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17th US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin: Passionate Palm Conservationist

17th US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin: Passionate Palm Conservationist

He is responsible for planting more than 800 species of palm trees on the Hawaiian island of Maui,1 but newly appointed US poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, 83, has no illusions of botanical expertise. “I’m a complete amateur,” he said, “but I’ve loved growing things ever since I was a child” (oral communication, September 24, 2010).

For 30 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has been “putting life back into the world”1 by planting and nurturing both endemic and non-indigenous palms (Arecaceae) on the 19 acres surrounding his secluded home near the volcano Haleakala.2 “One of the reasons I was drawn to settling on Maui was the idea of being able to garden all year round,” said Mr. Merwin, a practicing Buddhist and devout environmentalist, who moved to Hawaii in 1976 and onto his current property in 1980. He recalls the condition of the erstwhile pineapple plantation when he first purchased it: “It was a deserted and ruined land,” he said. “What I wanted to do and what I’ve come to want to do with the land is to save it, of course.”

Mr. Merwin was born William Stanley Merwin on September 30, 1927, in New York City.3 He attended Princeton University, and, at the suggestion of poet and critic Ezra Pound, became a translator of poetry.2 A Mask for Janus, Mr. Merwin’s first collection of his own poems, received the Yale Younger Poets Prize—just one of many awards and honors to come, including 2 Pulitzer Prizes.3 Today, he has authored more than 30 books, among them The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, a historical novel-in-verse about Hawaii.

In June of 2010, the Library of Congress announced Mr. Merwin’s appointment as the nation’s 17th poet laureate.4 He will serve from October of this year until May of 2011, during which time he will periodically venture away from his cherished palm garden to deliver readings and lectures on the mainland.

Mr. Merwin planted his first palm “back before 1980.” He had taken notice of their seeds and was curious as to how they grew. “I was interested, of course, in growing native species of all kinds, with not such good luck,” he said, “because all tropical species—and above all, Hawaiian ones—are extremely site-specific.”

Together with his wife, Paula, Mr. Merwin eventually planted hundreds of trees with success, many of them endangered species. “I love them, you know. I’ve come to love them more and more… There are individual ones that I really love,” said Mr. Merwin. “There’s one that I look at at breakfast every morning from the lanai; it’s a native Pritchardia, and I have always known it by the name of a French botanist gaudichaudii [after Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupré].”

It is fitting, then, that Mr. Merwin will be writing a foreword for environmental horticulturist Donald Hodel’s upcoming book on the genus Pritchardia, which is scheduled to be published by the University of Hawaii Press next year, according to Hodel (oral communication, October 1, 2010).

Both Hodel and Andrew Henderson, PhD, curator of the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Systemic Botany, noted the havoc that development has wreaked on Hawaii’s vegetation, including Pritchardia. “Many of them are endangered—most of them. As you know, there’s been a lot of destruction of natural habitats,” said Dr. Henderson (oral communication, October 1, 2010).

Mr. Merwin has been credited with saving the near-extinct Hyophorbe indica (Arecaceae),4 endemic to the Mascarene Islands, after successfully growing several from seed he was sent in the late 1980s. “A very serious palm-nursery friend said to me, ‘You ever get seed from those trees, you can have anything I’ve got,’” said Mr. Merwin, “So for years I sent him seeds, and he honored his agreement, far more than I wanted him to—it’s embarrassing.”

Today, palm seeds continue to be a source of wonder for Mr. Merwin. “Sometimes I just pick up a seed and think, ‘Here it is, it’s the size of a joint of one of my fingers, and it knows how to be the right kind of palm,’” he said. “It doesn’t have to ask me about anything. If the conditions are right, that’s what it’s going to do.”

The Merwins’ home and beloved palm forest will be preserved as a conservation site as well as a retreat and research facility for writers and botanists through The Merwin Conservancy, which received tax-exempt nonprofit status last spring (K. Bouris, oral communication, September 30, 2010). Partners include the Maui Coastal Land Trust and Washington-based nonprofit poetry publishing house Copper Canyon Press. The Nature Conservancy will provide high-resolution aerial mapping of the palm forest “to identify the palms and monitor changes over time.”5

“What happens a lot is these very special places are destroyed,” said Karen Bouris, director of the Conservancy, who cites the Walden Woods Project as a model. According to Bouris, there is no chasm between the poet’s written work and his palms: “The work has inspired the garden. The garden has inspired the writing.”

“I think that the human imagination and the environment—it’s not that there’s a connection between them, it’s that they’re inseparable,” said Mr. Merwin. “You don’t have an imagination, really, without some kind of environment… We can’t ever get very far away from it without suffocating.”

—Ashley Lindstrom


  1. The Merwin Conservancy website. About the Conservancy. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2010.

  2. Kuipers, D. W.S. Merwin is green as U.S. poet laureate. The Los Angeles Times. August 29, 2010. Available at: entertainment/la-ca-ws-merwin-20100829.

  3. The Merwin Conservancy website. About W.S. Merwin. Available at: Accessed September 17, 2010.

  4. Cohen, P. W.S. Merwin to be named poet laureate. The New York Times. June 30, 2010: C1.

  5. The Merwin Conservancy website. GPS tracking at The Merwin Conservancy. Available at: Accessed October 5, 2010.