Piet Mondrian, Trees in Blossom, 1912
Source: Olga's Gallery
Merwin has written some of the best known modern ecopoems, like 'Place', where he says that on the last day of the world he will plant a tree, and 'Witness' where he suggests that a forgotten language is needed to tell what the forests were like. However, in these poems the trees are ideas of trees and it is perhaps surprising not to find in his books more poems of place that specify and describe the island's natural features in detail. A poem like 'Anniversary on the Island', which you can hear read by Garrison Keiller at his Writer's Almanack site, gives only a general idea of the landscape - backdrop to an idyllic life, waking day after day as 'the light rises through the drops on the leaves', watching 'the long waves glide in through the afternoon' and at night 'hearing the leaves and the breathing shore.' Perhaps Merwin's interest in the island's trees is ultimately more direct and practical - he is one of those artists who has created his own landscape and the intention is that it will be preserved after his death by The Merwin Conservancy and Hawaiian Coastal Land Trust.
Fifteen years ago Dinitia Smith interviewed Merwin for the New York Times. 'I'd got lost looking for W. S. Merwin's house on the Hawaiian island of Maui, driving along roads lined with palms and sugar cane, then turning into a dense area of ironwood and heliconia trees. It was almost like rain forest here -- pink and red hibiscus, ginger flowers filled with rain from the night. Then, suddenly, there he was, as if he'd somehow materialized out of the rain ... Over the years, Merwin has almost reinvented himself in the 19th-century Romantic ideal of the poet at one with nature. When he isn't writing, he's down in his forest, trying to restore it to its primeval state. In conversation, he refers constantly to "the environment," to a tree that doesn't belong in Hawaii but was brought here by merchants or missionaries, to a geothermal project on a neighboring island that he's campaigning against. ... One afternoon, in the rain, Merwin takes me on a tour of the garden. "That's a koa tree, what Hawaiian canoes were made from," he says as we trudge along a wet, rocky path. "I put that in as a tiny tree." We come to an eroded ledge, one patch he hasn't restored yet. "See there, that's what it used to be like. It wants to be a forest!"'