Walking through the dense palm forest, we admire the song of the laughingthrushes, the green of the fronds, and the sweet smell of the jungle. We breathe. Everything makes sense again. From a short line in W.S. Merwin’s biography on the Poetry Foundation’s website, I discovered Merwin’s Conservancy in Ha’i’ku on the island of Maui. The Merwin Conservancy is the home of renowned poet W.S. Merwin, or William, and his wife Paula. Hawaii is the extinction capital of the world, and William and Paula are heroes fighting in the ‘Tropical Biodiversity Crisis.’ They have transformed their home into a refuge for palm trees all over the world.
Sara Tekula, the Communications and Outreach Director, organized a tour of the property with Olin Erickson, the Palm Collection Manager, for my family and I. We were joined by Board Member Dale Bonar, his friend Doug, and a group of interns from Tom Sewell’s art studio. Sara and Olin shared with us the inspiring story of the Merwin Conservancy; their excitement and love for the place was spellbinding.
After a short introduction, and a query* of where we last hiked, Sara began by reading “The Nomad Flute” from William’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection Shadow of Sirius. Her copy was covered in dirt with dog eared pages and a worn out spine.
… night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it…
At the entrance to the forest, Sara led us through an Ancient Hawaiian chant asking all living beings for permission. The earthly sound of the ancient language brushed my cheeks and made my head rush.
We commenced our walk in silence, listening to the loud harmony.
Most of William’s poetry is concerned with the harm caused by man’s alienation from nature, and yet, until he bought the land at the age of 49, he hadn’t fully lived by this virtue. The property he purchased was an agricultural wasteland. He built a home on the property, produced his own food, and lived off-the-grid. He didn’t know much about palms or farming, but he was enthusiastic. Through daily practice, a labor of love, and patience, William was able to bring this piece of land back to life.
Now, the property is a living seed bank, with over 2,740 individual palm trees, featuring more than 400 taxonomic species, 125 unique genera, and nearly 900 different horticultural varieties. William planted one tree a day, and now it is a thriving ecosystem. According to Olin, William knows what kind of palm it is, where it is from, when it was planted, and how he received the seed. Each palm tree is a memory, a friend. He planted them, but after that, he let mother nature take over. As William says, “You can’t plant a forest, only a forest knows how to be a forest.”
A laughingthrush interrupted our tour, so Sara read “The Laughing Thrush.”
… here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening…
It is hard to believe that forty years earlier there was nothing here. Now, one can barely see the sky. The place thrums with life. It is amazing.
Olin once asked William how he was able to do this. William told him that it was easy and shared with him the recipe to amazing.
- Pay attention to the details.
- You need to love and care about it.
- You need to be patient.
And kale, Sara added. You need to be strong.
As we left the forest, I felt rejuvenated. I felt committed to being part of the change. I would start simple. In my hand, I held a single palm seed.
We ended the tour with the poem “Wild Oats.” The last few lines of the poem resonated, and I will end this blog post with them,
I have to keep telling myself
why I am going away again
I do not seem to listen
In my youth I believed in somewhere else
I put faith in travel
now I am becoming my own tree
To find out more about this sanctuary, go to http://www.merwinconservancy.org/ and like them on Facebook!
They also host the Green Room, a literary reading series, at the Maui Arts Center. William Finnegan, author of Pulitzer Prize winning Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, is reading on December 3rd. Find out more here.
Also, check out the kickstarter by Copper Canyon Press. They are raising funds to publish The Essential W.S. Merwin, a single, approachable paperback volume of one of our most beloved and lauded poets.
*Did you know that every 18 days a new pest enters Hawaii? Ironically, a lot of the pests are brought over by people who love nature. Pests, the size of pinheads, can travel on your clothes, hiking shoes, and gear. It is important to clean them with isopropyl. Currently, Maui is becoming infested with little Fire Ants that cause blindness in animals.