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How poet W.S. Merwin found paradise by planting palm trees

February 20, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
In the late 1970s, the renowned poet W.S. Merwin bought three acres of an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii -- a “paradise lost,” where little would grow due to deforestation and chemicals leftover in the soil. Little by little, he and his wife began planting trees, and the garden grew into a whole forest of palms from seeds collected around the world. Jeffrey Brown visits Merwin’s garden in Maui.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a writer of words and planter of trees.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s Hawaii, so, yes, you do expect to see a palm tree or two, but you don’t expect this, a whole forest of palms, some 3,000 of them of incredible variety, fans of many sizes, twists and shapes of many kinds, even sharp thorns, more than 400 species from all over the world on 19 acres of land on the northern coast of Maui.

W.S. MERWIN, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet: I can’t stop them from destroying the Amazon forest, but I can go out and plant a tree, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: The tree planter is W.S. Merwin, now 87 years old, better known as one of the nation’s leading poets. And the two pursuits he says comes from exactly the same place. When he began the Maui garden, for example:

W.S. MERWIN: I was feeling my way and trying — learning — learning all the time from failures, as well as from successes. And I had one thing leading to something else.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how is that like poetry?

W.S. MERWIN: Exactly like poetry. I think a real poem always, always, in my experience, takes you by surprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were few trees around when Merwin was raised in New Jersey and Scranton, Pennsylvania, son of a Presbyterian minister.

He would first cultivate words and become a much-read and much-honored poet, a prolific writer and translator of more than 50 books, winner of most every available award, including two Pulitzers, a two-time poet laureate, most recently in 2011. In the late ’70s, Merwin came to Maui and bought three acres of a pineapple plantation.

It was then very much a paradise lost, where little would grow after the soil had been ruined by chemicals and deforestation.

W.S. MERWIN: Somebody wanted to sell it for very little money. And I thought it would be sort of fun to see what you could do with a piece of land like this. Maybe you could save it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the only things that would grow was the native Hawaiian palm. And that’s where Merwin and his wife, Paula, started, first building up the soil and then planting, often a tree every day during the rainy season grown from seeds gathered from around the world.

Merwin didn’t set on out to create a palm preserve, but that, says Chipper Wichman, head of the Kauai-based National Tropical Botanical Garden, is what he did.

CHIPPER WICHMAN, National Tropical Botanical Garden: This represents, you might say, kind of a genetic safety net of palm germplasm.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that safety net is needed, says Wichman, as palm species around the world face threats, even extinction, from logging, invasive species, climate change and more.

CHIPPER WICHMAN: What we know today is that 80 to 90 percent of the world’s biodiversity exists in tropical reasons. And today one-third of all tropical plant species is threatened with extinction. This means that in our time, in our generation, we have the potential to lose a major part of the world’s biodiversity. Palms are keystone species. They play a critical role in these ecosystems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two years ago, the National Garden organized an effort led by British expert John Grantsfield to identify and catalog every tree, map the entire site and eventually create a database that will be used by botanists and other researchers worldwide.

In the meantime, as Merwin himself has aged, much of the care and tending has fallen to Olin Erickson, a Minnesota native who studied botany when he first came to Hawaii and began working with Merwin 11 years ago. He says his job is managing, not controlling.

OLIN ERICKSON, MauiScapes LLC: The distinction is, certain landscapes are designed and everything is in a particular order and it’s meant to be kept that way. But here it’s more organic. Things, the way they grow, we work with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That means pruning branches which end up on so-called bio-piles that later serve as mulch and sometimes clearing areas of larger trees, like these mango trees, to open up space and sunlight for the palms, which respond in a hurry.

OLIN ERICKSON: These palms started growing a massive amount of new roots.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? These are all — oh, well, I can see they’re new.

OLIN ERICKSON: Yes, because, look, here’s the older ones. They’re much darker. And they’re going to grow all the way down here into the soil so it can support its new growth that will help it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow. That’s amazing.


JEFFREY BROWN: It continues to be an amazement to William Merwin, who still writes, still works and walks in his garden with Paula, even after illnesses have left him nearly blind and certainly slowed.

W.S. MERWIN: That’s so strange too, you know? How can you describe what age is, because you — part of you feels that you’re still that child who was around when you were 3 or 4 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. You still feel that part?



W.S. MERWIN: But I’m not bothered by it. I mean, I feel very happy at this stage of my life. And I see people who are frightened by being older. And I don’t mean I wouldn’t happily now be 20 years old again in certain respects. But I’m not. And it would be silly to waste time daydreaming about, if I were only 20 years old again.

It’s more interesting to figure out, how do I see the world now? The marvelous thing about a garden that people who haven’t done it don’t know is that between when you first came here this morning and right now, look at the difference.

The light changes, the wind changes, the time of day changes, and the whole thing is different. It’s moving all the time. It’s not static. If it makes you uneasy to be in a place that’s changing like that, then that tells you something about yourself. It doesn’t tell you much about the garden.


JEFFREY BROWN: And now the garden will live on beyond the lifetimes of the Merwins, who have created a nonprofit conservancy, with a land deed given permanent protection to the palm collection.

From the northern coast of Maui, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.