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On Killing A Tree by Gieve Patel is an ironical poem in which the poet describes how to properly kill a tree. The steps described by him are cruel and inhumane. Hence the poem is not exactly about killing a tree. Instead the poet tries to invoke sympathy and pity for trees in the heart of readers.

The poem is also a critique of modern world in which humans destroy nature by mass killing the trees for their benefits. The tree which has survived ages is uprooted and murdered by drying it.


Stanza 1

It takes much time to kill a tree,
Not a simple jab of the knife
Will do it. It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth,
Rising out of it, feeding
Upon its crust, absorbing
Years of sunlight, air, water,
And out of its leperous hide
Sprouting leaves.

In the first stanza, the poet says that it takes long time to kill a tree. A simple jab (hit) of the knife cannot kill it. It has grown slowly consuming food from earth, rising out of it, feeding upon the crust (top layer) of earth, absorbing sunlight, air and water for years. The leaves have sprouted from its leprerous hide (poisonous and hard layer).

Here, the poet explains why it is difficult to kill a try. According to him, the tree has taken years to grow. It has consumed resources from earth and sun. It is strong and cannot be easily killed.

Stanza 2

So hack and chop
But this alone wont do it.
Not so much pain will do it.
The bleeding bark will heal
And from close to the ground
Will rise curled green twigs,
Miniature boughs
Which if unchecked will expand again
To former size.

According to the poet, we will need to hack and chop i.e. strike it violently with sharp weapon. However it alone cannot kill the tree. Neither it will inflict much pain to the tree. The bleeding (wounded) bark of tree will heal and from close to the ground i.e. from bottom, green twigs and miniature boughs (small branches) will rise again. And if we did not cut them, they will again grow and expand to the original size.

In this stanza the poet tells that mere cutting the stem and branches of tree won’t kill it as after some time, new twigs and branches will grow from the bottom and if we did not cut them, they will grow to the original size. Hence we would need to find some other and more cruel method of killing the tree.

Stanza 3

The root is to be pulled out -
Out of the anchoring earth;
It is to be roped, tied,
And pulled out - snapped out
Or pulled out entirely,
Out from the earth-cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed,
The source, white and wet,
The most sensitive, hidden
For years inside the earth.

This stanza begins with the word “No” which means the method discussed in the stanza above cannot kill the tree. For killing it, we need to pull the root of tree out from the place where it has firmly held the earth. For taking out the roots, they need to be roped, tied and then pulled out.

We need to snap it (break) or pull it out entirely from the earth cave (where it was). These roots which are white, wet and most sensitive, are the real strength of trees. They have lived deep in the earth for years. Once they are taken out, the strength of tree is gone.

So, in this stanza, the poet discusses the cruel way of killing a tree. According to him, the only way of killing a tree is to either break its roots or pull them out using rope. They are the most sensitive part (often white in colour). When they are exposed to sun, the tree dies).

Stanza 4

Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
Browning, hardening,
Twisting, withering,
And then it is done.

After pulling the roots out, they are to be kept in sun and air which is hot (scorching). The roots which were white will become brown and hard. They will twist and wither (become dry) and finally the tree is dead. And our task is done.

The final stage involves the most cruel part. The roots which were sensitive and white will now be exposed to outside environment. They will become hot, dry, hard, twisted and finally dead. Now the tree will never be able to grow again.


As we can see, the poet has described every step involved in the process of killing. Humans are harsh towards nature. The trees which are helping the environment since ages are killed instantly. Indirectly, the poet gives the message of “Save trees, save environment”.

Further Reading

  1. Play quiz on the poem On Killing a Tree
  2. Questions-Answers of On Killing a Tree