Native Intelligence: Maui

The Book of Palms

Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Larry Cameron.

On the cover of W.S. Merwin’s new book, What Is a Garden?, two hands cradle bright, promise-filled seeds. The hands, smooth and translucent with longish fingernails, have an ephemeral quality. They are recognizably Merwin’s, and the large seeds they hold come from his Maui home, where over the past forty years he’s cultivated an extraordinary forest. The book commemorates this effort with essays, poems and photographs that allow readers a peek into the rarefied world of the former US Poet Laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

Merwin moved to East Maui in 1977 and over time purchased fifteen acres along a dry streambed in Ha‘ikū. He intentionally chose land with soil that had been practically strip-mined by cattle, sugar and pineapple ventures. The devout nature lover intended to rehabilitate the place with native trees. But the soil was so degraded that most of his early plantings died. Only the loulu, the Hawaiian fan palms, survived.

So Merwin switched to a palm strategy: He collected the seeds of rare and endangered palms worldwide and propagated them one by one. Now the poet’s garden-turned-refugium shelters 850 unique palm species, including a Reunion Island tree previously listed as extinct. Botanists, writers and students make pilgrimages to the secluded property, which is now a non-profit conservancy. The National Tropical Botanical Garden’s director, Charles Wichman, called it one of the “greatest palm collections in the world.”

In 2012 photographer Larry Cameron approached Merwin with the idea for a book celebrating the forest. The two men previously produced a documentary about the poet, Witness, and Merwin officiated at Cameron’s wedding, which was held among the palms. This intimacy pervades every page of their recent collaboration. Photos reveal emerald fronds filtering the tropical sunlight, water droplets glistening on hibiscus pistils and palm seeds dangling like Bedouin beads. The writings delve into Merwin’s reflections on his closest relationships—with nature and his wife, Paula Merwin.

“When I read his poems,” Cameron says, “it is always part discovery and part recollection, like some long-buried memory rising to the surface.” The new book is a beautiful homage to Merwin’s hands, which have sent so many words and seeds into the world to surface, flower and set seeds of their own.

The palm forest that poet W.S. Merwin planted at his Maui home is the setting for What Is a Garden?, a book of poems and essays by Merwin with images by photographer Larry Cameron. Clockwise from top left: A cardinal on Merwin’s lānai feasts on berries; a variety of palm seeds; the poet in 1978; flowering ground cover; loulu lelo, a native Hawaiian palm.