The Merwin Conservancy co-founder Paula Merwin dies

Paula Merwin is shown with her husband, renowned poet W.S. Merwin. Mrs. Merwin died Wednesday at the couple’s Peahi home. She was 80 years old. TOM SEWELL photo

Paula Merwin died Wednesday at her Peahi home with her husband, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin, at her side.

The Merwin Conservancy, a nonprofit group founded by the Merwins, made the announcement Friday.

“It is with a profound sadness that we mourn the passing of Paula Merwin,” said the conservancy, whose mission is to preserve the legacy of W.S. Merwin, his home and palm forest.

She died two days short of her 81st birthday. A cause of death was not disclosed.

“Above all, the poems and the palms became as inseparable as Paula and William themselves were to her last breath, which came on March 8th, two days short of her 81st birthday, at home with William beside her,” the conservancy said.

Paula Merwin, formerly Paula Dunaway, was a children’s book editor, according to a 1995 New York Times profile on the poet and the conservancy. The couple met for the first time in 1970 and again 12 years later at a dinner party in New York.

The Times story said that W.S. Merwin described the latter meeting in the poem “Late Spring.”

“After looking and mistakes and forgetting

turning there thinking to find

no one except those I knew

finally I saw you

sitting in white”

They were married in 1983, the Times story said.

Paula and William Merwin have created a unique oasis for writers, artists, activists and the more than 3,000 palms they planted on the old pineapple field they transformed in Peahi, according to the conservancy.

“The Merwins’ life together in Peahi, which they chose as their home after living for many years in New York City, represents an unwavering commitment not only to a place, but to a way of being.”

Her care for her husband and her attention to the details of their lives and relationship helped W.S. Merwin “to produce some of the greatest poetry of the last half-century,” the conservancy said.

She took care of her husband, who lost his eyesight to macular degeneration, the conservancy said. She read to him to keep him in touch with the happenings in the world.

Paula Merwin was engaged in politics, literature, art, cooking and fashion, the conservancy said.

The Merwins founded The Merwin Conservancy not just to preserve their home, “but also to inspire the rest of us to plant our own forests, turn our own dreams into reality, wherever we live,” the conservancy said.

She shared in and contributed to her husband’s vision of restoring the formerly barren patch of land with a self-built home and rain-catchment and solar photovolatic systems.

“She was a master of cultivating emotional intimacy and eliciting confessionals with just about everyone she met,” the conservancy said. “Above all, she was a champion of the best in the individual, often taking an active part in coaxing and coaching those around her to reach higher.

“She didn’t mince words, she wasn’t sentimental, yet her intuitive understanding of people generated a sense of warmth and safety.”

She is survived by her husband, aunt Joan Packer, brother Don Carlos Dunaway, sons Matthew Carlos Schwartz and John Burnham Schwartz and two grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers or cards, the family asks that donations be made in Paula Merwin’s honor to The Merwin Conservancy.

“Paula was William’s constant companion in helping to breathe life back into this earth, and to loving and being loved,” the conservancy said. “With Paula’s passing, we have lost not only our co-founder but an exceptional woman who created a hallowed place, one that she helped to craft so that others might be inspired to honor a different way of being in this world.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at