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Photo: © Matthew Schwart
W. S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From 1949 to 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca. He has since lived in many parts of the world, most recently on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. He has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets (of which he is now a Chancellor), the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry; most recently he has received the Governor’s Award for Literature of the state of Hawaii, the Tanning Prize for mastery in the art of poetry, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
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What is a garden All day working happily down near the stream bedthe light passing into the remote opalescenceit returns to as the year wakes toward wintera season of rain in a year already richin rain with masked light emerging on all sidesin the new leaves of the palms quietly wavingtime of mud and slipping and of overhearingthe water under the sloped ground going on whisperingas it travels time of rain thundering at nightand of rocks rolling and echoing in the torrentand of looking up after noon through the high branchesto see fine rain drifting across the sunlightover the valley that was abused and at last leftto fill with thickets of rampant aliensbringing habits but no stories under the mango treesalready vast as clouds there I keep discoveringbeneath the tangle the ancient shaping of waterto which the light of an hour comes back as to a secretand there I planted young palms in places I had not pondereduntil then I imagined their roots setting out in the darkknowing without knowledge I kept trying to see them standingin that bend of the valley in the light that would comeCHORUS The wet bamboo clacking in the night raincrying in the darkness whimpering softlyas the hollow columns touch and slidealong each other swaying with the emptyair these are sounds from before there were voicesgestures older than grief from before there waspain as we know it the impossibly tallstems are reaching out groping and wavingbefore longing as we think of it or loss as we are acquainted with it or feelingsable to recognize the syllablesthat might be their own calling out to themlike names in the dark telling them nothingabout loss or about longing nothingever about all that has yet to answerThe Shape of Water The garden, or what my wife and I have come to call the garden, follows a small winding valley on the north coast of the Hawaiian island of Maui. Half a mile or so beyond our property line on the seaward side the stream bed that is the keel of the valley emerges from under a thicket of pandanus trees into a grassy hollow at the top of the sea cliffs, where there was once a watercress pond, and then cuts through the edge to a series of shoulders and shelves and the rocky shoreline.This is the rainy side of the island and in times of heavy downpours the streambed roars and the muddy torrent can be dangerous, but most of the time there is no water in the channel at all. This part of the coast, whose name in Hawaiian means "fan," is a series of deep sinuous valleys more or less like the one where we live, opening out into basins and then narrowing again into steep gorges filled with dense growth under big trees. Some of these valleys still have their water, or a remnant of it, and the relation of the watercourses to their water is the central thread of the history of the whole area since it was first settled, and most obviously during the past two hundred years. The flow of water in the channel of massive boulders at the bottom of our garden was certainly more constant before the first irrigation ditches and tunnels were carved out of the mountainside above here over a hundred years ago, and before the serpentine coast road was cut through to Hana after the First World War. The rural life of the Hawaiians had always assumed an unfailing supply of pure water, and when the water in these valleys was cut off or severely reduced, the people who lived here, growing taro in flooded terraces surrounded by bananas and sugar cane, people whose forebears had planted the ancestors of the huge mango trees that still shade the stream bed, could no longer survive, and were forced to leave. In the time that I have been acquainted with this region I have become increasingly aware of it as a testament of water, the origin and guide of its contours and gradients and of all the lives -the plants and small creatures, and the culture–that evolved here. That was always here to be seen, of course, and the recognition has forced itself, in one form or another, upon people in every part of the world who have been directly involved with the growing of living things. The gardener who ignores it is soon left with no garden. When Alexander Pope, that happily obsessed gardener, urged his reader, in a line that soon became famous, to "Consult the Genius of the Place in all," the primary office of that Genius as he conceived it was to tell "the Waters or to rise, or fall." The role of water is inseparable from the character of a garden, and even its absence in a garden can take many forms. Muso Soseki, the great thirteenth-century garden designer and poet, directed water with great variety through the gardens he laid out, some of which still survive, but he was also a master of creating the suggestion of non-existent water with bare stones or steep shapes of rock, or foliage or shadows or sand, and long after his death, where moss has grown over certain of his arrangements it has continued and deepened the illusion. When I first saw this valley and these ridges the water I was most conscious of was the sea itself, the vast expanse of brilliant moving blue stretching north to the horizon beyond which, I knew, there was no land before Alaska. Seen from the house and from the slopes of the garden now, over the leaves of the heliconias and through the fronds of palms, it is the background, both visibly and in time and space, for this island is a mountain–indeed two mountains that rose from the sea and is returning to it. As long as the trades are blowing from the north and east it is above the sea that the vast ranges of clouds build up, bring to this coast the rain that formed the valleys, made possible the forests all along the mountain, and allowed particular species of plants and insects, tiny brilliant tree snails and birds to evolve for each variation in the terrain. The rain was one of the salient attributes of the early Hawaiian’s god Lono, the divinity of the growing world, who initiates each year of growth when the Pleiades, which in Hawaiian are The Little Eyes, rise above the horizon. In the poetry of the Hawaiians rain almost always is the rain of a particular place, with a specific character and an allusion to an erotic element of some story draped with names. The garden waits for the rain, responds to it at once, opens to it, holds it, takes it up and shines with it. The sound and touch and smell of the rain, the manner of its arrival, its temper and passage are like a sensuous visit to the garden, and the light among the trees after rain, with its own depth and moment, iridescent, shifting and unseizable, is an intensified image of the garden at that instant. But what I saw on the dry afternoon when I first picked my way down the pot-holed track toward the promontory here was the bare ridge thinly covered with long parched grass and scrub guavas thrashing in the trades, and the dust blowing. It was the end of summer and the rising notes of plovers just back from Alaska for the winter flew in the wind. There were few buildings, and they were small and tentative in the glaring light, and there were almost no trees on the upper slopes. I did not know then that the whole coast had been a forest until some time in the last century, its principal trees the great Hawaiian Acacia koa, and the ‘ohia sacred to the fire goddess Pele, the maker of the islands in the first place, and the pandanus and the Hawaiian fan palm, the loulu, of the genus Pritchardia, which still grows in small stands in the rain forest to the east along the coast. All of the area was deforested by enterprising Caucasians, first for grazing imported cattle, then for planting sugar, to which the gradients were unsuited. After the road was hacked out above the coast a group of deluded speculators undertook to transform these slopes into a pineapple plantation. They plowed the sides of the valley vertically so that whatever topsoil had remained until then was washed away in a few years and the entrepreneurs lost their investments and left. If I had known what to look for on that first afternoon I would have been able to note the shallow parallel indentations running down through the waving grass across the valley like ripples in sand, the scars of that ruinous venture. I walked down the slope through the scrub and came to the dark green clouds of the mango trees, and under them, in the shade, caught a glimpse of another world. Even choked, as it was then, with thickets of rampant introduced weed growth, it was the shadowy stream bed with its rocks under the huge trees that made me want to stay and so to settle, and have a garden in this valley. But also the thought of having a chance to take a piece of abused land and restoring it to some capacity of which I had only a vague idea was part of the appeal, and the day I signed the escrow papers for the land I planted, up along the ridge, the first trees of a windbreak. From the beginning I wanted to use native species and to try to bring back some of the growth that would have covered these slopes if they had been left undisturbed. I knew it would be an arduous undertaking but it was also far more complex than I could have imagined. I did manage to find and establish a number of indigenous kinds of trees and plants, and I think that when I began I still supposed that human could "reforest" when in fact all we can do is to plant this or that and hope that what we are doing turns out to be appropriate. Plainly I had been making my way toward such an intimation, and toward the present garden, since I was a small child in Union City, New Jersey, drawn by an inexplicable cluster of feelings, as by a magnet, to tufts of grass appearing between cracks in the stone slabs of the sidewalk. When I was nine we moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. I thought then that I knew what a garden was. There was the one my mother made under the kitchen window along a few feet of brick walk, with portulaca, irises, larkspur, cosmos, and a red rambler on the green picket fence by the alley. And there was the Victory Garden that we made in the coal company’s empty lot across the alley, after a man came at the end of winter and managed to get a horse and an old plow up over the stone curb and through the gate in the cast-iron fence and plowed up the space while I watched him as through he were someone I had read about. In Europe, and in Mexico, wherever I had lived I had tended gardens with no particular skill, and had loved them, and been fed by them, but most of my questions to do with them had been practical ones, for most of them were in places that had been thought of as gardens by other people, for a long time. It was here on a tropical island, on ground impoverished by human use and ravaged by a destructive history, that I found a garden that raised questions of a different kind–including what a garden really was, after all, and what I thought I was doing in it. Obviously a garden is not the wilderness but an assembly of shapes, most of them living, that owes some share of its composition, its appearance, to human design and effort, human conventions and convenience, and the human pursuit of that elusive, indefinable harmony that we call beauty. It has a life of its own, an intricate, willful, secret life, as any gardener knows. It is only the humans in it who think of it as a garden. But a garden is a relation, which is one of the countless reasons why it is never finished. I have admired, and have loved gardens of many kinds, but what I aspire to, and want to have around our lives now, is a sense of the forest. It must be an illusion of the forest, clearly, for this is a garden and so a kind of fiction. But the places in the garden where I find myself lingering and staring with unsoundable pleasure are those where it looks to me as though–with the shafts of light reaching and dividing through the trees–it might be deep in the forest. Years ago I read of gardens around Taost monasteries in the mountains of China, gardens that seemed to be the forest itself into which the mountain paths wound and the traveler discovered that the forest at every turn looked more beautiful, the perspectives and forms and the variety of greens and shadows and flowers more wonderful, and then it became apparent that the mossed stones of the path had been arranged there, and a turn brought glimpses of a low wall and bit of monastery roof appearing like a shoulder of the hillside. Behind my own fiction, I suppose, is the fond belief that something of the kind can exist. When we have reached a point where our own kind is steadily destroying the rest of the life on earth and some of us are anxious not to do that, our relation to the earth begins to be that of a gardener to a garden. I believe that gardening, the deliberate influencing of particular plants in the forest, existed for millennia before there was agriculture, and I am convinced that there was a measure of joy and magic in that relation from the beginning, something that probably sobered up considerably when it started to fall into line and become agriculture. Such considerations turn up around me as I try to find out what the garden–this garden–may be. They raise further questions, such as the prospects for indigenous and endemic species in circumstances that have been radically altered, the particular advisability or risks of calculated or accidental introductions–plants, insects, birds, animals, including ourselves. I want a garden that is an evolving habitat in which a balance is constantly being sought and found between responsibility and provisional control. But I certainly do not want to suggest that the garden is an earnest duty, a program of moral calisthenics undertaken like an hour at an exercise machine. If I hear the word yardwork I avoid the subject. For the person who has arrived at gardening at whatever age it is an enchantment, all of it, from the daydreaming to the digging, the heaving, the weeding and watching and watering, the heat, and the stirrings at the edges of the days. Some gardens of course are communal activities, but much gardening is quiet work and a good deal of it is done alone. I have been describing my own ruminations about the garden, but my wife Paula and I work in it together. Part of time on the same thing, much of the time on our own. Either way, it is what we are both doing. Some of the things growing here now were already in the ground before we met, but it was only after it was clear that Paula wanted to live here too, after thirty years in New York, that what is around us began to be not simply an assembly of plants laboriously set into soil and conditions that had been rendered inhospitable for many of them, but a garden. Her lack of hesitation was less surprising to her than it was to me. She was born in Argentina, grew up in the tropics, and had always wanted a garden, read about gardens, imagined living in a garden. She had not been here for more than a day or two before she was out on the slope dragging long grass from around young plantings and helping to clear space for others. Different parts of the garden have different forms. There is the food garden, a number of raised beds, and a curving screen of banana trees, that supplies something or other — lemons, limes, papayas, salad, peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, maybe corn–for the meals of most days. But I am afraid that gets less than its share of attention regularly as a result of the allurements of growing other things. Above all palms. The inaugural ambition to proliferate native species has endowed us with several kinds of native hibiscus, Hawaiian artemisia, trees ranging from seedlings to tall figures on the upland areas, but it came to focus on Hawaiian palms, some of the highly endangered (one, on the island of Molokai, is reduced to a single tree in the wild). Most of the species now exist in the garden, and growing them from seed led to a fascination with palms from elsewhere, and with cycads and other flora of the world’s increasingly menaced tropics, and an attempt to make a situation where they might be able to live as though they belonged together, here in this part of this valley. A visitor to a garden sees the successes, usually. The gardener remembers mistakes and losses, some for a long time, and imagines the garden in a year, and in an unimaginable future. There are young trees in the ground. The days are much too short, they go by too fast, and we wish for rain and the sound of water among the rocks. —————"The Shape of Water" originally appeared in the collection The Writer in the Garden, edited by Jane Garmey, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1999. The essay is copyright (c) 1999 by W. S. Merwin. "What is a garden" and "Chorus" excerpted from The River Sound by W. S. Merwin Copyright© 1999 by W. S. Merwin. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher —————
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