In March 2019, I read ‘Trees’, a short poem that William Stanley Merwin wrote about the plants he loved more profoundly than he did most people, at the poet’s graveside when his and his wife Paula’s ashes were buried in their Maui garden. A small terrace where two narrow footpaths join, leveled from the steep hillside near their house and framed by a necklace of lava rocks the size of coconuts, had been prepared for this day with leis and cut tropical flowers. River stones with the names of their dogs – Makana (Hawaiian for gift), Peah, Maoli, Muku (Hawaiian for dark moon) – lay next to the Merwins’ marker, all of it blanketed by evergreen monkey grass. Surrounding the shrine, fifteen or so family members and local friends stood on the uneven, muddy ground. As Paula’s sons Matt and John Schwartz poured the ashes into the earth, a dirge, half-spoken half-sung, composed of Hawaiian words, flooded out and over the proceedings like a rising spring tide in the ocean bay a quarter-mile from the property. The chant had been written by Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian elder and language professor who had been friends with the Merwins. She told me that she wrote it as a way of celebrating how William and Paula had healed this land, had honored it. She now asked that the land welcome them in return, as part of the soil and its spirit. Four words made up the epitaph on the Merwins’ burnished coal-black monument: here we / were happy.
That the earth there is so fecund, and mourners were shaded from the sun by palm fronds high above, is as much miraculous as it is testament to one person’s cathexis with ecological renewal. The seemingly ageless setting, a Pacific island rainforest on the verge of overwhelming any effort to keep it contained, with layers upon layers of overgrowth and undergrowth, a thick canopy a hundred feet in the air, an orchestra of birds and swarms of mosquitoes, did not exist forty years before that day, when, in his fifties, Merwin bought his first three acres on the remote Pe‘ahi Peninsula on the north shore of Maui. In 1977, the year ‘Trees’ was published, it had little growing on it other than scrubby cattle and pili grasses and invasive shrubs. Now, as he left it, this place, where the temperature drops noticeably as you walk into it from the road, survived him as equal parts oasis, stage set and work of art.
The young W.S. Merwin was known as a beautiful, brilliant but angry man. The Vietnam War, nuclear-weapon stockpiling during the Cold War, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and destruction of their languages, cultures and wisdom, and especially the despoliation and plundering of the planet by the mining, chemical and fossil fuel industries, agribusiness and predatory land development, all filled him with despair and laced his early work. The poems in his first published collection, A Mask for Janus (1952), for which he received the Yale Younger Poets Prize, veil his ire in learned, formal, often cryptic imagery, but as his artistry matured, outrage began to leak into the open. The Lice, a sixth collection published in 1967, when his irrefutable power as an original thinker and craftsman had emerged, gave full-throat to his disgust. He wrote directly of environmental degradation in ‘The Last One’, of the meaningless casualties of the colonial war in Vietnam in ‘The Wave’, of humanity’s hubris in ‘For a Coming Extinction’ and of societal delusion and collective amnesia in ‘When the War is Over’. The writing never slips into ideological harangue but there’s a palpable hostility to powerful, ignorant bullies.
Along with his own writing, Merwin also devoted much of his career to the translation of other poets’ work into English, resulting in hundreds of poems from Spanish, Catalan, the Occitan of the troubadours, Khmer, Inupiaq, Cashinahua, Irish, Welsh, Kabyle, Tagalog, Malay and others. In 1969 he won the PEN Translation Prize for Selected Translations 1948–1968. These literary meanderings expressed Merwin’s rigor and ease with language and meaning, and his personal longing for cultures outside of America, but also mirrored something unsettled about the man, something that kept him moving and traveling for most of his early life. Born in New York City, the son of a parochial Presbyterian minister, he grew up in Union City, NJ, and the Rust Belt steel manufacturing and coal mining city of Scranton, Pennsylvania. His first poems, written when he was about five years old, were in the form of hymns. He told me once the only reason his father let him apply to Princeton was because he thought it was still a seminary. In the decades after graduating, he lived in Portugal, Spain, on Majorca, in London, New York and France. He was married and divorced twice. He wrote The Lice in a ruined French farmhouse he bought and restored, managing then to stay put for two years. In rural France he immersed himself in a near-medieval farming region, writing about timeless reaping and sowing techniques that were about to disappear forever in just the way he would about a dead language or a species soon to be extinct. The countryside inspired some of his best work, but he was inexorably drawn to urban culture as well. He kept an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village until he was close to eighty. Moira Hodgson, a writer with whom he lived in the early 1970s, said he had thrived on the ‘hard edge’ of the city back then, yet when there, he would long for the county. Merwin often told the story of seeing weeds come up through the cracks in the sidewalks in Union City when he was a little boy, and feeling a sense of calm as his mother explained to him that the earth, alive, was beneath the concrete.
He visited Hawai‘i for the first time in the late 60s to give a reading in Honolulu. Then, in 1975, after falling in love with Dana Naone, a writer from the islands, he made an extended stay on Maui to see her and to continue his studies in Zen Buddhism with his roshi, Robert Aiken. He had begun practicing meditation, drawn to it in part by what he read while translating Chinese and Japanese poetry, but also as the antithesis to his father’s starched Christianity. The preciseness of Zen’s practice suited his own sense of discipline, and it quieted some of the demons. When he returned the following summer he bought three acres in an area named Ha‘ikū, on the mostly undeveloped north shore of the island in the Hāmākua Loa district. Siting it on a steep bank of a dry stream bed, Merwin designed a perfectly symmetrical house – room balanced room, lanai (veranda) with lanai – and, with a small dojo for meditation as well, built it by hand with the help of a local carpenter. In 1983, at fifty-five years old, he married his third wife, Paula Dunaway Schwartz, whom he met through friends at a dinner in New York City. His wandering stopped.
I hardly noticed the trees the first time I visited the Merwins in Ha‘ikū in 1997. The forest met you right at the front gate, a thick areca palm hedge spilling out onto the rutted single-track road along the property line, the paths to the house overhung with hibiscus bushes flowering white and red. The tangle of foliage seemed to me entirely as it should be on Maui. Trug baskets and rubber gardening shoes stood stacked by the wooden steps to the house; two chow chows lay near the front door guarding the entrance as though it was a temple. Merwin was my distant relative, his mother and my grandmother were first cousins and were close to each other. I’d heard stories of the long-haired, sandal-shod poet visiting my buttoned-up grandparents in Pittsburgh with his Hawaiian girlfriend and I also knew his poetry and his reputation. In the 1980s, when I worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory for Interview Magazine writing about art and selling advertising, I was reluctant to introduce myself to Merwin while I had a chance, certain he would see my life in that world as frivolous. After we became close fifteen years later, I told him what I’d been thinking back then. He smiled, squeezed my arm and, not in an unkind way, replied, ‘You made the right choice.’ My first lunch with the Merwins, sitting on the north lanai of the house suspended over the gully, at a narrow table in a chair that faced a flickering wall of palms, lasted through the afternoon and into twilight. The conversation wandered from our family connection, to New York, to Hawai‘i’s complex history, to writing. At the time Merwin was working on his epic poem The Folding Cliffs about nineteenth-century Hawai‘i. I was starting a book of my own about the islands’ colonial history. I left their house that evening with all of my best ideas turned upside down. Driving along the twisting country roads to Kula where I was staying, I found myself refreshed, my mind buzzing. He and Paula had helped me see Hawai‘i’s story in an entirely different way than I’d understood it up to that point.
Visiting them became a pattern for me over the next twenty years. I learned to book late flights home to O‘ahu, where I lived, so I wouldn’t miss the plane, although a number times, planned or not, I slept on the Merwins’ lumpy futon in the library beneath the main floor of the house, a room filled top to bottom with books of poetry and fiction, on architecture and art, as well as the accumulated medals, plaques and paper certificates (mostly left to the mold) from the many prizes and honors Merwin had received, including his two Pulitzer Prizes and his appointment as US Poet Laureate by President Obama. Sometimes a note in his handwriting would be left on a table by the bed. ‘Chinese proverb: Don’t ask the peddler if his melons are sweet.’ When I stayed the night, Merwin would remind me that in the morning he would not be available. Starting before dawn and going until a late lunch, he sat in his dojo, drank tea, read and wrote, the rituals that epitomize his extraordinary discipline.
This area of Maui was lightly inhabited in the mid-1970s, mostly by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) – any ancient Hawaiian villages by then only ruins – retired sugar plantation field workers and their descendants, and a sprinkling of haole (white, foreign) immigrants from California, hippies, surfers and survivalists, squatting off the grid in the hidden notches and nearly impenetrable valleys this side of the island. Just open ocean exists between Maui’s windward side and Alaska, 3,000 miles away; nothing hampers the whipping winds that can scream over the land along the coastline, nor the enormous winter swells generated in the Arctic that trundle south and pummel the steep cliffs and rock-strewn bays of the Hāmākua Loa coast in the winter. Because of the wind, Ha‘ikū wasn’t as well-suited to growing the coffee or fruit trees that thrive in the more sheltered areas, and, without beaches, it was unattractive to the year-round tourist industry that had begun to overtake Maui’s leeward sides in the 1970s. There was a frontier-like, even lawless, quality to this remote area then, and certainly an intense quiet. Physically Ha‘ikū appeared like a patchwork of miniature Cotswold landscapes interspersed with expanses of thick jungle.
Of course, the landscape was what it was in 1975 because of centuries of human interference. Though it might not have looked so because of the verdure, the entire ecosystem of the Hawaiian Islands was severely degraded by then. What had once been home to one of the most diverse, unique and abundant catalogues of endemic species on earth – there were around 750 different species of land snails alone, for instance, seventy-one known taxa of birds unique to Hawai‘i and, prior to contact with human beings, some have estimated as many as 20,000 to 30,000 species of native flora – became the scene of wholesale extinctions and a decimated biodiversity. The archipelago is relatively new in geological terms, its main islands being from around 5.5 million years old (Kaua‘i) to around 500,000 years (Hawai‘i Island). (Merwin was fascinated by how ‘all the stages of the islands from their rising to their disappearance are present in the chain at the same time’.) Having never been attached to any continent – they were formed at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean from volcanoes during a shift in the Pacific plate, climbing high enough to create clouds – every endemic species of flora and fauna in Hawai‘i had arrived at some point either by air or water on countless different paths. Coconuts floated there, mollusks piggybacked on driftwood, plant seeds and insect eggs rode in the guts or feathers of migrating birds. The characteristics of the endemic flora suggest much of it came from the Indo-Pacific region, the American continents and the South Pacific, with 20 percent of flowering plant genera either occurring in or similar to Malaysian genera. The shapes of the islands, deep valleys framed by forbidding, jagged cliffs, encouraged scores of microclimates from the drenched pinnacles to humid windward plains to arid leeward shorelines, some existing in semi- or complete isolation. Because of these tiers of separation and protection, including thousands of miles of ocean, and a lack of predators such as snakes and rodents, the tremendous variety evolved and flourished, some through speciation, without interruption, for eons.
The extinctions began with the Polynesians, who colonized the archipelago 800 to 1,200 years ago. When they landed they brought with them a ‘portmanteau biota’ from the South Pacific: pigs, dogs, chickens, yams, taro and coconuts, as well as plant seeds in the mud they used to package root vegetables, all of which pushed out endemic species. Though they hunted the flightless birds and birds’ eggs to the point of eradication, the clearing of coastal and savannah forest habitats by fire for agriculture, and the introduction of rats that stowed away in their sailing canoes, did the most significant damage. Environmental abasement increased exponentially once the French, British and Americans arrived on the shores in the late eighteenth century, bringing new diseases and pests, denuding more of the forests for firewood and commissioning the clearance of enormous areas of endemic sandalwood for trade with China. Even the two to four Hereford bulls and the six to eight cows brought to Hawai‘i Island in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver for King Kamehameha I (the exact number differs in historical accounts) caused irreversible destruction as they multiplied unimpeded – to an estimated 25,000 head by 1846 after the king placed a taboo on killing them – eating their way, root and stalk, through forest and field. It took a century to capture or kill most of the progeny, though some still live in the wild today. A European sea captain intentionally emptied his bilge water into the mouth of a Maui river in the early nineteenth century, in retribution for some slight he suffered, releasing mosquitoes into the biosphere, and with them avian malaria. Between the malaria, rats, humans hunting them for their brilliant feathers, competition with introduced birds and loss of habitat, only forty-eight species of endemic Hawaiian birds still exist and they’re currently all listed as threatened or endangered. Land snails had once been so ubiquitous, and the sound they made such an important part of the Native Hawaiian’s cultural memory, that Kamehameha III named a palace he built on O‘ahu in the 1840s Kaniakapūpū: ‘the song of the land snails’. Through the destruction of much of their habitat, however, the predation of rats and imported, larger snails, and a relentless hunting by humans to make necklaces from their colorful shells, only around 300 of the 750 land snail species, and thirteen of the forty-one tree snails, barely hang on today.
Little of the original plant life of the coastal, lowland or low montane regions of the island remained when Merwin arrived – only 1,000 to 1,400 species of flowering plants survive in the islands today – and none of the songbirds on Maui. In the 1920s, a local canning company leased or bought much of the land along the coast, or paid small stakeholders in the cooperative that owned the land Merwin would later buy, to grow pineapples, though Merwin’s original three acres and some of the neighboring parcels were considered too craggy for anything but cattle grazing. The topsoil on the Pe‘ahi Peninsula had eroded badly in the ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rains of the winter months washing it from the overgrazed and poorly graded landscape now stripped of its trees, leaving only clumpy clay with few of the nutrients required for cultivating crops. However, because the climate conditions were ideal for ‘pine’ farming, and the market for the sweet fruit insatiable, growers augmented the soil with chemical fertilizers. Adding to the corruption, the freshwater streams and tributaries of the area were mostly bone dry or a mere trickle at the time Merwin moved there. The sugar conglomerate Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) had long since diverted most of the springs high on the north face of Haleakalā mountain on the eastern half of Maui for irrigating the 30,000 acres of cane that blanketed the island’s central plain. A&B and four other sugar companies, collectively known as the Big Five, with their vast plantations covering great swaths of all the islands, were the ruling economic (and political) entity in Hawai‘i beginning in the 1870s when King Kalākaua signed a treaty with the US allowing for the import of Hawaiian sugar into the States without duty. Two A&B mills on Maui, in Pā‘ia and Pu‘unēnē, still churned out molasses twenty-four hours a day in the 1970s, the growing schedule of every cane field carefully staggered so the enormous crushers, cookers and turbines never had to quit. Needless to say, Merwin deeply resented the feudal power that A&B, a company founded by two sons of American Protestant missionaries, which employed large numbers of islanders and immigrant laborers, and its subsidiaries such as East Maui Irrigation (EMI) and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar wielded on Maui. The Pe‘ahi stream bed, which crossed his land near the end of its course, had once carried water from 10,000 feet up Haleakalā down to the sea, but now remained dry except during exceptionally heavy rain storms because of EMI’s irrigation ditches, which redirected water to the cane fields. All but a tiny reminder of a wet taro patch still clung to life at the bottom of this once roiling freshwater ecosystem.
Today, the islands may look heavenly under the hot, bright sun, the greens and blues so vivid, the stretches of coastline exquisite and clean, a true paradise on earth. But really they’re suffering, buckling under the weight of unchecked land development and the runoff and disturbances of a population that’s now over 1.4 million. Even the vast reef system surrounding O‘ahu is heading toward a total collapse, in as soon as a decade, from the acidification of the ocean and rising water temperatures. When Merwin first moved to Maui, he became immediately interested in its threatened environment. He joined groups advocating for the release of the fresh water on Maui, back to the rivers and streams it had filled before agribusiness took over the island, spoke out against unbridled building and land development – always such easy money in Hawai‘i – and joined the board of directors of a shoestring-operated newsletter called Environment Hawaii, one of the few publications in the islands to document the effects of development and the cozy relationship between Hawai‘i’s government and the developers. He also addressed the environmental degradation of Hawai‘i via his garden.
From the 1970s until his death in 2019, Merwin planted an estimated 14,000 palm trees, propagating most of the seeds himself in a shade house he built. Initially, when he bought the land, he went so far as to try to return it to a semblance of what had been its original flora and perhaps original biota. As a start, in the first few years Merwin put close to 800 koa saplings, a common endemic Acacia species, into the ground. Not one survived. It wasn’t just the poor soil that defeated this plan, the original biota was too far gone for it to be revived. The isolation that allowed for such an Eden to evolve in the first place was now the enemy of its renaissance; there are no neighboring systems to contribute related materials. However, endemic species of Pritchardia palms that he planted at the same time as the koa, did take. Pritchardia, speciating and adapting to every corner and condition in the Hawaiian Islands, from steep, vertical high-altitude cliff faces to placid beaches, have been hardy enough so far to withstand the various waves of aliens to Hawai‘i’s shores. Their success on his land led Merwin to study other palms as well. Reading and corresponding with experts across the globe and in Hawai‘i, he began to realize the value of collecting these specimens, and others from around the planet, not just for what they did for his small plot on Maui and how easily they grew, but in how he might provide a sanctuary for the rarest of the varieties whose natural habitats, in Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Hawai‘i and all over the world, were being destroyed at a rapid clip. Many palms grow fast – as a species it’s more closely related to grass than to trees – some reaching enormous heights in a few decades. When they dropped their fronds, as large as twenty to thirty feet long, Merwin let them lie there and decay – to return to the soil, the humus layer holding in the moisture. (For years Merwin also composted the correspondence he received.) The original ecosystem never returned, but in a remarkably short time, a new one emerged. Birds and insects found the garden immediately, as did fungi and reptiles – indigenous, endemic or introduced – settling in and helping trigger a novel ecosystem. Of the 14,000 palms he planted, around half survive today.
Instead of staggering them over well-kept lawns, like most Hawai‘i estates and hotels where common coconut palms stand like crooked sentinels, Merwin packed them together in the density of a forest. He started with Pritchardia, then planted the areca palm hedge along the road, a thick green curtain between him and the outside world, finally doubling that with Phoenix reclinata, a palm with sharp spikes, like a hedge of organic barbed wire. He gathered seaweed from the coves along the coast by the truckload, spreading it to help fertilize, and he did the same with all the cow and horse manure he could find. There were mango trees on the land when he bought it and they created shade for some of the smaller palms. Ironwood trees (Ostrya) that he planted, and invasive Acacia confusa, known as false or Formosan koa, that volunteered, regenerated nitrogen in the soil. ‘The “natural” dense planting that William achieved,’ claims Dr John Dransfield, an honorary research fellow at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, ‘is most unusual and allows us to experience what palms look like and how they behave in their original habitat. The dense canopy and layered undergrowth is all very reminiscent of natural forest.’
Though it’s impossible to see now in the crowded landscape, Merwin’s neighbor and fellow palm enthusiast Mary Lock, a vice president of the Merwin Conservancy, which manages the property, told me there was some intentional planning to his planting within the property’s boundaries. For instance, he used Veitchia arecina, a tall, endangered, fast-growing palm found only on Vanuatu, to create a canopy around the house. Some of the other giant palms – Caryota no, a species of fishtail palm endemic to Borneo which grows up to sixty-five feet with fronds as long as sixteen feet, and Pigafetta filaris from New Guinea, which grows to 160 feet – he planted specifically to provide shade for a midstory and understory of varieties. Caryota no has a short life span, dying after it flowers, but new generations of that palm grow up at their parents’ feet. As his obsession and passion grew, Merwin wrote to the International Palm Society for any seeds they were offering and began a correspondence with Inge Hoffman, a palm specialist, and palm experts at Lyon and Waimea arboretums on O‘ahu. Over the years, they exchanged seeds and information and, in the eyes of Palm Society members, Merwin became an expert himself. He never made drawings to work from, though there are research notes among his papers about various palms’ behaviors, and no doubt after the early years of planting, instinct and the knowledge he accumulated for the success of individual palms guided his design. There is a sense that planting and growing palms was a vocation, second only to his writing.
In 2013, John Dransfield catalogued the Merwins’ garden over the course of two trips to Maui, tagging and listing 2,741 individual palms from 128 genera and 486 species, making the Merwin collection one of the two or three largest private collections in the world. The locations around the globe where they come from read like destinations in a Robert Louis Stevenson book, and their names like the racing form at Ascot. From Madagascar, Borneo, Baja, Papua New Guinea, Cuba, South India, South Africa, the Nicobar Islands and a dozen more places came palms with common names such majestic and mini-majesty, slender lady, dwarf lady, kosi bay giant raffia, orange crush, red sealing wax (also known as lipstick), swooping bamboo, goodluck, diamond joey; fishtail palms named toddy, jaggery, lawyer cane, giant, mountain and zebra; impossible to pronounce lafazovombana, sarimadiovozona, voniframbihitra; bedang dawn, vampire, blessed and millionaire’s salad. ‘William’s garden is a great example that palm conservation in a man-made environment can contribute more than just germ plasm,’ Lock told me. From time to time someone mixing up history, politics and science will disparage Merwin’s planting of so many non-indigenous or endemic species. This argument is always framed as a sort of them-against-us litmus test – as many issues concerning the ‘āina (the land) are in Hawai‘i – gauging the purity of Merwin’s intentions as they tenuously relate to colonialism and foreign (American) occupation of the islands. Merwin, aware and very sensitive to the islands’ history – the effort to abolish Native Hawaiian culture, the deaths, during the nineteenth century, of around eighty percent of the population from haole-introduced disease and the ongoing devastation of the natural environment – never paid much attention to this talk, seeing a higher, universal purpose in the preservation of rare palms in an environment only Hawai‘i can provide. And, over the four decades that he worked on his property, he never imagined himself recreating anything wild; indeed he didn’t like to even use the word ‘forest’, which connotes wilderness, in describing the place, despite the interactions of species there that mimic those in nature. Merwin felt that once humans have anything to do with it, once humans are managing it in any way, even if all the exact endemic plants can be reincorporated on a plot of soil, what results is a garden. Merwin thought himself a gardener.
Paula Merwin was also, of course, as involved in the property as her husband was and she planted and tended the flower garden in the front and to the sides of their long, rectangular wooden house. When I first visited I assumed the Merwins had carved this oasis out of an existing Maui jungle – that this alone was their garden, one as beautiful as any I’d ever seen. Pink double hibiscus, lilies, orchids and walking iris grew there, all within the sound of a moss-blanketed fountain. As you arrived, you found yourself walking under the dense palm canopy along irregular paths, roots and rocks sticking up through the soil, with no idea where you might end up, until you came upon this exquisite, comforting scene. Conversely, without any formal borders, this hint of domestication disappears into the forest, as though, as the garden moves away from the house, the hand of humans has been subsumed by a wilderness. Of course, this was intentional, an effect devised to do both, an illusion. In the last decade of their lives, as the palm garden flourished and expanded – it now covers about half of their nineteen acres – Paula and William founded the Merwin Conservancy, hoping their land would become an example of the possibility of an ecological renewal, a place of study for scientists and the house a refuge for artists and writers.
Along with a steady flow of new poetry and translations, Merwin also wrote a few introductions to other writers’ work, ranging from a paperback edition of Walden to Remains of the Rainbow by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton, a coffee table book of photographs of Hawai‘i’s endangered species, where he records some of his core beliefs about humankind and the natural world more directly and derides the notion that the ability to reason alone defines humanity’s superiority. Intelligence is ‘morally indifferent’, he wrote, imagination and compassion are what distinguishes humans from the rest of nature. A few years ago I read the novelist John Fowles’s essay ‘The Tree’, about the woods and gardens in England and their effect on him and his writing. Thinking I must tell William about it, I turned over the paperback to find a blurb by him saying how he kept a copy with him to read when he traveled. Fowles and Merwin saw eye to eye, especially when it came to how Carl Linnaeus’s legacy – Linnaeus having named and ranked all living things – had had a damaging effect on humanity’s relationship with the earth’s other species, separating people from different life forms. A line in Merwin’s ‘Trees’ suggests our names for them make no difference at all to the trees themselves.
For his literary legacy, however, nothing quite surpasses The Folding Cliffs from 1998. Merwin’s love affair with Hawai‘i and his vast knowledge of Hawai‘i’s environment and history fed the epic poem that took him twenty years to complete. Though this paean to the islands went largely unheralded when it was published, the 280 flawless stanzas, each between twenty-five and forty lines, tell the calamitous tale of Hawai‘i’s introduction onto the world’s maps in the late eighteenth century and the consequences for its landscape, people and the Hawaiian culture in the nineteenth century. The big picture succeeds so elegantly because he threaded throughout it a human-scale narrative, the story of a Hawaiian cowboy named Ko‘olau, his wife, Pi‘ilani, and their child. Merwin guides his readers, like Dante, through the precipitous terrain of clashing civilizations, colonial politics and the death by Hansen’s disease – ‘the separating sickness’ as the Hawaiians called it – of Ko‘olau and his son. In line after line of blank verse, paced like a gripping novel, he shifted between the grand and the intimate effortlessly, reveling in the setting and the language he wielded with such ease and grace. Hearing Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele read the section aloud about the young boy’s death in the Merwins’ living room before the ceremony to inter their ashes, I realized how much Merwin actually understood about the cadences of Hawaiian chanting and how far he went in his research to learn about Native Hawaiian ritual. That the ancient Hawaiian culture was an oral tradition, nothing being written down until American Protestant missionaries arrived in the 1820s, suited a poet who translated the dormant language of the troubadours. Indeed much of Merwin’s own poetry was written with reading it aloud in mind. Ted Hughes called The Folding Cliffs a ‘masterpiece’, and Laurence Lieberman compared it to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Hawai‘i’s is a harsh, disturbing story, yet this work is sublimely beautiful.
I stayed one last time in the house, a month after Merwin had died. When I arrived, in the dark, there was no one to greet me, no chows guarding the door. I turned on the fountain out front and all the lamps inside the house, something Merwin would have thought wasteful, but the light brought warmth to the familiar surroundings. In the morning I ate my breakfast sitting in an armchair at the end of the table on the lanai where Merwin always sat. A red cardinal he fed landed on the railing; I made a note to myself to buy blueberries for it in town. From that perch I thought I could see what looked like an oculus, or a sort of tunnel into the dense vegetation, visible only from the armchair, a lens peering into the forest. ‘Listen,’ he would say.
I’d been invited into Merwin’s study exactly twice in the time I knew him. On his desk was a box of the fountain pens he used to write his poems with and by the door, on a shelf, he kept a shrine for his dogs, with faded drugstore photos of chows and mutts, small votive objects, a bowl with ashes from incense, a pile of their stiff, discolored leather collars. The room next to it served as his dojo as he got older and was, by contrast, stark and empty, with a few cushions still lined up perfectly, a gong, more incense. On the dining-room table lay his copy of Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching, translated by Red Pine, well worn and earmarked, notes to Merwin from Paula on scraps of paper tucked into different pages. In the margins this irrepressible translator had written alternative possibilities for the original Chinese, corrections he couldn’t resist. In the kitchen on the wall by the door, a carved and painted antique bodhisattva hung by a nail. I took it down to hold it and found a tiny hatch door for a prayer and beneath it two deep indentations. At first I thought they had become some creatures’ nests. When I looked more closely I saw they were both filled with hair, one with blond, the other with white. In a teacup on the shelf I found a dozen unhatched gecko eggs.
The paths in the garden aren’t level or covered in gravel; the steepest slopes have no railings or ropes. Mosquitoes are a menace day and night. You have to duck under branches, dodge thick, sticky spiderwebs the size of a person’s face. Not at all comfortable in a conventional way, the house has few luxuries, though all the necessities. Physical comfort inside or out in the garden was never the point for Merwin. His ambition was to live with things growing all around him, to be in the center of all this life. That was comfortable to him. If a frond crashes through the canopy when you’re in bed at night it feels as though it’s in the room with you. The sound of palms chattering is nothing like the mournful howling of pine trees, or the crinoline rustling of oaks or aspens. His house and garden became somewhere where silence speaks, expressing something this supremely eloquent man had no words for. Henry David Thoreau, in a borrowed hovel on Walden Pond, living there rough (though not far from his mother), in one of the last old-growth forests in Concord, Massachusetts, opined in his journal about what he loved and what was all but lost in New England and beyond. Merwin, a century and a half later, created his own forest, watching it rise up until it lived in him.
The Merwin garden is the manifestation of countless ideas and many layers of meaning. Firstly, or ultimately, it was his and his wife Paula’s home, their refuge, an island within an island for their life together, a sanctuary where he was exceptionally productive as a writer. It was born of intention, as the Zen Buddhists think of it, with the explicit understanding that all the intention in the world does not predict something exact; nor does it suggest control. The quotidian day-to-day planting of palms was like the answer to a koan. It became a project for a deeply opinionated, often agitated, brilliant mind, putting action behind words and convictions, a small but potent statement of what can be done, a call for environmental advocacy in the face of climate change denial, paralysis, global ennui. It might not save humanity or the planet, but it saved him. Yet in making his garden he wasn’t saving or restoring or preserving anything per se, he was willing something new into existence, like a poem. The result, as it is today, is a living, breathing, growing, decaying, prattling, completely unpredictable work of art with nature as the medium. The garden is his surrogate, a stand-in for his voice and heart. He let it speak for him. Merwin found the ultimate act of faith in planting, and with it the inherent assumption that someone will be around to see it grow. In his poem ‘Place’ he wrote: ‘On the last day of the world / I would like to plant a tree.’
Image © Gwen Arkin