Humans aren't being true to themselves and are cutting back on their own chances for survival by failing to take care of other life and the planet, the nation's poet laureate said Tuesday.
W.S. Merwin told scientists and others working to protect Hawaii's natural resources at a meeting in Waikiki that they were doing work of "desperate importance" as species become extinct at an increasingly rapid rate around the world.
The problem is particularly acute in Hawaii, which has more endangered species than any other state and is sometimes called the endangered species capital of the world.
The 83-year-old Maui resident recalled when a scientist told him the world was losing a species a week and noted that pace has picked up dramatically.
"It's irrevocable. You can't put them back. You can't say, `Whoops, sorry,' and `I'll fix that.' You're not ever going to fix it," Merwin said while delivering the keynote address of this year's Hawaii Conservation Conference.
"This is a pyramid, and each part of the pyramid is essential to the whole thing. You're taking out pieces of it. Now we're losing a species every few seconds. It's going that fast."
Merwin said humans have a unique capacity to care for others, the planet and other life forms. Other species, he said, may grieve for each other and know each other, but they don't show the same concern for the broader world.
"The concern for other species and other creatures is not central to their lives, but it is to ours. And if we abandon that, we abandon ourselves," he said.
"We're being untrue to ourselves as a species. And the result is dangerous. We're minimizing and cutting down on our own chances of survival, as we do that for the rest of life," he later continued.
Merwin spoke for nearly an hour before several thousand people gathered to hear him at the annual meeting, mixing his comments with poetry readings.
One poem titled "Rain at Night" described the destruction of a Hawaii forest by profiteers who cut down ohia, koa and sandalwood trees and then the forest's rebirth as new trees take root.
The New York City native and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner moved to Hawaii in 1976. He has written more than 30 books of poetry, translation and prose.
Many of his poems touch on natural themes, and conference organizers described him as being dedicated to the restoration of Hawaii's rainforests. On Maui, he has recreated a tropical rainforest on land that had been damaged by years of logging, erosion and industrial agriculture.
Merwin told the crowd he resisted becoming poet laureate for a long time because he didn't want to leave Hawaii and "go to Washington and wear suits." But he changed his mind and became the 17th U.S. poet laureate last year after seeing the position as an opportunity.
"I thought this time, yes, this is a chance, once, to say what I've been trying to say," Merwin said.