I got lost when I went looking for W.S. Merwin. The Peahi Valley is not easy to find. I drove the Hana Highway at dawn, back and forth along the windward coast of Maui. On one side was the electric-blue ocean; on the other an emerald curtain of jungle. I forgot about my destination, and began searching for a way to never leave. Hours later, I found the turnoff and followed a dirt road until the clotted mud stopped my car, then I got out and walked. I saw the waving fronds of a thousand palm trees and I knew that I had arrived.
Mr. Merwin, who died last week at age 91, and his wife Paula, transformed the valley. They built the Merwin Conservancy: 19 protected acres, an island within an island. The land was a dumping ground in 1977, little more than a rash of grassy boils festering in the exhausted soil. That same year, Mr. Merwin planted a sapling in the blight, then got up the next day and planted another one. The day after he did the same, and the day after that also. His trees made soil, and the soil made more trees. He planted a tree every day on that land for years, until his friends took over the planting under his direction.
When I visited those 19 acres in 2017, it was a verdant throng: 400 different species of tropical trees all springing from the same sumptuous soil. A crew of gardeners and botanists assisted the professors and students who had come to study this man-made natural wonder. I had researched forests for years, but always at mid-latitudes, where trees spend their spring preparing for summer, and their fall preparing for winter. I was dying to see the fantastic palms of the tropics, where the sun always shines, the rain always falls, and the summer never ends.
The trees of the Merwin Conservancy are almost all palm trees: endemic, indigenous, introduced — and everything in between. There is a longstanding scientific debate as to whether palms qualify as trees, since their trunks are made of cork, which is technically not wood. Across the last four decades of academic infighting, the Merwins grew an entire forest of palms and by doing so protected and preserved the most critically endangered of species.
photo by Tom Sewell for the New York Times
WS Merwin in a 2009 photograph in his study at his home in Maui, that he only wanted published after his death- Tom Sewell