Smoke from a wildfire outside of Yosemite in Jan 2021 (photo by author)

Building a Home Even When the Whole World Is Burning

benje williams
Feb 3 · 7 min read

For years, decades perhaps, the poet laureate WS Merwin dreamed of restoring the land that he came from, a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human “improvement.” In 1976, at the age of 49, he followed that dream to Hawaii, beginning the work of restoration on a humble three-acre plot of degraded, “pineappled” agriculture land along the cliff-slopped coast of Maui.

“I can’t stop deforestation of the Amazon,” he once said, “but I can go out and plant a tree.” Which is exactly what he did: nearly every day, for over 40 years. Perhaps the opening line of his most well-known poem, Places, best describes this sentiment: On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree. And by the last day of his own life, March 15, 2019, he had planted nearly 3,000, expanding his three-acre nook of land into a nineteen-acre library of endangered, endemic, and even extinct palm trees.

Along the way, William and his wife Paula helped establish the Merwin Conservancy, to protect and grow what they had made for those who come after them.

The Conservancy, and the garden the Merwin's established, have received international praise — Awards and recognition and a portfolio of resources. And yet, someone reading about his life today, in a time of imminent climate catastrophe, might ask the unspeakable question: does any of it really matter? In a world where we are losing thirty soccer fields of forest a minute, an entire Merwin Conservancy every twenty seconds, forests the size of all five accumulated Hawaiian islands every four months. What good will nineteen acres or a few thousand trees do us?

“Small is beautiful but scale is critical,” the social entrepreneur says — And he is not wrong. “Climate change will bring unimaginable death and disaster at a scale we can barely conceive,” the scientist says — And she is not wrong. “If you can do more, than you must,” the preacher says — And he is not wrong. But the poet, what does the poet say?

Here’s what Mary Oliver says: Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last! What a task to ask of anything, or anyone.

Or Naomi Shihab Nye: I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.

Or William Merwin, in a poem to his belated mother:

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

The whole world is burning. In 2020 alone, over four million acres of it burned in California, my homeland. In the past 70 years, Pakistan, where I lived for eight years, has gone from 35% forest to less than 5%. And in only a few hours earlier this fall, in New York City, where I live now, we lost up to ten thousand trees, the equivalent of half the trees in Central Park, from hurricane wind gusts. The whole world is burning. And there are days where it seems like there is nothing we can do about it.

Maybe that’s exactly the solution, William’s life seems to suggest: to learn to accept our inevitable collapse. To learn how to function within that acceptance. To learn how we can save whatever preciousness we have today.

Or, in the words of author Jonathan Franzen:

It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of [the climate change disaster] that’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning.

Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically — a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble — and take heart in your small successes.

Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.

This is a beautiful intention, but how does it apply to the football teams I used to play with along the rising coasts of Kenya? Or to my 50 colleagues in our Pakistani education team who are breathing “extremely hazardous,” 450 air-quality-index pollution? Or to my brother in Santa Barbara who had to evacuate his house in June because of the Drum Fire? I don’t know, even after thinking about it for a really long time. So far, what I do know is that when I go to my parents’ home in Northern California, and sit in the backyard as they work in their small garden, I feel the hope “for the specific” that Franzen is writing about. And I feel the love for “a bit of the earth’s surface” that Merwin nourished and lived in.

Merwin writes that from the beginning, gardens were designed to keep out the wilderness: As the etymology of the word suggests, to guard what was inside for human pleasure. Initially, the gardener’s role was to protect what was inside the garden from the wilderness that surrounded it. But once it became possible for human beings to destroy environments anywhere on earth, anyone who wanted to protect and save any remaining bit of the natural environment was acting in the role of a gardener — one whose purpose, at this point, was to keep encroaching human exploitation and disturbance out.

Perhaps that is our calling? To be gardeners of any remaining bit of the natural environment. Perhaps, according to the creation story, that has been our calling since the very beginning. Perhaps, according to the same story, we’ve been failing ever since. But does that really mean we now have to overcompensate, to learn to do more than just gardening, to right all the wrongs of yesterday? Or could it mean that we need to return to the simple task of today?

One of the only gardeners I knew in the concrete chaos of Lahore was Shahid Jalal. Like Merwin, he was also a Buddhist, one of the only Buddhists I knew in Lahore. And he was one of the only people I knew who loved Lahore’s Lawrence Garden more than I did. He would spend hours and days and months underneath the garden’s nearly 150-year-old simbal tree, painting its human-sized buttress roots, its lava-red spring flowers, its trunk sized branches sprawling in the grey Lahore sky. A sky that seemed to get greyer with pollution by the year, making Lahore become unrecognizable to many, and possibly contributing to Shahid’s sudden passing, just a few months after Merwin’s own death.

Today, Lawrence Garden is one of the last “bits of natural environment” that remains in Lahore. Once, in Shahid Jalal’s studio, he showed me some of his paintings of the garden. He seemed to have hundreds of them, stacked in uncontainable piles along his studio’s walls. Of course, they were his creations, and yet, they seemed to be growing into something else entirely. Something beyond Shahid’s control or ability or even vision — something not unlike the endemic, endangered, and extinct palms in the Merwin Conservancy.

The model for this garden has always been the forest, Merwin wrote, even though I know that the word “afforestation” is generally meaningless, and that only a forest knows how to grow a forest. Perhaps that’s the answer, laying silently somewhere in between Shahid’s studio collection and Merwin’s conservancy. To find whatever bit of the earth it is that we love. To get as close and connected to that specific thing as possible. To nourish that bit for what it simply is, without the expectation or need for it to become more, for it to grow into a forest. But to also learn not to hold on to it so desperately tight that something magical, or something natural, isn’t able to grow in between the cracks.

Climate Conscious

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benje williams

Written by

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

Climate Conscious

Bringing writers and readers together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

benje williams

Written by

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

Climate Conscious

Bringing writers and readers together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

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