I recently had the opportunity to visit a forest created by the poet who
wrote: “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”
William S. Merwin began planting his forest on Maui nearly 40 years ago on three-plus acres he bought at a bargain because the land was in such terrible shape. Later additions have increased the property to 19 acres. Merwin is an extraordinary individual, an internationally known poet with many major awards, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, a Buddhist and a man with great sensitivity to the natural world. With his wife, Paula, he has woven a lifestyle of writing, meditation and caring for his ever-growing garden of palms.
The Merwin Conservancy was formed to carry on the Merwins’ work, maintaining this world-class collection of palms and encouraging poetry, meditation and environmental advocacy. On the day I visited, the Conservancy’s executive director, Jason Denhart, and head gardener Olin Erickson led the Wailuku Rotary Club on a tour of the garden, sharing stories of the palm collection and of the Merwins, who still live in the house William built on the land.
When Merwin found the original property, it was old pineapple land that had been badly handled. A previous owner had tried to farm by plowing up and down the hill, rather than horizontally along the valley slope. This created a freeway for topsoil to flow down the hill. Merwin began rebuilding it with a plant that never would have occurred to me as a soil restorer: ironwood trees. He planted a noninvasive variety that made shade, dropped needles for humus and fixed nitrogen in the soil. Later, he replaced them with mango trees, and over the years the mangoes’ leaves created a thick layer of humus to replace the lost topsoil.
Recently, head gardener Erickson said, the mangoes have begun to stunt the palm forests’ growth by blocking sun and sucking up nutrients, so last year a “Circ de Soliel” of arborists high in the branches began pruning and removing mangoes, opening the sky to the palms below.
Originally, Merwin intended to restore the native plants that once flourished in this Peahi valley, but years of abuse had rendered the land incapable of supporting most of them. Only the palms survived. When Merwin learned that, like much of nature, palms are endangered around the world, he began collecting them. Now there are more than 2,740 palms of many varieties in a steep, shady East Maui valley. They include rare species which might be extinct if Merwin had not acquired seeds from his network of palm-loving friends and coaxed them to flourish in a mixture of compost and manure, hand watering them (sometimes with recycled dishwater) in the dry season.
The result is a palm tree’s paradise, a little jungle that is its own ecosystem on the windy north shore of Maui. The palm garden is recognized as one of the largest and most extensive palm collections in the world. The Merwin Conservancy not only protects this collection, but has catalogued it and plans to put the resulting database online and to work with experts to ensure that this garden is a resource for the future. For more information, check out The Merwin Conservancy at www.merwinconservancy.org.