“The wind blowing across the ridge behind me framed the silence. I learned later that, in state assessments of agricultural land, the land there had been pronounced wasteland, ruined beyond agricultural use, after little more than a century of abusive exploitation. Until the early nineteenth century there had been a forest there, its dominant tree the Hawaiian koas (Acacia koa) accompanied by ‘ohias (Metrosideros polymorpha) and other native trees and shrubs, including, perhaps, native palms of the genus Pritchardia.
“Convenience, I believe, never comes gratis, and invasion is always part of the price. None of the places that I had loved in my life had been notable for their convenience, and in fact the feeling of (relative) remoteness along this coast when I first came to it was one of its deep attractions for me…I hoped to have a house set among trees and visible only as one actually arrived there on foot.”
—from the essay, “The House and Garden: The Emergence of a Dream” The Kenyon Review
“In gardening, as my wife and I go about it here, what are called concerns—for ecology and the environment, for example—merge inevitably with work done every day, within sight of the house, with our own hands, and the concerns remain intimate and familiar rather than far away. They do not have to be thought about, they are at home in the mind. I have never lived anywhere that was more true.”
“Things here are on a scale that seems human. And living on an island, in the country, in our time, is a constant reminder of the finite condition of the natural world, and of what, from a narrow point of view, are commonly referred to as `resources.’ There is only so much coasts, so much of anything. It is easy to be aware that everyone lives on an island.”
—from “Living on an Island” Sierra magazine
“Those coconuts were the first palms I set in the ground, almost twelve years ago. I was so ignorant then that I scarcely knew other kinds of palms existed, or that there were different strains and varieties of coconuts, as there are of roses and dogs, each with its place of origin, its virtues and adherents. Or that there is a whole lore of coconuts that recounts the birth of some of them, in Tahiti, from the heads of children who died of hunger, and tells of others that grew from the heads of fisherman who dangled their hair in the sea as bait, and of some that sprang from the heads of the gods. Heads, though, again and again. In Hawaii, the lore includes legends associating the tree’s arrival with the gods Kane and Kanaloa and its body with the god Ku. I had no idea what I was planting.”
—from the essay “Coming to Palms”
“One of the things that’s hard to talk to people about is that knowledge is all that we know–which is admirable and impressive and fantastic and unique–is nothing in comparison with what we don’t know. And it will always be nothing–the unknown is always going to be far greater.”
“I don’t like using the word environment,” he says. “I don’t like the word nature. I don’t like using them because they make it seem as though we’re not nature. Anything we do to the rest of the world we’re doing to ourselves.”
—from “Tree Spirit,” O Magazine
The Poet’s View: W.S. Merwin
From The Paris Review, 1987:
ED HIRSCH: You have a highly developed ecological and environmental consciousness. When did it start?
MERWIN: I’ve tried repeatedly to figure out just when and how it began. It’s probably impossible to say. Such dispositions come long before most decisions, I think. But there are two things I remember. First, I had a rather repressed childhood. I was brought up never to say no to anybody, never to say I didn’t like something, never to talk back. But one day—I must have been around the age of three—two men came and started cutting the limbs off the one tree in the backyard, and I simply lost my temper and ran out and started beating them. Everybody was so impressed with this outburst of real rage that my father never even punished me. And the second thing: I was so fascinated by these watercolors in a book about Indians that I began teaching myself to read the captions. The Indians seemed to be living in a place and in a way that was of immense importance to me. So I associate learning to read—English, oddly enough—with wanting to know about Indians. I’m still growing into it. I’ve never outgrown that. The Indians represented to me a wider and more cohesive world than the one I saw around me that everyone took for granted. I grew up within sight of New York City, and whenever I was asked what I really wanted to do, I would say I wanted to go to the country. I’d been taken out and had seen the country when I was very small and that was what I always wanted to go back to. I’m not sure of the exact origin, but I do know that it goes back a very long way. Feeling that way about “the country” has made me ask questions that I suppose are strange to many of my contemporaries, but they seem to get less and less eccentric as our plight as a species grows more and more desperate, and we behave accordingly. As a child, I used to have a secret dread—and a recurring nightmare—of the whole world becoming city, being covered with cement and buildings and streets. No more country. No more woods. It doesn’t seem so remote, though I don’t believe such a world could survive, and I certainly would not want to live in it.
The connection is there—our blood is connected with the sea. It’s the recognition of that connection. It’s the sense that we are absolutely, intimately connected with every living thing. We don’t have to be sentimental and pious about it, but we can’t turn our backs on that fact and survive. When we destroy the so-called natural world around us we’re simply destroying ourselves. And I think it’s irreversible.”