Editor’s Note: All of us at Orion were saddened by the news of W.S. Merwin’s death. Merwin, who served as an advisor to Orion for many years, was a true friend to the magazine. His poetry and prose appeared in Orion many times, and in 2002 he received Orion’s John Hay Award, an award given annually to leading writers and educators. Orion’s Forgotten Language Tour, founded by poet Christopher Merrill but administered by Orion from 1992 to 2003, received its name from a line of Merwin’s poetry (“I want to tell what the forests / were like / I will have to speak / in a forgotten language”). The Forgotten Language Tour facilitated events in communities across the U.S. in which writers and poets offered readings, workshops, and discussions that attempted to strengthen the local community’s understanding of the natural world and human community as well as to promote nature literacy.
I pull out my favorite book of his, The Rain in the Trees. I read every poem from it to my middle-school students last year, one by one, morning by morning. Each morning a poem. They closed their eyes as I read. When it was over, they opened their eyes, slowly, to the brutal-beautiful world again, and we’d talk. They mulled thoughtfully over each word and meaning. Each sound. On spring mornings the rain pattered from the gutter outside the window, against the school building. A rain-soaked o’hia forest on Hawai’i Island darkens the cover of the book. I told them about the sound of the rain there on banana leaves, on the tin roof of the old sugarcane-processing barn my father lives in.
We learned about the ravaged former pineapple-plantation land in the Pe’ahi valley of Maui that Merwin bought in the ’70s and began to plant trees on. The planters had plowed the land for sugar wherever they could, far beyond the central isthmus, he wrote in his essay “The House and the Garden: The Emergence of a Dream.”
But the yield out along the coast proved not to pay for the growing, and the fields were abandoned. The plowing had accelerated the erosion begun by the cutting of the trees. Then the land reverted to poor pasture for some years, and in the early twentieth century, a group of hopeful speculators who had watched the introduction of large-scale pineapple growing, decided to go in for it themselves, and they pooled their resources and bought most of the valley, intending to grow pineapple on the slopes. For some reason hard to imagine, they plowed the slopes vertically — up and down — which of course greatly accelerated the erosion. In the winter rains the land lost what little topsoil had survived the earlier abuses, the speculators gave up the whole business, and the land stood idle for decades. Wasteland.
He and his wife Paula began to hand-plant palm seedlings on the land because they were the only tree that would grow in the depleted soil. Then they kept planting them for forty years. “I hope to be able to go on planting palms on this land for a long time,” he wrote in “The House and the Garden,” in 2010. He did, until his death, keep planting and tending. They grew the saplings of rare and endangered palms and began to envision a sort of palm-species refuge from all the world’s colonized and deforested tropics. Today, Merwin’s nineteen acres have nearly 3,000 individual palms, with more than 400 species, 125 genera, and 800 varieties. This tree collection is a world treasure-house. “This significant botanical and horticultural assemblage is now preserved forever through a deed of conservation easement held by the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust,” wrote the Merwin Conservancy on the occasion of Merwin’s death, announcing the permanent protection of his palm forest. His poems and his trees live on. They breathe life into the world, after he has taken his last breaths. I put hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns into my students’ open palms and told them that whole forests rested in their hands.
For the past three years, on a day in April, near my birthday, I invite every student in the school into my classroom to hear poems that my own students and I read aloud. When the kindergarteners and first-graders come in all jittery, I begin with Merwin’s “Place”:
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
They fall hushed. Their eyes get wide.
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves
When I pulled out the book this morning, the page was still marked from when I last read it to them, and I read it this morning, to no one. To myself. To everyone.
I planted more than a thousand trees with my mother, who had a forestry degree, in the first five years of my life. We planted them all over the rural but developing county where we lived, in Tennessee, where trees had been cut for roads and right-of-ways and cow pasture. We dug little holes and lowered the saplings in and filled the holes and patted the soil down around the trees. “No story, though, begins at the beginning,” writes Merwin. “The beginning does not belong to knowledge.”
In Hawai’i, I’ve heard the rain pattering gently in the koa and o’hia rainforest around the volcano and heard the honeycreepers singing there in the island’s last remnants of forest that preserve only 2 percent of the former honeycreeper populations. I’ve laid in bed in the morning at my father’s barn listening to the sound of rain on the roof and roosters crowing, and cried. Where are the trees?
nobody has seen it happening
this is what the words were made
here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw
I read the words aloud to my students. They close their eyes and listen to the pattery rhythms of the lines. As I read, I think of myself as planting seeds in them. I think of the wasted earth in which Merwin had hope. The tiny roots of saplings reaching down into it, the trees growing taller.