Each time I return to W.S. Merwin’s essay “The House and Garden: The Emergence of a Dream,” I am astonished anew by his reflection on a lifelong engagement with gardens:
In my own lifetime I have seen the role of a garden, the very idea of a garden, not merely altered but reversed. Gardens, from the beginning (as the etymology of the word suggests), existed as enclaves designed and maintained to keep out the wilderness, to guard what was inside for human use or pleasure. Once it became possible for human beings to destroy environments anywhere on earth, the situation was turned around, and anyone who wanted to protect and save any remaining bit of the natural environment was acting in the role of a gardener—one whose purpose, at this point, was to keep encroaching human exploitation and disturbance out.
William and Paula made the Conservancy of and for this purpose, as the arc of their lives was bending toward the horizon, and human development moving ever closer to Peʻahi. But even then, as now, the garden that they sought to protect here defied easy definition. William continues:
The model for this garden has always been the forest itself, even though I know that the word “reforestation” is generally meaningless, and that only a forest knows how to grow a forest.
William turned the question over again and again, in his writing, and in the very practice of tending the land: What is a garden? We, too, keep it close as we care for this place and envision its future. Recently, in William’s study, we found a classic black and white composition notebook on the cover of which William had written “GARDENING IN THE DARK #1.” In part it’s a kind of gardening journal. The first entry dates from 2010, the year in which the Conservancy was founded:
Before breakfast, as usual, I take tea leaves (yellow buds from the highlands of western China, the successors of yesterday’s Huang Ya from Mengding Mountain) out to a young palm, a Calyptrocalyx elegans, on the slope. . . The moment I look out on it I feel happy, and that wordless recognition, clear as the day, is with me as it is there, mornings, on the walk down to the slope, among the young palms.
But “Gardening in the Dark” is more so a memoir in which William revisits the gardens he’s known: the small one at his first home in Union City, New Jersey, the vegetable garden his mother planted in a vacant lot near his childhood home in Pennsylvania, and of course his garden in southwest France and his Peʻahi garden. And it’s this last one—the palm garden, or forest— that seems to anchor his memories:
This is the garden I have come to in the last part of my life. All the others are here, not waiting, and not visible until a moment here reminds me of a moment in one of them. This is the garden, after all the others, that brought me to questions. What was I doing here? What did I mean when I said “garden?” When I thought of making a garden? Thirty years and more the questions have led me, and I can see now that they were leading me long before I knew to ask them. The real questions are guides and have a completeness of their own and the answers that seem to be drawing them at the beginning are no more than clouds that pass over and are gone and not remembered. This is the garden I take with me wherever I go.
Indeed, subsequent entries trace the composition notebook’s own journey, as William traveled to readings and engagements in 2010, with “Gardening in the Dark” tucked into his suitcase. Perhaps the keenest observations of gardens he loved, and gardens he encountered on his travels, are those he made on cusps of departure, at fresh moments of arrival, or with the perspective offered by distance. He recounts a conversation with a woman he and Paula met on a trip to New York. She “had taken a benevolent interest in the Conservancy that has been made to preserve the land where we live, and the garden around the house there,” and asked Paula what the place would be like in thirty years. William writes:
The question was a reminder of the constant, and constantly varying question of the place of the garden in time, and of time in the garden… To the gardener, the garden, the mental image and the immediate ground and growth, is refracted by memory and an attempt at imagining what that particular ground may come to be, in time to come, what it may grow into after the gardener has gone from it finally. As I try to imagine what may become of… that place, I am in a place myself, which seems to be no time at all and yet it is made up of memories, of hopes that have evolved over many years, and of the knowledge, running through it, that the garden will surely grow to be different from anything I can imagine. And so the question must be, when is the garden? Is it in the moment of planting, or is it in the plan, the decision to plant such-and-such a living organism in a particular place, or is it in the vision itself of something that will inevitably never come to exist in the way that it is imagined at the moment of planting. Is it all of them at once, an incommunicable and endlessly changing image, formed of experience and daydream?
As custodians of an ever unfolding story, these questions guide us just as they did William, and continue to draw us deeper into our relationship with the garden. William concludes an entry: But here I am again, thinking of the garden just before leaving it again. Leaving things unfinished. Always the garden is unfinished. It holds that as a promise.
With warm wishes,