Photo: ©Ewen Roberts
Poet, Buddhist and Advocate for Earth’s Ecology
In 1976, the poet W.S. Merwin (our current U. S. Poet Laureate) moved to Hawaii to study with the Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken.
In Hawaii he married Paula Schwartz in a Buddhist ceremony in 1983. Merwin settled in Maui, in a home that he helped design and build, surrounded by acres of tropical forest which he painstakingly restored after the land had been devastated and depleted after years of erosion, logging, and agriculture.
The rigorous practice of Buddhism and passionate dedication to environmentalism that Merwin devoted himself to in Hawaii has profoundly influenced his later work, including his evocative renderings of the natural world in The Compass Flower (1977), Opening the Hand (1983), and The Rain in the Trees (1988), as well as The Folding Cliffs, a novel-in-verse drawing on the history and legends of Hawaii.
A timely discussion, an impassioned view
In 1992, the poet gave a talk at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco. What follows here is part of what he had to say about environmentalism when he addressed the controversial issue of geothermic drilling in Wao Kele o Puna.
Wao Kele o Puna is now a protected Forest, though it wasn’t purchased by the Trust for Public Land until July 19, 2006, settling the environmental dispute.
You can read the entire transcript on The American Academy of Poets website.
Photo: Wao Kele o Puna ©Karl M
A Language for Nature: Preserving the Hawaiian Rainforest by W.S. Merwin
I’m not as optimistic as others are, I suppose. We may not be able to live up to ourselves.
Blake said the object of being human is to learn how to be human. And we might not be able to be human in time. We may not be able to live up to our full capacities in time to save ourselves or the world that is vulnerable to us. And that would be a greater tragedy than we can imagine.
Because the only real hope for us is something to do with what we really are and how we see ourselves, an attitude toward life as a whole, the ability to perceive that the basic assumption of much of our civilization and much of our perception of ourselves is not only false, it is dangerous and probably lethal.
And that’s the assumption that there is an absolute difference between us and other forms of life, and that we are superior to other forms of life, and can exploit them forever, and use them for our purposes, and that’s what it’s there for.
I don’t think you have to have any mystical view of it to see under this conclusion. I don’t think that the rest of life will tolerate this. It’s not because there’s some great mentality out there coming to a moral judgment. It’s simply because it’s not made to tolerate it.
The great biotope wants to maintain some sort of changing balance, and if something upsets that balance too severely, it goes. And it may go at great cost. But I don’t think that the greater biosphere cares much more about us than, at this point, we seem to care about it.
With Peter Matthiessen in Mexico
That’s the overview of how I feel about the moment that we’re in, the moment of crisis. Even people who have paid a lot of attention to it may not even be aware of how grave it is.
Last September, in Moravia, in Mexico, there was a gathering of scientists and writers from all over the world—the first time that’s ever happened. It was the first time that everyone sat down together—not to be polite to each other but simply to say: “At last we can try to converse and work together. We need each other.” The scientists were major scientists, and there were very interested writers there, and it was a very interesting time.
When the scientists began to say just how bad it was, I was there with Peter Matthiessen, a wonderful writer, and Peter said, “I don’t understand why it is. I’m very shocked to know about how bad it is. And yet I feel very good.” And I said, “Peter, it’s such a relief to hear someone able to tell the truth. To go out and say, ‘This is how bad it is.’ It’s so much better when the doctor tells you just how sick you are, instead of when they’re all out whispering in the hall somewhere.”
The global situation—I don’t want to go into statistics, I get them wrong, I don’t remember them very well—but if you pick them up anywhere, if you pick up the actual known figures on how many million tons of topsoil are being lost to modern agriculture, if you pick up figures on world water pollution, world air pollution—obviously the ozone layer—if you pick up any of these and just see where we really are, it is so startling, so shocking.
What is happening to the rainforest; what is happening to biodiversity; how fast the species are going; this is terrible.
Photo: Wao Kele o Puna ©Karl M
The Hawaiian Rainforest: Wao Kele o Puna
I don’t want to go on about the world situation. People get awfully tired of hearing about that. I assume that most everybody here tonight is extremely concerned about these things, which means they know something about them.
I do want to talk a little bit about the specific situation in the Wao Kele o Puna on Hawaii. I hesitate to say too much about it as a layperson, but I’m going to anyway.
One of the speakers talked about the terrible disappearance, the fact that half of the indigenous birds of Hawaii are extinct and that more than half of the remainder are recognized as endangered. The main cause of that is habitat destruction and imported diseases, most of them born by mosquitoes—avian malaria.
There is no rainforest in the world like the Wao Kele o Puna. And there’s only 25,000 acres—that’s very small.
We know, from the studies of Wilson and Lovejoy in the Amazon, quite a lot about what they call fragmentation of rainforest. If you take even something as large as the Amazon and cut roads through it or chop out sections of it, the effect of that fragmentation is not just where it comes but it spreads a great distance away from the disturbed area. In an area as small as 25,000 acres, there’s not much fragmentation that it will take before you ruin the whole ecosystem.
This is the only rainforest left in Hawaii, the only lowland tropical rainforest left of anything of comparable size. There may be pockets of 30 acres or 50 acres or even a couple hundred acres of lowland rainforest, but 25,000 acres of contiguous rain forest does not exist anywhere else in Hawaii. This is the last patch that really is integral and is itself.
The last patch
It is unique in other respects. All of the lowland birds were destroyed by avian malaria—all of the birds below 4,000 feet. In order to find any truly Hawaiian native birds you have to go about 4,000 feet where the tropical mosquito can’t survive. It’s not up there.
The Wao Kele o Puna is one of those places. It is maybe the only place in Hawaii where the birds that have survived above 4,000 feet have managed to acquire immunities and reestablish themselves in the lowlands. They’ve also reestablished the pattern of migration.
Very few birds in Hawaii migrate to other places; there are a few. The birds do migrate altitudinally, but only there, only in the Wao Kele o Puna. It’s probably been disturbed already by the experimental drilling which has been done with a devastating crudeness in a much larger area of the Wao Kele o Puna than there are permits for. Introduced species are being brought into that forest all the time.
It’s the only place in the world where biologists, and botanists in particular, but etymologists and ornithologists can go in and say, “This is Hawaiian rainforest 50 years old.” “This is Hawaiian rainforest 150 years old.” “This is Hawaiian rainforest 1,000 years old.” There’s no other place on Earth in an area like that where you can do that.
This will not survive.
It has found a way of surviving continual seismic activity and small volcanic eruptions and even major lava flows, but it cannot survive the kind of thing that the geothermal drilling will do.
Fighting for the rainforest
The greatly increased air pollution, the noise, the bringing of chemicals and weed seeds and all sorts of things from outside. The thing that they’ve not even begun to address, which is the production of large quantities of toxic brine from the well which contains all of the damaging heavy metals you can think of—lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic—in what amounts to large quantities for each well.
For many of these wells, they drill the well at great expense, and there’s nothing there. The independent geologists don’t believe for a minute that there are 500 mega-watts down there. It’s a big scheme of capitalism. There are some very shaky economics behind it.
Incidentally, the Wao Kele o Puna is originally seeded lands given to the Hawaiian people, and it was taken away in a land-swap that they had no say over. So from every point of view, there’s reason to be extremely incensed by what’s happened there.
And a great many people are.
~ W.S. Merwin
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.