By Julia Flynn Siler
To reach W.S. Merwin’s paradise on Maui’s north shore, turn off the Hana Highway past the turnoff to the town of Haiku and head down a single lane edged with red volcanic soil.
About a quarter of a mile from steep cliffs dropping to the sea, the foliage starts to grow thick. Rustic wire fencing strains to hold back arching fronds and tropical blooms. His 19-acre palm forest seems like it’s trying to swallow the lane.
There’s no hint that this is the home of the current U.S. Poet Laureate – just a swinging metal gate secured with chain – the same kind used by neighbors raising cows and chickens. A sign on a nearby property reads “Respect the keiki,” the Hawaiian word for children.
Just beyond the gate is a modest carport. Mounted on its roof are solar panels which supply all of the home’s power. Several cisterns hold rainwater, which are filtered by charcoal, sand and coral before using gravity to flow down to the house. Several hundred yards beyond the carport, down an unpaved track is a self-sufficient home which seems to disappear into the jungle.
The property’s remoteness, which some might find inconvenient or even unsettling is one of its appeals to the author, whose work reflects his commitment to environmentalism as well as his long-standing passion for gardening.
“People just get it or they don’t” says Mr. Merwin, referring to the way in which his garden seems to grow randomly, when, in fact, it is artfully planted, as well as to the beauty in his home’s isolation.
William Merwin and his wife Paula live in what their friend and neighbor Michelle Sewell calls “a handmade house.” It is built in the shape of a long rectangle. Deep lanais surround it. During downpours, the couple can sit on them and enjoy the rain without getting wet.
A few steps lead down to the home’s entry lanai, where the Merwins neatly place their shoes up and stack their garden tools, including an old French ladder. Inside, the wall beside the front entrance is lined with gardening books. It leads directly into a living room that feels like a Polynesian longboat.
Wood planks form the peaked ceiling and the floor is made of tightly fitted planks of darkly oiled eucalyptus robusta wood. The room is dark and cool. To enjoy their garden, the Merwins lead visitors to their breakfast lanai, overlooking a valley filled with thousands of palms they’ve planted from all over the world.
This breakfast lanai is where the couple begins their day, sitting outdoors before heading off to their separate studies to work. Mr. Merwin, the 83-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Shadow of Sirius,” and more than 40 other volumes of poetry, essays, and translations, spends most mornings writing. His wife Paula helps field her husband’s correspondence and manage the many demands on his time.
Mr. Merwin’s path to his palm forest was an indirect one. The son of a Presbyterian minister who was born in New York City, he lived in France for many years and then came to Hawaii in the 1970s to study Zen Buddhism.
Not long after arriving, he heard of a small piece of land near the coast with a small cabin on it – the place where three native Hawaiian activists had hidden out after defying the U.S. Navy and occupying the bombed island of Kaho’olawe.
The land had been part of a pineapple plantation. Mr. Merwin later learned that in state assessments, it had been classified as wasteland, ruined beyond agricultural use. In the early nineteenth century, it had been a thick forest of prized Acacia koa trees. But those were cut down and the stream that once flowed through the land had been diverted to sugarcane fields.
When Mr. Merwin first saw it in August of 1976, it was mostly covered with dry, waist-high grass. But walking through it, on his way to a stand of guava trees towards the bottom of the property, he was enchanted by the cries of the plovers, a migrating bird which had just returned from Alaska.
His parents had recently died, leaving him a small inheritance. He used it to buy the property, paying $60,000 or so for just over three acres in 1977. With little money left, he drew plans for the house, found a local architect to make working drawings, and recruited friends and local craftsmen to help him build it. His choices were influenced by the French peasants whom he had lived among for many years. From them, he learned about water catchment systems and to choose a site halfway down the slope, rather than on a windy and exposed ridge.
He insisted on disturbing the land as little as possible during construction, so no bulldozer was used to prepare the site. In exchange for digging a cesspool for him, he let two men live in the cabin rent-free. To save money, he designed the home based on eight or four foot design modules, keeping costs low by avoiding using custom-made materials.
By the time Paula Dunaway, a children’s books editor, moved from Manhattan to join him in the early 1980s, he had built the 1,375-square-foot house and made most of the design decisions, including roofing the house with glazed, Asian-style tiles made in Australia and siding made of termite-resistant eucalyptus robusta, bought from a local mill that was closing. He soon realized he hadn’t built enough closets.
As different as it was from her urban life, Mrs. Merwin immediately loved the poet’s house. But even so, the couple has found it necessary to make a few adjustments to it. “I love the light and William loves the shadow,” Mrs. Merwin explains. So when they renovated the kitchen a few years ago, adding green quartz counters and new cabinets (but still no dishwasher) they also added a skylight which “still makes my heart leap when I look up and see the trees or the moon,” she says.
The couple bought two adjacent parcels of land, totaling 15 acres, from two elderly women living on Oahu who were more interested in preserving the land from development than getting the highest price for it. The Merwins persuaded them to sell to them for a price that was low, even for the time, he wrote in an essay about the property published in the Kenyon Review. They also added a room on the lower level of the house, which they’ve turned into an overflowing library.
He wrote much of “The Folding Cliffs,” a novel in verse of 19th century Hawaii, in his home’s west lanai, which looks out onto a dense section of the palm forest that has grown up around the house. One of his best-known poems titled “Place,” begins “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree.” Although he has neighbors, they’re not visible from the house or garden.
At first, Mr. Merwin says, he had somewhat “naively” hoped to restore a Hawaiian rainforest with native plants. But the soil was so leached and the conditions so dry and wind-swept that he found the only ones that thrived were Hawaiian Pritchardias, a type of palm. He soon began corresponding with nurseries and botanists from around the world, who would send him palm seeds.
He estimates he now has more than 850 different species of palms on the property, numbering more than two thousand plants – including a few he’s saved from extinction, such as Hyophorbe indica from Reunion Island.
In 2010, shortly before Mr. Merwin agreed to become the Poet Laureate, the couple created The Merwin Conservancy, preserving the home and the palm forest and receiving nonprofit status as a retreat for writers and botanists. Its partners include the Hawaii Coastal Land Trust and the non-profit Copper Canyon Press. “William has created one of the greatest palm collections in the world,” says Charles R. “Chipper” Wichman, director of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. “It is amazing.”
“I would like to think it is preserved for as long as it means anything,” says Mr. Merwin, walking in his green gardening clogs through the forest towards the house. Passing a few recently planted baby palms, marked with a wooden spike and orange tie, he utters some endearments to them, as if they were his children. “You could do a lot worse than love palms, you know,” his blue eyes crinkling.