Building the Dream: Walls

January 14, 2016 | By | Comments (2)

I talked two blogs ago about footings, so now I’ll move on to walls. Sometimes in Hawaii they look like this:


or this:

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or this:


or this:


or this:


or even this:

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In descending order, that’s the first of the Kohala sea cliffs abutting the Waipio Valley beach, thousand-foot Wai’ilikahi Falls in the nearby Waimanu Valley (just the bottom’s visible because I was bathing in the natural pool beneath it), a massive wave from December’s inaugural Pe’ahi Challenge off Maui shot by Big Island photographer Jason Cohn, Carpenter’s House Reef just north of the Kona airport (along with a few piscine friends), a lava wall in Kailua-Kona, and St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church, a.k.a. the Painted Church in Honaunau (it was built between 1899 and 1902, with columns that are the trunks of coconut palms).

In any talk of walls, it’s natural to think of Robert Frost, the San Franciscan who became a New Englander as a boy, and ultimately the poet laureate of Vermont. But I’d rather think of W.S. Merwin, a New Yorker who moved to Maui in 1976 at age 48 to study Zen Buddhism, and who in 2010 became the poet laureate of the United States. Some of my favorite poems of his are about strawberries, valleys, tidal lagoons, palms and pineapples (by all means, track down “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”). However, Merwin lives a quarter-mile from steep cliffs dropping to the ocean in a house he built himself, which also makes him an expert on walls.

Photo: Tom Sewell

Photo: Tom Sewell

You can read his mesmerizing poem “West Wall” here. It’s from his 1988 collection The Rain in the Trees, available in Migration: New & Selected Poems, but you do so at your own risk. You’ll never consider apricots the same way again. Their ripening will become a part of you. You’ll see orchards of them, taste the sun in their skin, and perhaps in others’ mouths, too.

The Merwin Conservancy runs a different poem of his each week, and you can use that link to help support the group’s efforts to preserve the 19-acre palm-tree botanical garden Merwin and his wife, Paula, grew from scratch in a former pineapple plantation, with more than 2,740 palms from around the world, including ones they helped save from extinction. Their off-the-grid home in Haiku, Maui will one day become a retreat for botanists and writers, and I can’t think of a town anywhere for a poet to live in with a better name. (I’m going to argue forcefully that it trounces Limerick.)

Maybe we each have to decide for ourselves what we consider a wall (okay, Frost famously wrote, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was likely to give offense”), and one way of looking at that depends on where you put the doors, and what you decide their purpose is. Here’s what we have thus far on our site:

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The choice of building a home in Hawaii, so far from our base in New York, has to mean embracing what we find on this Pacific island. But it also has to reflect our decision to breathe in—to share that ha, or breath of life, as so many Hawaiians say—and open ourselves to it.

Because the important idea will always be to exit those walls and doors to this:



  1. Building the Hawaiian Dream House: Island Birds |

    […] Choosing Walls […]

    February 17, 2016 at 3:51 pm
  2. Kristi Hagen

    VERY NICE BLOG. TOO BAD YOU DIDN’T TAKE FROSTS’ ADVICE: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was likely to give offense” ALOHA.

    July 14, 2016 at 5:00 pm

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