It is with a profound sadness that we mourn the passing of Paula Merwin.
Through their nearly four decades together on Maui, Paula and William Merwin have created a unique oasis for writers, artists, activists and the more than 3,000 palms they planted on the property they transformed in the Pe‘ahi watershed. The Merwins’ life together in Pe‘ahi, which they chose as their home after living for many years in New York City, represents an unwavering commitment not only to a place, but to a way of being.
Paula’s vivacious and loving character, so beloved by all who met her, created the conditions under which William’s poetry flourished as surely as the palms they planted grew into a living forest around them. Through her steadfast care for William, and her attention to the details of their lives and relationships, Paula helped William produce some of the greatest poetry of the last half-century. As William has lost his eyesight through macular degeneration, Paula literally became his eyes, reading aloud to him and keeping him in touch with words on the page, the news, and his mail. Above all, the poems and the palms became as inseparable as Paula and William themselves were to her last breath, which came on March 8th, two days short of her 81st birthday, at home with William beside her.
A thoroughly modern woman engaged in politics, literature, art, cooking, fashion and the state of the world, Paula was William’s active partner. Together they founded The Merwin Conservancy, not just to preserve the extraordinary place that she and William had made their home since the seventies, but also to inspire the rest of us to plant our own forests, turn our own dreams into reality, wherever we live. Paula shared and contributed to William’s vision of restoring the formerly barren patch of land with its self-built home, rain-catchment water and solar PV systems as a sustainable sacred space.
Paula was famous for her graciousness with visitors to the Merwin home, surprising them with culinary arts not normally found in a palm forest to go along with her probing questions and enthusiasm. She was a master of cultivating emotional intimacy and eliciting confessionals with just about everyone she met. Above all, she was a champion of the best in the individual, often taking an active part in coaxing and coaching those around her to reach higher. She didn’t mince words, she wasn’t sentimental, yet her intuitive understanding of people generated a sense of warmth and safety. She was in your court, and she was committed to making us all better.
Paula was William’s constant companion in helping to breathe life back into this earth, and in loving and being loved. With Paula’s passing, we have lost not only our co-founder but an exceptional woman who created a hallowed place, one that she helped to craft so that others might be inspired to honor a different way of being in this world.
She is survived by her husband of 33 years, William Merwin, her aunt Joan Packer, her brother Don Carlos Dunaway, her sons Matthew Carlos Schwartz and John Burnham Schwartz and her grandchildren Luke and Garrick.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers or cards, friends and admirers of the Merwins make donations in her honor to The Merwin Conservancy.