In the beginning, not even native plants would grow. The land had been deforested for firewood to fuel the whaling ships that anchored by the island, and then it was used as grazing land by the settlers who stayed behind. Sugarcane fields were planted when the cattle refused to graze, furling their lips to protest the wild grasses, but it was the pineapple growers who really wrecked this valley. Because of the way they planted their pineapples, up and down instead of along the hillsides, all of the topsoil washed away. Decades of abuse, each chronicling a different period in Hawaii’s history, had leeched this land on the northern coast of Maui so much that not even native plants would grow when W. S. Merwin first tried to plant them, in the seventies.
Merwin recorded this history several years ago, in an essay for The Kenyon Review, but the poet, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker for the past fifty years, revisits it in a new documentary, “Even Though the Whole World Is Burning.” The film premiered last summer at the Maui Film Festival; it will play next month on PBS Hawaii, and then later in the year on PBS stations across the country.
I met the film’s director, Stefan Schaefer, earlier this month, at a theatre in Honolulu that was once part of the Dole Cannery. Now emptied of packing equipment, the cannery’s buildings have been made into a shopping center, complete with a Best Buy, Costco, and Home Depot. After a screening, Schaefer took questions from the audience, explaining how the film had taken three years and two crowd-funding campaigns to make. “Even Though the Whole World Is Burning” begins with recognizable voices from morning shows and evening newscasts, referring to Merwin’s accolades and awards, including his designation, in 2010, as the U.S. Poet Laureate.
Those voices give way to the strange silence of the palm forest, and then to Merwin’s singular voice: “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree.” The opening couplet of his poem “Place,” those lines are the manifesto of a man who, for forty years, planted a tree every day that he could, restoring nineteen acres of land in Haiku, Hawaii, even as it seemed the world might well be ending, first from military conflict and then from ecological crisis. The film is a chronicle of a man struggling to make meaning through tiny, trembling acts. The palm forest, like Merwin’s poetry, has become a kind of prophetic stance against contemporary life: bearing witness to individual, almost foolish acts of creativity while devastation abounds.
Schaefer’s documentary traces the growth of the palm forest alongside the major events of Merwin’s life: a young boy who admired the blades of grass that grew between the cracks of the sidewalk left New York City for Princeton, where he met John Berryman (“he suggested I pray to the Muse / get down on my knees and pray / right there in the corner and he / said he meant it literally”). Then he went to Southern France, inspired by Ezra Pound’s advice to pursue translation and tradition (“read the seeds, not the twigs of poetry”). Awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize by W. H. Auden, in 1952, Merwin’s earlier work is all punctuation and proper nouns, the kind of verse that grows precisely in its formal containers, like plants potted in a nursery. His later work is expansive, shedding punctuation as it sprawls across lines and stanzas, taking a tone that is more than human, surveying the past, as well as the present, with a kind of vastness that few American poets can manage.
The film takes its pacing, as well as its title, from Merwin’s poetry. The critic Harold Bloom reads one of Merwin’s translations; the poet Naomi Shihab Nye reads one of his ecological poems, poised between gratitude for the Earth and hysteria over its destruction. Merwin reads throughout. Near the film’s end, he recites a poem first published in this magazine in 2008. “All the day the stars watch from long ago / my mother said I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right,” he begins. He is sitting on his porch, in clothes so plain that he might get up and go gardening, but he seems so far away that he might as well be looking at some other world. “Rain Light” is a short poem, but it feels like a lifetime passes before Merwin finishes: “the washed colors of the afterlife / that lived there long before you were born / see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning.”
Merwin wrote hymns before he wrote poems. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he sold the hymns to members of his father’s congregation, learning at an early age that his words were worth something. When he left Princeton, he moved into a farmhouse near the château of Bernart de Ventadorn, believing he could learn more from the French farmers than anyone on the poetry circuit. Later he moved to Maui to study with a Zen Buddhist master who lived on the island. By the time he came to make the wasteland bloom in Haiku, he had developed a poetic style as recognizable as his palms.
The forest is now one of the largest collections of palms in the world. In 2010, the year Merwin became poet laureate, he, his wife; his publisher, Copper Canyon Press; and the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust took steps to protect it, forming the Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Merwin’s literary and ecological legacy. Merwin, in a statement delivered by the conservancy’s cultural director, Karen Bouris, said that the attention that “has gathered around the palm forest” has taken him “somewhat by surprise,” and that he considers Schaefer’s film “a valuable and sensitive record.”
It is indeed a delicate documentary. Merwin’s tussle with Auden in the letters section of The New York Review of Books is mentioned—Merwin asked the Pulitzer committee to give his 1971 winnings to antiwar causes; Auden accused him of grandstanding—but the sting of the exchange doesn’t quite register. Even the melee at Naropa University, where Merwin went to study Buddhism, is somehow sobered. A scholar characterizes the place on camera as “rowdy, drunken, druggy,” but the chaos of what has been called The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (“I started hitting people with beer bottles. It was a very violent scene,” Merwin told the Times twenty years ago) is quieted.
The film’s quiet, though, is purposeful, enacting the kind of stillness that Merwin seeks. Schaefer told me later by phone that he and his crew tried to be “flies on the wall” as they filmed Merwin over the past few years: walking around the palm forest with his dog, writing in the early morning on his porch, gardening at the house in the Dordogne Valley, anywhere he would let them follow. Only one moment was directed, Schaefer said, when Merwin steps into a planting shed: “I asked him to do it again, but he wasn’t really directable, which is true to his character.”
It was easy when talking with Schaefer about the documentary to hear echoes of a remark Merwin makes near the start of the film. “A lot of people who love palms have that feeling that you’re dealing with our elders—with great, great antiquity—that have been here a long time, and they know more about the Earth, in some ways, than we do.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.