will live on. This shows that the “tree” was not nearly as significant or important as it had assumed, and that the things that were catering to it were worth far more care and credit than they had previously been given. It is only when the “tree” is succumbing to its demise, however, that this truth is exposed.
For humans, this could be a warning that those who matter and who assist us are worth appreciation when things are well since when things turn bad, we will have to deal with the realizations of how much we need them.
Basically, resilience kept the “tree” alive when things were not so rough, but when something too powerful came upon it, its “strength” that gave it such arrogance was not enough to save it. What we can take away from this is that we should strive to be resilient, but not with the arrogance and selfishness of the “tree.” If we embrace those negative, “leprous” qualities, we will take for granted what we have and who has helped us, even though they have nourished us to become what we are—and even though their successes can continue after ours ends. We are one piece of the puzzle, overall. We should strive for good things, but always with an understanding of our circumstances and what is around us.
About Gieve Patel
Gieve Patel was born in 1930 in India. His artistry extends from writing to painting, and he has penned poems and plays alike. Additionally, he is a doctor.