Words with fronds

Text Karen Shishido
Art Larry Cameron
Art Morgan Jones

W.S. Merwin is a towering figure in modern American literature. Named Poet Laureate of the United States by President Obama in 2010, Merwin has been the recipient of virtually every accolade in the field of letters over his 60-year career, including two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award, among many others. But one of his most astonishing accomplishments doesn’t always appear on academic biographies. Merwin is a world-renowned cultivator of Arecaceae—the family of shrubs and trees more commonly known to us as palms. The National Tropical Botanical Gardens recently called the 19-acre Merwin collection in upcountry Haʻikū, Maui “a living treasure house of palm DNA.”

The 35-year story of how he and his wife Paula turned a wasteland—a tract of depleted former sugar and pineapple fields—into a flourishing ecosystem, a horticultural Noah’s Ark for palms, is as lyrical and meticulous as his body of verse.

Summit visited the Merwin Conservancy, which just marked the fifth year since its founding, and spoke with Sara Tekula, Communications and Outreach Director, and Jason Denhart, Executive Director, to learn more about the evolution of the land and the Merwins’ vision for its future.

As you walk through the paths of dark, rich soil, it is cool and humid; the temperature drops and the sky is partially filtered out in places by gracefully arced leaves of giant mature palms and other trees. The horizontal scope of the acreage is difficult to discern because of the lushness of what’s before you, a many-layered landscape of trees and shrubs of different sizes that goes up and down gentle slopes that used to be pineapple land, the careful orchestration of the groupings invisible to the untrained eye. One of the Merwins’ beloved chow chows watches our group languidly from the lanai of the simple wooden home, which was painstakingly hand-built by Merwin and his friends, without heavy machinery, and designed to have a minimal impact on energy and water resources.

William Stanley Merwin’s journey from poet to palm expert began on Maui more than 40 years ago. Although he showed an affinity for language at an early age, nothing in his earliest life could have signaled how prodigious a literary talent he would become, nor his role in conserving the plant that stands as synechdoche for the tropics. He was born in New York to a hardworking couple: a stern minister and a mother who had suffered the loss of their first child; who, despite being stoic and austere, did not discourage his penchant for writing under the kitchen table.

Larry Cameron

In the 2014 documentary Even Though the Whole World is Burning, Merwin tells of the dismay he felt as a young Boy Scout—the only avenue for him to experience nature—on coming upon a favorite mountaintop that had been cleared for coal mining; of the sense of injustice, outrage and loss he felt: “There was this great ditch—nothing. I just stood there with tears running down my face… It was absolutely wrong; you can’t just get rid of a place like that. […] It was a living place, and there’s nothing there now.” Merwin later graduated from Princeton—where, as a scholarship student, he felt that he didn’t quite fit in—and spent the next 20 years living in Europe, learning several languages in order to translate the great poets of Rome, Spain and France, and then writing his own verse.

Following this early grounding in formalism and the structured verse of the Renaissance and Romantic movements, Merwin’s poetry began to evolve as he became a prolific author in his own right. In the 1960s he became well-known for his poems against the Vietnam war; he was a contemporary of Denise Levertov, Robert Bly and Allen Ginsburg. Since the late 1960s, Merwin’s work has focused on the natural world, human relationships and even Hawaiian history and lore. (His 1998 novel-in-verse, The Folding Cliffs, is an epic retelling of 19th century history and Hawaiian legend). Merwin’s commitment to deep ecology and to reminding humankind of our connectedness to nature has infused his verse and has come to define his late career.

In the mid 1970s, Merwin settled in Haʻikū, on the rugged North Shore of Maui. Merwin had come to Hawaiʻi with the intent to study zen Buddhism with Roshi Robert Aitken, leader of the Maui Zendo and Honolulu Diamond Sangha and himself a literary scholar and social justice activist. He chose the land in Peʻahi Valley despite its poor condition, with a dream of restoring the site and filling it with verdant plant life. His wife, children's book editor Paula Schwartz, joined him there shortly after.

Before coming to her communications and outreach role at the conservancy, Tekula was a filmmaker and the founder of a nonprofit that restores native trees to Maui’s communities. She sees the conservancy and its programs as unique synergies of ecology, education and art. Though the conservancy isn’t yet able to accommodate regular tours for the public, small, curated groups and students from local schools make regular visits, spending ample time in each of the regions of the collection. The conservancy aims to continue working with teachers to provide a unique location for environmental education, creative writing lessons and place-based learning.

Telling the story of the land, Tekula passes around an old photograph of the depleted red dirt and scrubby invasive trees that the Merwins started with. “I get the most satisfaction when I see the light in people’s eyes when they visit the palm forest, especially the young people,” she says. “The moment they realize that, in 40 years’ time, a man and his wife can restore a place that was once broken, and bring the forest to a point where it feels like it has always been there, I know they are empowered and will never forget that feeling.”

W.S. Merwin has said, “I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day, to try to restore a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human ‘improvement.”

Larry Cameron

At Peʻahi, that restoration turned out to be a long and arduous process; after clearing existing invasives the Merwins planted nitrogen-fixing ironwoods and mango to provide leaf litter that would break down and create soil. But, at first, the primary native trees such as koa, which usually anchor the forest, failed to thrive. As Paula Merwin says in the film: “We quickly realized that you couldn’t do it—the habitat was destroyed… the native birds were all gone.” William continues: “First thing you did is you put the canopy back up … the trees began to make forest conditions. You can’t plant a forest, because the forest is an ecosystem that no human being understands…” What did flourish was a type of native loulu palm—Pritchardia—so he paid attention and planted more palms, eventually expanding to over 400 palm species from Hawaiʻi and other tropical regions and becoming an expert in their propagation and cultivation along the way.

With scientists from the National Tropical Botanical Gardens and Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, the conservancy has created a comprehensive taxonomic database that utilizes leading-edge global positioning software (GPS) and Google Earth technology to map and identify each specimen. Head Gardener Olin Erikson skillfully oversees care of the palms; and, until quite recently, Paula and William, now 89, worked in the gardens daily.

In addition to private tours, the conservancy hosts an environmental and literary speaker series, called “The Green Room,” with prominent artists from Hawaiʻi and the continental United States, who might not otherwise be able to make the trip, to connect with the Maui community. These intimate salons, held in the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, have recently featured guests such as poet Jane Hirshfield and poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje. The series fosters dialogue on the intersection of art and nature—an organic spiraling out from what the Merwins have created at the conservancy.

Says Tekula: “We’re really filling a niche, a void, here in the community. Many are readers—they love poetry and the intellectual stimulation of great thinkers and artists. It’s an outlet for imagination … there are so many possibilities.”

Merwin, indeed, has commented that the thing that makes humans unique as a species is not technology but the imagination: the ability to care about plights of people and animals far removed from ourselves and declare instead their interconnection and their importance.

Larry Cameron

Director Jason Denhart explains that the staff is currently engaged in telling the story of the palms, growing community and building up the educational and outreach programs—as well as fundraising for the longer-term future, when the home and land will be preserved and its programs expanded. “In the future, when the Merwins are no longer with us, we hope to transform W.S. Merwin’s hand-built Poet’s Home into a garden retreat for writers, with a world-class poet-in-residence program. The next generation of poets and writers will be able to imagine, create and write while living in the home, walking in the footsteps of W.S. Merwin,” he says.

To facilitate this the Conservancy partnered with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust and Merwin’s publisher, Copper Canyon Press, in 2010 to create a conservation easement that protects the land indefinitely. Tekula shares: “William said instead of leaving the land to his children, he wants to leave it to everyone’s children and grandchildren. The organization exists to steward that vision and bring it into reality.”

Denhart emphasizes one of the messages that the Merwins hope to pass along to the world—that anyone can contribute to restoration in the places they live and love, and the slow and steady accomplishment of the Conservancy is a testimony of this: “What William and Paula Merwin have done is astounding, but not impossible for others to emulate. One of William’s core messages, and by extension a core message of the Conservancy, is that ‘you can do this too.’ Everyone can live an intentional life and give back to Mother Nature in their own way.” As Paula says in Even Though the Whole World is Burning, “We would like people to understand—anybody can do it, and they can do it on very small pieces of land.”

In this land imbued with much mana—sacred power—through its loving restoration, the Merwins have created and transformed a tiny Eden that flourishes despite all the ravages of development that occur outside its borders; the care and contemplation of which has inspired some of W.S. Merwin’s greatest works of poetry. “It’s the relation with the world that I want: to be putting life back into the world instead of taking life out of it all the time,” he explains in the documentary. In his celebrated poem “Place,” he writes:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

Through the work of many hands, this planting at the Merwin Conservancy becomes a moment of eternity; the act of creation transcends destruction, and this singular poet of ecological conscience calls upon us to reclaim a connection to nature and do the same.

The Merwin Conservancy
Haʻikū, Maui


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