Sunday, 9 December 2007

How to Kill a Tree

by Gieve Patel
The text first:

=================================================

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 leprous hide
Sprouting leaves.

So hack and chop
But this alone won't 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.

No,
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.

Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
Browning, hardening,
Twisting, withering,

And then it is done.
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What's This?

This poem describes what it takes to kill a tree. The point, of course, is that usually, trees are felled or cut, but here we are killing it. The question, then, is why, and the answer, as usual, lies in the word itself. Rocks and mud can't be killed because they are non-living things. Only living things can be killed. By using the word 'kill', Gieve is telling us that a tree is also a living being, and that when we fell a tree, we are actually killing a living creature.

But why is he telling us this? The point is that all living beings form part of a larger ecological system, and killing any living being without restraint can lead to genocide in the true sense of the term (Genocide = gene + cide = life form + kill). When we decimate entire forests on a daily basis, it's as much our loss as it's theirs. But this loss is definitely not what the poem is about, is it? Not directly at least.

What is the poet trying to do here?

The poem tells us how to kill a tree, and it reads almost like a recipe. Step-by-step instructions are provided, and by the time the poem is done, we know precisely what we need to do to ensure that the tree we are trying to kill never sees the light of day again.

But why all this cut and dry business? Simply to make us realise that killing a tree is as much a blood-ridden business as killing any other animal is. The poet does a lot of other fun stuff to drive his point home. Let us look at these carefully.

Going line by line, then

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 leprous hide
Sprouting leaves.


It is not easy to kill a tree. Simply cuts and bruises will not kill it. The tree has grown into the huge thing it is by "consuming the earth" (consuming: eating up, drawing life from.) The key thing to note here is that when one consumes something, the thing being consumed either dies out completely, or is at least rendered weak. the tree suddenly turns into a monster that is eating up the earth. Why is the poet doing this? he is saying that the scale at which we go about killing trees, one would assume it is some sort of war to save our poor planet from these monsters who are eating her up.

To further this "monster" point, Patel uses other active verbs, like grow, consume, rise, feed, etc, making the tree seems more like a wicked monster that must be killed. He is getting sarcastic here, of course.

And then there is the usage of the word leprous: "And out of its leprous hide /
Sprouting leaves." Leprous: like a leper's. A tree's bark is patchy and has different colors, or rather shades, of brown and green, just like a leper's skin is patchy and has various shades of color in it. Why is this word used? So that the tree can look more like an evil creature, huge and pernicious (evil and parasitic) and rotting.

An evil and ugly creature like that definitely deserves to be killed, says Patel, sarcastically.

So hack and chop
But this alone won't 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.


So poking and cutting won't help. You need to hack at it; hack: cut into two, and chop: cut further into smaller pieces. But even that won't kill the tree. From its stumps will rise new branches (like curled monster children!) which, if not cut again, will grow into another fresh monster. So even hacking and chopping won't help. So what now?

No,
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.


Pretty simple really; only more violent, showing how insensitive mankind has been to trees, who are the reason we are actually alive on this little planet.

You need to pull the root out of the earth into which the tree has spread its roots. There lies the strength of the tree. In telling us this, the poet is using the old saying that the source of a monster's strength lies typically in something small and vulnerable like a bird or something. Very similar to the monster of the saying, the tree-monster's strength lies in its roots, sensitive and white and hidden.

And once the root is pulled out and exposed:

Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
Browning, hardening,
Twisting, withering,

And then it is done.


You need to kill the root after you have killed its branches and trunk, and have pulled the root out completely! (Just look at the violence the poet is bringing out; that is the kind of violence mankind engages in each time it kills a tree!

So, to resume. Once the root is pulled out and exposed, you need to scorch and choke it, hardening the poor soft core of the tree, until it withers and dies.

And then it is done!

Conclusion

A tree is killed, and the average human being doesn't even care. But once we know how much violence, how much pain and cruelty we engage in when we kill a tree for purely selfish reasons, we may feel bad about it, and choose to kill fewer trees. This is the hope that drives Gieve Patel to write a poem like this. The better the violence and the perversity is demonstrated, the more convincing and deterring it can be. Which is why the poem is as graphic in its depiction of violence.

Pretty straightforward, really, once you get the point.

All the Best!

5 comments:

sweetukavya said...

hey!
i really have no idea who you are. but, thanks a ton! your line-by-line description of "ON KILLING A TREE" made my day! i wanted it because i have "ON KILLING A TREE" for my english examination but, unfortunately, our teacher hasnt explained us properly about this, but you have!!! thank you so much! :D

roji naorem said...

Thank you so much. M realy vry upset that i wont b undrstanding the poem. Bt ur line by line meaning has given me simplier ever bfore:-)

***DEVADATHAN*** said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
***DEVADATHAN*** said...

Thank you so much.i am realy very upset that i wont b undrstanding the poem...............but now iam
very very happy

Rakesh Chaudhary said...

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And I'll try and help you understand it! :-)

- Rakesh