W. S. Merwin (1927-2019)

ws merwin in trees

W.S. Merwin at the Merwin Conservancy on the northeast coast of Maui in 2010. Credit Tom Sewell for The New York Times.

This tribute to W. S. Merwin is by Dr. A. Hope Jahren, a geobiologist who is author of the memoir “Lab Girl” and a professor at the University of Oslo. My own experience of Merwin has been mostly through his elegant work as a translator.

“On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree,” is an oft-quoted line from Mr. Merwin’s poem, “Place.”

Mr. Merwin, who died last week at age 91, and his wife Paula, transformed the [Peahi Valley on Maui]. They built the Merwin Conservancy: 19 protected acres, an island within an island. The land was a dumping ground in 1977, little more than a rash of grassy boils festering in the exhausted soil. That same year, Mr. Merwin planted a sapling in the blight, then got up the next day and planted another one. The day after he did the same, and the day after that also. His trees made soil, and the soil made more trees. He planted a tree every day on that land for years, until his friends took over the planting under his direction.

(A. Hope Jahren, “The Poet Who Planted Trees,” NYTimes, 3-19-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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4 Responses to W. S. Merwin (1927-2019)

  1. There’s a fictional story – ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ by Jean Giono published 1954 that this excerpt immediately reminded me of. How wonderful there was a real person.

    • JMN says:

      Yes, art imitates life, or vice versa? I’m glad to know of the Giono story. If I may be inquisitive, did you read it in French? I’m sure there’s a good translation, too. How terrific if there happened to be one by Merwin himself! For me he was a model for the type of scholar-artist I wanted to be.

      • No I read it in translation. As there’s no translator stated, assuming done by the author? Has great wood prints in it by Michael McCurdy. A birthday present from 2008 I see as I’m reading the inscription.

      • JMN says:

        And sounds like a lovely present. McCurdy’s a new name to me. I’ve just learned he’s a distinguished illustrator deceased not long ago. You’ve inspired me to do a bit of sleuthing on the translation question. I’ll continue that offline for the moment. Thanks for making the link to Giono, whom I knew only by name. By the way, Wikipedia says that, though written in French, “The Man Who Planted Trees” was first published in English.

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