Sunday, January 29, 2012

Wendell Berry on Small Farms, Local Wisdom, and the Folly of Greed

Wendell Berry. Photo: David Marshall
"For more than forty years, Wendell Berry has worked his family farm in Kentucky the old-fashioned way, using horses as much as possible and producing much of his own food. And he has published more than forty books, writing by hand in the daylight to reduce his reliance on electricity derived from strip-mined coal. Berry has been called a “prophet” by the New York Times, and his Jeffersonian values are so old they can appear startlingly new. His strong pro-environment position has made him something of a cult hero on the Left, as have his antiwar sentiments, which have grown sharper over the years. His 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” published in Harper’s, led some to accuse him of being antitechnology, a Luddite. For his part, Berry has criticized environmentalists for not working to protect farms as well as wilderness. His stout self-reliance and unabashed use of moral and religious language in his writing have endeared him to a number of conservatives, even as his stance against corporate globalization has drawn criticism from others. But these apparent contradictions don’t seem to bother Berry one whit.

Born in 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky, Berry published his first book, the novel Nathan Coulter (North Point Press), in 1960. A steady stream of publications in various genres followed, along with honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Poet Wallace Stegner once noted, “It is hard to say whether I like [Berry] better as a poet, an essayist, or a novelist. He is all three, at a high level.” Some of Berry’s better-known titles include A Place on Earth (Counterpoint), which the New York Times Book Review called “a masterpiece”; Collected Poems 1957–1982 (North Point Press); Another Turn of the Crank (Counterpoint); and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club Books). The rural Kentucky of his fiction has often been compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Like Faulkner, Berry has an ear for local language and a feel for place.

Berry taught for more than two decades at Stanford University, New York University, and the University of Kentucky, but he has now quit teaching. Since 1965 he has lived and worked on the 125-acre Lanes Landing Farm in the county of his birth. It was there that my wife and I visited him one Sunday afternoon. He was exactly what I would expect a gentleman farmer to be: tall, rangy in both body and mind, sagacious, and gracious. He and Tanya, his wife of fifty years, were impeccable hosts, making sure that we were seated comfortably on the porch and that our glasses of lemonade remained full. Earlier in the week, I had heard Berry speak to the Sierra Club in Louisville. Despite his busy schedule, he answered my questions in a thoughtful and deliberate manner reminiscent of his prose. The conversation touched on all the primary themes in his tremendous body of work: the importance of place, sustainability, and — above all — community."

Read the whole interview with Wendell Berry, by Jeff Fernside in the Sun Magazine: Wendell Berry On Small Farms, Local Wisdom, And The Folly Of Greed

If you after this interview want to read something by Berry, here are some suggestions:

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