I am writing today from the canopy. I’m perched high above the valley floor on the back lanai, at eye level with the crowns of palms W.S. Merwin began to plant decades ago, in his fifties. To the west, immense mango trees preside, forming an arena 50 yards or so out from the railing, and within it palms of various heights give fluid form to the landscape, trade winds willing. William sat here often, surrounded by palms as he read and wrote in a cozy wicker chair that has since gone the way of the tropical elements. Here, in the last years of his life, he recited “Place” as the cameras turned on the 2016 PBS documentary “W.S. Merwin: To Plant a Tree.”
Not long ago, we came across an old photo taken here on the west lanai (the house has four, each facing a cardinal direction). In 1986, so the caption on the back reads, Paula Merwin snapped a picture of the view looking north. A half mile in the distance are the cliffs of Maui’s north coast, and beyond that, the Pacific ocean stretching all the way to Alaska. I position myself where Paula stood forty years ago. The vista is of course no more; the forest has drawn a dense green curtain snug around the house.
Over on the south side of the garden, far from the house and atop the rise where palms give way to fields of ferns, there is still a spot from which one can see all the way to the ocean, though that vista has narrowed considerably in the five summers since I first stood there. This was the spot, I was told then, where many visitors asked William, Why didn’t you build your house here, with this gorgeous view of the ocean? William’s response: If I wanted to see the ocean, I would have built my house by the ocean. It was a forest William wanted to see, in which he wanted to dwell, enveloped.
I suppose there is something in me, too, that is partial to sweeping vistas, to vast oceans on horizons. Up on the rise it’s awe I feel, as I take in the whole forest below, the remoteness of our islands. When I’m walking down on the valley floor, the feeling is more akin to wonder: dancing shadows of ant trails, fleeting glimpses of fuschia ginger in bloom, the magic of standing inside the expression of someone’s imagination, and the exuberance of earth. Back on the west lanai, where that vista to the north has long since closed, and those to the west narrow by the day, I look out on a living, ever changing expression of care for the world—one born of small gestures and intimate acts, made again and again until a whole forest of change emerges.
How fitting to welcome Brian Selznick to The Merwin Conservancy this week, in celebration of his vibrant imagination, and his new book Big Tree—a story about “what small, individual people were able to do to help make the world just a little bit better.” You can read more below, and see pictures of our days together. I’m so excited to announce summer Open Garden Days, to extend an invitation to hike through the expression of W.S. Merwin’s imagination, and out into our own ability to express our care for the world, in whatever form that takes.