Citizens of the land
Spinning straw into gold, pain into art

In memorium

Merwin's palm forest

I was so sorry to learn of the death of poet, playwright, and translator W.S. Merwin, who work has meant a good deal to me over years. At 91 years old, he had a long, good life, but the world will be a lesser place without him.

Born the son of a minister in 1927, Merwin was raised (like me) in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He then studied at Princeton on a scholarship, travelled through Europe developing his remarkable facility for languages, and lived on the island of Majorca where he tutored Robert Graves' son. In subsequent years, Merwin lived in Boston, New York, London, and rural France before finally settling down in Haiku, Hawaii with his beloved wife, Paula. It was there that he began his other life's work: the slow restoration of a palm forest on nineteen acres of Hawaiian coastline.

William Stanley Merwin

In a lovely essay for The Kenyon Review, Merwin wrote about the first sight of his land, despoiled by years of sugar cane production:

"It was not hard to see that the soil was poor. If I had known to look for them, I would have been able to see the up-and-down corduroy ridges in the dry, waving grass across the valley, a testament of the most recent land abuse. But the condition of the soil did not, in itself, daunt me. I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day, to try to restore a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human 'improvement.' I loved the wind-swept ridge, empty of the sounds of machines, just as it was, with its tawny, dry grass waving in the wind of late summer. The rough road behind me, and the one along the top of the ridge on the other side of the valley, led down to end at the sea cliff a quarter of a mile away. I had not yet seen that the road on which I had come ended on a headland, overlooking a large bay, with a shore of boulders and a hill behind that on which the second-largest heiau (Hawaiian temple platform and compound) in the islands, wholly unexcavated, was hidden under mango trees.

Bird of Paradise in Merwin's palm forest

"I was captivated by the sense of distance along the coast. From in front of the cabin there was only one other building to be seen: a barn-red house halfway down the opposite slope. Out beyond the sea cliffs the ocean extended without a break all the way to Alaska. That was the destination, every spring, of the migrating plovers that flashed above me far ahead of their call-notes. From the cabin on that first day, I followed the ghost of a path down through the waist-high grass. It curved to the left and then swung to lead down under the mango trees. When I stepped into their shade, I seemed at once to be in another world. The sound of the wind was suddenly muted and far away. The air was cooler, and from somewhere I could not see among the trees I was startled to hear the voice of a thrush singing, at that hour of the day. It was the omao, known as the 'Hawaiian thrush,' though, in fact, it was a foreigner, just as I was. It was also called, more accurately, the Chinese thrush, and also the Laughing thrush. There are few members of the thrush family, whatever their species, that are not great singers (the American robin is a notable exception) and the omao, like the nightingale, never repeats itself but sings variations from an inexhaustible source.

"I stood still and listened, looking along the valley in the shade of the mango trees as the thrush went on singing, and then I stepped down the slope and walked over to the rocky stream bed itself. I stood there hearing the thrush and wanting to stay."

Omao (Hawaiian thrush)

The video above is a trailer for the film Even Though the World is Burning, about Merwin's life, poetry, and work on the land. It's a beautiful film, and I highly recommend it.

(You can purchase a copy through The Merwin Conservancy here. )

W.S. Merwin

Merwin's palm forest

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