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Vol. 14, no. 3
June / July 2011


In the Garden of Verses 
Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by Tom Sewell


On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree


what for

not for the fruit


the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted


I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time


with the sun already

going down


and the water

touching its roots


in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing


one by one

over its leaves


The Rain in the Trees (1998)


It’s hard to picture the poet wrestling with tough, invasive Christmas berry shrubs. W.S. Merwin is slender, willowy, almost ethereal, like his poems. But today he’s standing beneath a canopy of palms that didn’t exist when he bought this land near Ha‘iku, Maui. “This was all so deep in Christmas berry, you had to crawl on your hands and knees just to get down here. I cut them all down. All by my little self,” he says wryly, gesturing to the clearing where magnificent palms from the Tuamotu Islands now grow ninety feet tall.


Now 83, Merwin’s been at this for more than thirty years; it took nearly half that long just to get anything to grow here, in this depleted soil. Hawai‘i’s history is inscribed in microcosm on these nineteen acres, layer upon layer like a palimpsest. Hawaiians lived here in pre-contact times, Merwin says, evidenced by the collapsed stonework along the streambed that transects the property (a streambed now dry because nineteenth-century sugar magnate Henry Baldwin diverted the water to his fields). Then came the tall ships; within a few years the native forest was razed to clear pasture for cattle and to supply whalers and traders docked at Lahaina with firewood. Then in the 1920s came pineapple. The planters plowed this steep terrain vertically, “which means they must have been unbelievably ignorant,” Merwin says. “They lost what little topsoil was left in three years.” When the pineapple planters went broke, which didn’t take long, the land was essentially abandoned but for a small cabin that once served as a hideout for the Kaho‘olawe Nine, a group of Native Hawaiian activists who’d occupied Kaho‘olawe in 1976 to protest the Navy’s use of that island as a bombing range. And then, in 1977, this scalped, parched and plowed land fell to the care of a poet.


Not just any poet but one who’s devoted his life and writing to the world. The natural world that infuses his poetry, of course, but not that only: the whole thing—the scarred and scabrous places, places that have fallen victim to “greed and indifference and every kind of coarseness and murderous behavior,” Merwin says. “But that’s the world we live in. Are we going to reject it? Are we going to say, ‘I’ll walk right out?’ No, we can’t do that. We have to love it somehow. … Being able to praise and to live in the mutilated world —that’s what we have to do.”


And so as soon as he arrived, Merwin began to plant what he calls, with characteristic humility, “the garden.”


He’d started with just three acres and a desire to restore the original Hawaiian rainforest, but the koa wouldn’t grow. The ‘ohi‘a wouldn’t grow. What would grow were palms, and so he began planting them. Hundreds of them from all over the world— to date about 850 species, many of them extremely rare or critically endangered. “There are some people who wouldn’t call this a garden,” he says, and looking at the density of untrimmed trees and floor of leaf-litter you can see why. “But the model of this garden is not a golf course. It’s a rainforest. And if I can’t stop the destruction of the rainforest in Borneo, I can go out and plant a tree every afternoon and hope that it’s one that ought to be there.”