Besides the poetry he is best known for—he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2010 to 2011—W.S. Merwin has spent more than 30 years planting a unique palm forest on 19 acres of largely abandoned and abused land on the island of Maui. In 2010 he founded The Merwin Conservancy, which seeks to preserve the land and home for future study and as a retreat for botanists and writers. The following excerpt is adapted from “The House and Garden: The Emergence of a Dream,” an essay he wrote about the project for the Kenyon Review.
In between twenty-five or thirty years I have planted about 850 species of palms, and at least four or five times that many actual trees. I have had no map. I have not been able to visit every planting regularly, nor to water them all by hand. Some have been lost to drought. Labels have been lost. But I would guess that well over seven hundred species, and more than three-quarters of all the palms that I have set in the ground, have survived. They grow slowly in this poor soil, but some of the older ones, planted in the early eighties, are tall and stately now, and many of them are flowering and dropping viable seed. Many endangered species are growing here, and one species in particular, the Hyophorbe indica from Reunion Island, was listed as extinct when Inge Hoffinan sent me a few seeds in the 1980s.
One remaining tree of the species had been found in the botanical garden on that island, and it had provided those seeds. I managed to grow several trees and eventually began sending the seeds to a palm nursery on the Big Island for distribution, and they are available to tropical gardeners now. During rainy spells I try to plant at least one palm every day. Many have grown out of recognition.
I hope to be able to go on planting palms on this land for a long time, and I regard what has been done here so far as just a beginning. I hope—we both hope—that the whole of this land can eventually become a palm garden, a palm forest and sanctuary. Just being here, with the garden, the “palm forest,” all around us, day after day, I think has taught me a great deal. In my own lifetime I have seen the role of a garden, the very idea of a garden, not merely altered but reversed. Gardens, from the beginning (as the etymology of the word suggests), existed as enclaves designed and maintained to keep out the wilderness, to guard what was inside for human use or pleasure. Once it became possible for human beings to destroy environments anywhere on earth, the situation was turned around, and anyone who wanted to protect and save any remaining bit of the natural environment was acting in the role of a gardener. The model for this garden has always been the forest itself, even though I know that the word “reforestation” is generally meaningless, and that only a forest knows how to grow a forest.
I hope that the planting of palms will continue to fill parts of the land that have not been planted. I hope that a future head gardener will have something of the same desire I have had: to try to grow as many species as possible of the world’s palms, wherever they can be acquired. That is an abiding part of our hope that a Conservancy will want and will be able to save this bit of the Peahi streambed—what we have made here for those who come after us.
This story originally ran in the September-October 2012 issue as, "Emerald Eden." See more work by photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel here.