After dozens of trips up and down the ladder, the attic is nearly empty, its former contents cleaned and catalogued. The latest cache has captivated my attention, and will long sustain it. We found an epistolary chronicle of the garden becoming itself— copies of letters to and from botanists, seed collectors, palm experts and aficionados the world over—dating from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each of William’s letters begins with some version of this self introduction:
For several years I have been growing rare palms here on the north coast of Maui, many of them from seed. I began by growing a few endangered species of Hawaiian flora, including palms (Pritchardias) and the endeavor expanded to include rare and endangered species from elsewhere in the tropics.
And then a disclaimer:
I should tell you at once that I am not a professional botanist and still less a commercial nurseryman. I am a writer by profession, and my love of the natural world, the tropics, forests and gardens and palms is that of a rather ignorant amateur, learning as he goes.
One letter in particular sent me straight from the attic out into the garden in search of a Pigafetta elata, the Black Wanga Palm. In this note to a fellow palm lover, William writes of trying to establish the species in the garden, laments his difficulty with transplanting this palm, and imagines on paper how he will approach the task “if ever I get more seed.” And then this:
We will have to live quite long in order to see any of this, and I am not sure that I want to see much else in the future the way it’s going now, but I would be glad to stick around for the company of Paula, friends, and the dogs and the trees—and the list continues.
Reading this now, in the uncertain future he spoke of, I was anxious to see whether William’s transplants succeeded. In our database of nearly 3,000 palms I found six Pigafetta elata. Who knows how many more William transplanted and lost along the way, but this week we visited these six Black Wanga palms thriving across the higher elevations of the garden. They found “eager homes”—William’s expression for just the right place—in areas that thirty years ago got the full sun that the genus loves. From those elevations these palms shoot up nearly 120 feet, and they now tower high above the canopy.
William was quite right to be wary of the future in which we all find ourselves now. William and Paula Merwin and their beloved dogs have gone, but the palms continue to flourish, and family and friends remain steadfast in their care of the garden and house. Matt Schwartz, Paula’s son and President Emeritus of The Merwin Conservancy Board, and his wife Karen Levesque have made an incredibly generous $50,000 gift to ensure that his parents’ home will long inspire others to envision and enact care for the world. To honor Matt’s generosity and his decade of exemplary leadership, we are committed to doubling his gift before year’s end. We have set our sights on raising $100,000 toward the ongoing care of the Merwins’ garden and house—their home—and the objects and stories they hold.
Our community of supporters and subscribers to these Stories from the Garden has grown significantly over the last 18 months, as we’ve all sought examples of resilience. And support from longtime friends of the Conservancy has deepened. We have already raised $15,000 toward our goal. I hope we can come together now and in the coming months to ensure a vibrant future for this place.