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"“He knew the Latin and common names of every single palm, and also could talk about how he came to acquire it."
The Conservancy’s Hawai'i Executive Director
By Jan TenBruggencate
William S. Merwin has long been one of the world’s great poets. But along a path that included being named the nation’s Poet Laureate, he also became a palm nut. Today, his palm collection is one of the world’s finest, featuring more than 850 species and more than 3,000 individual palms.
“I don’t know whether it’s possible to save this, but I just want to try,” said Merwin, who was already a noted poet when he moved to Maui in the 1970s.
The Nature Conservancy recently deployed its powerful aerial imaging technology to produce a photographic map of Merwin’s property with such detail that each pixel covers just one square centimeter.
That chart, created from sophisticated aircraft-mounted cameras, is being combined with data from the ground to identify the geographical location and identity of every palm on the property—a boon to future researchers.
Work on the ground is being overseen by the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), which arranged for international palm expert John Dransfield and NTBG senior research botanist David Lorence to identify and catalog the palms.
“We are scientifically documenting the palm forest so that scientists around the world can access the information,” said Karen Bouris, executive director of the Merwin Conservancy, whose goal is to preserve “the living legacy of W.S. Merwin, his home and palm forest, for future study and retreat.”
More than three decades ago, Merwin acquired former pineapple plantation property that he called “ruined land.” His goal was to replant it in native forest, but few native plants would grow there after decades of high-intensity industrial agriculture.
“The native trees that we planted, all the koa trees died from weevils and other things. The ones that did best and survived were the Pritchardia—the Hawaiian palms. And I thought, ok, palms. Palms are endangered all over the world. Let’s see what palms might grow here,” Merwin said.
So the poet began collecting palms, and then more palms.
“He began collecting native Hawaiian species within Hawaiʻi from friends and botanists,” Bouris recalled. “Then he began collecting worldwide species from gifted commercial seed collector Inge Hoffman, who traveled the world gathering seeds.”
By the time Hoffman retired, Jeff Marcus, another well-known collector, had set up a nursery, Floribunda Palms, on Hawaiʻi Island. Now Merwin trades seeds for palms and shares seeds as well. According to Marcus, Merwin has even saved one species from extinction.
Making an Assist
On his Haiku property, Merwin planted the palms randomly across the landscape as a forest—and soon it became difficult for anyone but Merwin to make sense of it. But it was clear that Merwin’s forest was something important. Some of the palms were rare, and a few had become extinct in their native habitat. Each one had a story.
“He knew the Latin and common names of every single one, and also could talk about how he came to acquire it,” said Suzanne Case, The Nature Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi executive director.
Case became acquainted with Merwin at a conservation retreat on Molokaʻi. “I met him in front of a fireplace, while he read his poetry. He reached out to us, and we were thinking about what we might be able to do.”
Merwin wanted to catalogue the palms and have the garden certified as a botanical garden. Case thought creating some kind of map would be an important step in that process.
“We had been experimenting with imagery and had been testing the technology on Maui. I thought if we tried flying over his palm garden on the way to the forest, we could get some information for our own use on different kinds of landscapes, and we could also help him with mapping his forest.”
A Timely Gift
The Nature Conservancy’s airborne technology was developed to identify individual weeds in native forest, and to create a precise geographical grid, so they could be located on the ground and removed.
On one of the regular mapping flights into the East Maui Mountains, the imaging plane flew over Merwin’s property and snapped pictures. The Nature Conservancy’s GIS specialists — Theresa Menard, Kerri Fay and Stephanie Tom — analyzed and processed the images, and created for Merwin both a large map of his property and a field book with images of the palm forest.
“You can spot the individual palm trees from the imagery. The field book will allow botanists to walk the ground and locate the individual trees,” Menard said.
The map and field book were presented to Merwin and his wife at their Maui home last year. “I’m very touched,” said an elated Merwin. “The timing couldn’t be better. Thank you so much.”