By Julia Shipley
Planting one tree a day on degraded land for almost 40 years, William Stanley Merwin, former Poet laureate of the United States, has seen his patience pay off. Little by little, tree by tree, he has created a lush grove of thousands of palms on the Maui hillside that he calls home.
Despite Maui’s 12-month growing season and abundant vegetation, the agricultural developments of the last century have left some portions of Hawaii’s second largest island in poor condition. The land Merwin would plant his palms on had originally been native forest, but — like vast swaths in Maui’s valley and highlands — had been razed to become profitable sugarcane fields and pineapple plantations. The latter reached its production zenith in the early 1960s and then commenced a steep decline. By the time nutrient-depleted pineapple parcels in Haiku on Maui’s northern coast were put up for sale as small 2- to 3-acre lots, they were listed on the Soil Survey Maps of 1963 as “wasteland.”
When Merwin purchased his initial lot in 1977, he planted a tree, though this first tree was not a palm. Intending to return the land to native species, Merwin discovered these species no longer survived in the poor soil. Some of his first plantings included evergreen trees of the genus Casuarinas. Given the invasive nature of some of the earliest species of Casuarinas planted on the islands, the genus had earned a mixed reputation in Hawaii and Merwin deliberately avoided these. “I was careful to plant species that had no such intrusive habits,” he recalls in his 2010 essay, “The House and Garden: The Emergence of a Dream.” With their ability to put nitrogen back in the soil and shed their numerous needles to form a moisture trapping, weedsmothering mantle, the Casuarinas made a noticeable difference in the health of the landscape within a few years. When Merwin tried planting native trees again, most still did not fare well, but thanks to the improved soil, the Hawaiian palms did. They settled in and grew, inspiring Merwin to plant more palms — both native and exotic varieties — as his revised route of re-vegetation.
“Only a forest knows how to make a forest,” Merwin says, but that hasn’t stopped him from lending a hand, devoting some portion of his day — and now life — to germinating palm seeds, nurturing the seedlings, identifying a spot, spading a hole and planting a palm, eventually establishing a living library of over 850 of the world’s palm species. As a result of this diligent, incremental reforestation, now, when this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet enters his driveway, he comes home to a jungle.
The diversity of palm species on the densely planted 19-acre property is astonishing. Along the property’s shaded, sinewy paths, exquisite palms varieties flaunt a potpourri of leaves and fronds. One has broad leaves that feel synthetic like nylon; another has crinkled leaves like a venetian blind; another arrays its fronds in a fishtail formation. There are palms with suede-like fuzz, palms with coarse hair and palms with zebra stripes on their trunks. Among the rarest of Merwin’s 850 species is the Hyophorbe indica, a nearly extinct palm from Reunion Island, off the coast of Madagascar. From seeds sent by a friend, Merwin was able to germinate and plant a seedling, which now stands 15 feet high and is festooned with viable seeds of its own.
Today, Merwin outsources much of his germination to Floribunda Palms and Exotics, a commercial grower on The Big Island of Hawaii that sells 300 species of rare palms from around the world. Every three weeks or so, FedEx will pull into the jungle driveway bearing a box with seedlings nestled inside. These plants are tucked into pots and placed in the small, spare greenhouse at the heart of the property to await transplanting.
Meanwhile, the property’s arborist, Olin Erickson, attends the regular maintenance, stewarding this miraculous tropical forest landscape, which is anything but static. Using only organic methods, he removes the prolific, cumbersome debris of sloughed fronds from the paths; he weeds amid the trees; he digs holes wherever Merwin puts in a pink flag; and he is currently preparing the last remaining portion of the property that is still wasteland — a sun-baked, weedy hill — for its eventual transformation. “I’m an ant,” Erickson declares, speaking both of his size relative to the palms soaring above him, and also of his seemingly humble, but actually vital participation in facilitating a balance among the densely planted trees and shrubs, vines and grasses, which are all constantly vying for more space and light. Erickson notes how the forest’s present canopy is two-tiered, but will eventually develop third, fourth, even fifth tier levels of vegetation.
In 2010, in an effort to conserve and perpetuate this botanical treasure, Merwin and his wife, Paula, partnered with his publisher, Copper Canyon Press and the Hawaii Coastal Land Trust to establish the Merwin Conservancy. The Conservancy seeks to preserve Merwin’s legacy for the future study and retreat of botanists and writers, regarding all that he’s accomplished over the past 40 years as “just a beginning.”
The morning after W.S. Merwin’s 85th birthday, a visitor sits in the shade of his palm forest listening to the restless swish and whisper of fronds jostling in the breeze. Nearby, two pink flags wave beside two freshly dug holes, the future home of two more palms.
Merwin hopes that the stewards of the conservancy “will continue to try to grow as many species as possible of the world’s palms, wherever they can be acquired.” And of this botanical magnum opus, he says, “An abiding part of our hope is 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.”
Julia Shipley is an independent journalist, poet and small farmer in northern Vermont.