Native Intelligence: Maui

Salon Earth

Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Bryan Berkowitz.

William S. Merwin has incredible friends. The Maui resident and former US Poet Laureate has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and is widely considered one of the greatest living poets. During his long, lauded career, he has nurtured friendships with like-minded souls—those with a fondness for nature and a knack for writing about it. Lucky for Hawai‘i, he’s willing to share.

In 2013, Merwin began inviting his colleagues to Maui to participate in a literary salon. Held every other month, the Green Room is one of the Merwin Conservancy’s outreach programs, along with tours of the poet’s forested estate and partnerships with local schools. “It’s a friend-raiser rather than a fundraiser,” says acting executive director Sara Tekula.

Thanks to Merwin, many literary luminaries, including Terry Tempest Williams and Barry Lopez, have appeared on the stage of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Theater. More often than not, their talks begin with a poem—one of Merwin’s, read by the presenter. Lopez riveted the audience with “Unchopping a Tree,” a lengthy tribute to the impossibility of replacing a living thing. Lopez then told how Merwin’s reading of the same poem had inspired him as a young writer.

Author-turned-climate-activist Bill McKibben recalled first visiting Merwin’s house in Ha‘ikū two decades ago. Back then the poet’s palm forest was taking root. Today it is a shady grove where thrushes sing and rare palms drop seeds onto fertile soil. McKibben evoked this example of hope during his discussion of climate change. Geobiologist Hope Jahren also addressed climate change during her talk. She didn’t read from her best-selling memoir, Lab Girl. Rather, she shared slides of her current research: investigating how plants respond to increasing levels of carbon dioxide.

In February 2018 the Green Room expanded to O‘ahu. Now visiting authors give a second talk at the Honolulu Museum of Art. In the beginning, Merwin and his wife Paula attended every event, sitting near the front and beaming at whichever friend stood at the podium. It felt like a dinner party. Paula has since passed, and Merwin no longer makes public appearances. But the intimacy and brilliance they have fostered remain.