Ha'ikū, Hawaii — Only a forest can make a forest, W.S. Merwin likes to say. Yet on 19 acres of officially designated wasteland, the site of a failed pineapple plantation, he may have disproved the axiom. True, the distinguished poet, translator, public speaker and gracefully determined conservationist has found it impossible, even on a very small scale, to restore the pre-existing Hawaiian rain forest. Over the past three decades, however, he has managed, here on the wind-swept north shore of Maui, to raise a dense forest of palm trees, very few of them native to this part of the world. Charming as it is to find a poet settled in a place called Ha'ikū, the Hawaiian name, meaning "sharp break," has no known connection to the terse verse form from Japan.
Botanists have identified more than 2,500 species of palm. Over the years, Mr. Merwin has planted, with his own hands, seeds of some 800. No one could have predicted that they would take hold, as by and large they have. The Hawaiian archipelago is a landscape of microclimates. On the island of Maui alone, Mr. Merwin says, what grows in one valley will not grow in another valley. His singular ark of biodiversity strikes botanists who have seen it as virtually surreal. And the ground cover's bold shapes and patterns—jade arrowheads speckled with white polka dots, elephant ears accented in broad celadon brushstrokes—heighten the pervasive sense of wonder and delight.
Crossing from a dusty country road onto Mr. Merwin's property, I flash on century-old verse by the scarcely remembered Joyce Kilmer, dear to our grandparents. "Poems are made by fools like me," it ran, "But only God can make a tree."
"Making a tree is different from planting a tree," Mr. Merwin replies when I venture to quote. A Presbyterian minister's son who grew up to win two Pulitzer Prizes (1971, 2009) and serve as U.S. Poet Laureate (2010-11), he has the deep eye sockets, chiseled bone structure and benign, translucent smile of the aged Voltaire as captured in a portrait bust commissioned by Catherine the Great from the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.
"See those two very tall ones?" Mr. Merwin asks, pointing from the terrace of the homestead he built in what was then barren wilderness. "They're Rhopaloblaste ceramica. Rhopaloblaste means that the seedpods are torpedo-shaped, and ceramica means that they're from the island of Ceram, north of Java. In the '80s, I visited a marvelous botanical garden in Singapore and asked if they had palm seeds for sale. And a guy gave me a plastic bag with half a dozen seeds the size of an olive. I planted them and got one tree. It drops its own seed now.
"I think: This little seed has been evolving for 90 million years," Mr. Merwin continues, "and it knows how to be itself in its own place, which is Ceram. It doesn't know about Hawaii. We know a certain amount about DNA, but nothing about that. And the seed knows all these things. The fascinating thing about growing palms is that they evolved in deserts and at the top of the Andes. Dypsis musicalis grows only in the running streams of Madagascar, where the water sings as it flows through the roots. The range of genetic materials is vast." At least one of Mr. Merwin's treasures, Hyophorbe indica from Réunion Island, that speck of France washed in the waters of the Indian Ocean, is considered extinct in the wild. "I know nothing about Réunion Island," Mr. Merwin says, "but where a tree grows, you have a place."
At 84, Mr. Merwin continues to publish collections of his acclaimed verse, prose and translations at a rate a writer half his age would envy. (His publisher, the nonprofit Copper Canyon Press, has two new volumes in preparation for this fall.) But as much as the books, this patch of earth will be his legacy.
Time is of the essence. In March, Mr. Merwin received a visit from Sir Ghillean Prance, scientific director of the visionary Eden Project in Cornwall, England, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a world authority on the flora and fauna of the rainforests. "It's a remarkable collection, of great importance for conservation," Sir Ghillean says. "Many of the species represented are rare or endangered. We must do all we can to give it a secure future."
The nonprofit Merwin Conservancy was founded in 2010 to just that end. Mr. Merwin; his wife, the former Paula Schwartz; and the conservancy's other trustees picture a utopian sanctuary for solitary study, introspection and artistic endeavor, a kind of tropical Walden Pond. Green thought in a green shade—at this point, the vision is clearer than the path, but dialogue with interested institutions of research and higher learning continues.
The first order of business, meanwhile, is to compile a state-of-the-art catalog of the palm forest, complete with DNA samples and seed bank. The conservancy's partner in this endeavor is the congressionally chartered National Tropical Botanical Garden, headquartered on the island of Kaua'i. The cost for the project has been set at $150,000, of which half had been raised as of this spring, and the work is already under way. The funding goal for land acquisition and endowment has been set at $7 million, a drop in the bucket to rainforest conservation rock stars, but astronomical to a poet however showered with honors. Potential donors have expressed interest, but the big checks have yet to be cut.
Can the goals be met? In the nine-minute video "A Walk Through the Palms," posted on the conservancy's website, Mr. Merwin seems none too sure yet radiates serenity more persuasive than rhetoric. Walking the same paths today, his eyes light up at the song of a thrush.
I remember reading somewhere that as a child, he would speak to trees. Did they answer? "Well, not in English, that's for sure," Mr. Merwin says. "My father was very repressive. As a child I didn't trust the feelings of pretty well anyone except my mother. But I trusted the tree in the backyard. We were friends. If I could talk to it, it would talk to me. But I didn't know how. I was talking to the biologist E.O. Wilson about that, and he said talking to trees was not silly at all. 'The tree's gene code is much older than yours,' he said. 'It's not withholding anything. If you know how to talk, it will tell you everything you want.'" Even, it seems, how to grow a forest.