W. S. Merwin as Gardener

Urtica Dioica Stinging Hair, from Wikimedia Commons

Urtica Dioica Stinging Hair, from Wikimedia Commons

One characteristic that becomes apparent about Merwin in his prose, such as The Lost Upland, and in his poetry, such as his most recent book of poetry, The Moon before Morning, is that he loves to garden. In a way, though, the word “garden,” seems to hardly contain what he is doing now on his 19 acre palm forest on the island of Maui. There he is nurturing over 2700 individual palm trees. For lack of a better word, I will use the term “garden,” but I must use it an expanded sense. He is creator and keeper of a forest that contains one of the largest collections of palms on the earth.

Let me begin by looking at “The Rose Beetle” from The Rain in the Trees. The subject of the poem is a Chinese Rose Beetle, an invasive species that is thought to have come to Hawaii in the larval stage in the soil of plants being shipped over 100 years ago from China, Taiwan, or neighboring areas. It is native to Japan and Taiwan. Merwin gives us its history:

It is said that you came from China
but you never saw China
you eat up the leaves here

your ancestors travelled blind in eggs
you arrive just after dark from underground
with a clicking whir in the first night. (78)

The beetle is associated with darkness and night; it arrives blindly. It is not a creature of the light and the damage it does is extensive. It aggressively eats the leaves of countless plants, making a lace-work of them. Merwin notes that the native Hawaiian hibiscus, abutilons, and royal ilima fall victim to this species. But the poem, at the end, does not demonize the insect. The poet rather matter-of-factly states that the beetle makes “an arid net” of the leaves; it turns them into “sky / like the sky long ago over China” (78). A lesser poet would not have ended the poem that way. But Merwin sees that the beetle had its place somewhere. Humans brought the beetle to Hawaii. There is no need to vilify the insect. It no doubt has natural predators in its homeland, and it was an act of human ignorance that brought the beetle into Hawaii. As a point of comparison, Merwin makes note of other imports to Hawaii, such as the innocuous eggplant and strawberry. It was something of a bit of luck that these plants did not become problem invasives. Merwin shows us in the poem that as gardener he sees that the cultivated world is intricate, and nature always has the upper hand.

And there are times when Merwin is able to revel in the garden, when he is able to truly celebrate what is being grown there. Poems such as “High Fronds” from The Moon before Morning exhibit this praise. Another poem from the volume, “Urticophilia,” celebrates what to many is simply a nuisance plant, the nettle. The title derives from the genus name of nettles, “urtica,” and, obviously, “philia,” “to love.” Most people think of nettles as simply a plant with hair-like projections which sting to the touch. Merwin has another perspective:

Oh let me wake where nettles are growing
in the cool first light of a spring morning
the young leaves shining after a night’s rain
a green radiance glistening through them. (69)

The nettles have a “story.” They “open” and discover a “world they know and a season / they inherit” (69). They are part of the “conversation” of people, or perhaps, the conversation of the natural world (69). The poet asks for the “world’s sense” to come to him from the nettles, “my true elders,”

. . . and not from the voices
with something to sell not from the spreading
scar tissue of pavement numbing the flayed earth
not from the latest words of the fast-talkers
to whom the nettles never listen. (69)

Commerce and developers have done their damage; there is a knowledge the poet turns to and that knowledge must come from the living world. Wonder may be found in the lowliest of plants.

These are but two examples of many poems and prose works on the subject that run throughout Merwin’s canon. His love of gardening is documented in that work and in his conservancy in Hawaii and in decades of hands-on labor there that attest to his dedication to the health of the plant world and all that lives there. In one poem from The Vixen, “Present,” the narrator speaks of a woman in France (no doubt) who gives him a gift of mirabelle plums, and how, as the two of them sit on a wall by her garden, she notes how you can see through them. And then they look at them “and each of [them] [holds] up / a small golden plum filled with the summer evening” (21). The trope is perfect for Merwin’s poetry of the garden. The light of the summer evening fills the plums, and it is this light which Merwin sees as he works in his garden.


Jane Frazier
Lincoln University of Missouri



Works Cited

Merwin, W. S. The Moon before Morning. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, Print.

—. The Rain in the Trees. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

—. The Vixen. New York: Knopf, 1996. Print.





Wendell Berry and W. S. Merwin: Caretakers of the Earth

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It seems to me that Wendell Berry and W. S. Merwin share much in common. They are both essayists and poets (and both ecopoets I must add), they are dedicated environmentalists, and they both take care of a piece of ground, treating them very painstakingly for their preservation for future generations. Berry is a small farmer in Kentucky; Merwin is conservator and gardener of a native palm garden in Hawaii.

In “A Vision” Berry speaks of giving back to the earth and what it means to be a good steward of it. And from that will spring the promise of a rich, sustained land. Through hard work, the hard work of physically tending to the plants, not taking from and abusing the land wholesale for the sake of monetary gain, will sprout the promise of “abundance.”  His promise is this:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, . . . (Selected Poems 102)

Berry lists the richness of this world if we will just preserve it: clear rivers, birdsong, green meadows, springs, and old forests. Berry’s natural world will have families “singing” in the fields.  Whatever is taken from the earth is returned to the earth.  Berry is a farmer on his modest plot in Kentucky who speaks in “Enriching the Earth” of plowing in clover and grass to feed the soil, of planting grains and legumes to be plowed in later when they have grown, thus, to be an organic farmer, as “natural” as possible, and not dependent on the wide array of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers used by mainstream agriculture.

Merwin has long been known for his heartfelt ecological positions on many issues, from the protecting of the whales and the diminishing animal species on earth to the preservation of native plants in Hawaii to his concern over our often tainted air and water.  Merwin’s own palm forest that he is restoring had been the victim of logging, erosion, and detrimental agricultural practices (The Merwin Conservancy).  Merwin’s palm collection contains 2,740 individual trees, of more than 400 taxonomic species and 125 unique genera. The collection contains 900 different horticultural varieties. This garden is one of the largest and most diverse palm collections on earth (The Merwin Conservancy). Thus, when he writes in “Garden Notes” of:

a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights
looking at the sky
made of daybreak the morning sun
and the whole of daylight (The Moon Before Morning 21)

. . . we know that this is the garden, these are the very plants, he has invested much of his life into.

Merwin’s Conservancy attests to the fact that he wishes to dedicate a part of his life to a parcel of the earth and it shows us that in whatever we do in relation to the earth we can take care too. Berry has long been the small farmer working at odds with and in spite of the agricultural-chemical-industrial complex. Two poets working in small, sustaining ways relative to the forces of commercial agriculture and land development which works most of the time against common sense. These poets simply call for sustainable living.  The earth has long been giving her signals of being scarred and depleted. Berry often speaks of “industrial” agriculture’s depletion of the soil, massive soil erosion, pollution by toxic chemicals, depletion of aquifers, exploitation of cheap labor, genetically modified food, and the list goes on (“Death of the American Family Farm”). The problems are ubiquitous. But some in commercial agriculture are catching on to Berry’s and Merwin’s wisdom. Some land developers are saving native forests and fields on the properties that they put into commercial use. These two poets have for decades been crying out against the metaphor of “the machine,” as Berry puts it, in which the machine believes it owns all.  Nature has two strong voices saying “no” to the machine.


Jane Frazier
Lincoln University of Missouri



Works Cited

Berry, Wendell.  “Death of the American Family Farm.” Organic Consumers Association. Home Page. Organic Consumers Association.  2002. Web. 18 March 2015.

Berry, Wendell.  The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.  Washington: Counterpoint,1998. Print.

Merwin, W. S.  The Moon Before Morning.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

The Merwin Conservancy.  The Merwin Palm Collection.  The Merwin Conservancy. 2014. Web.  18 March 2015.