You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.
Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.
The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.
Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia.
My friend Mark Musick has reminded me that today is a very special anniversay: "His speech was the genesis of "The Unsettling of America" and the catalyst for the Tilth movement in the Pacific Northwest."
On July 1, 1974 Wendell Berry spoke at the “Agriculture for a Small Planet” symposium in Spokane, which was one of a series of environmental conferences hosted as part of Expo 74. Wendell’s speech that day, and his subsequent letter to members of the symposium staff, inspired the Tilth movement in the Pacific Northwest.
Wendell had been invited to represent the “Labor Intensive Micro-Systems Viewpoint” on the panel and he was introduced by the moderator, Bob Stilger. Below is a transcript of Wendell’s speech, followed by questions and answers. It’s significant to note that Wendell’s talk, written in longhand on yellow legal pad, was the nucleus for his book,The Unsettling of America, published in 1977.
The Culture of Agriculture
When Bob asked me to come out here I said I wouldn’t have time to write a speech, but I largely underestimated the travel time between Kentucky and Spokane. The speech is not filled out. It sort of gives the structure of my thinking about the problems that I’ve observed in agriculture.
I was asked to talk about “Labor Intensive Micro-Systems Agriculture.” That’s not my language, and it’s not the sort of language I wish to use because it’s the way people speak when they don’t want to be understood by most people. I’m not sure what to make of these particular phrases, but they seem to suggest a very methodological or technological approach to agriculture. Part of my purpose here is to suggest that any such approach will necessarily be too simple.
For more than four decades, two American literary icons -- author Wendell Berry and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder -- corresponded with each other on topics ranging from art to the environment to their personal lives. Many of those letters have been collected in a new volume "Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder," published by Berkeley's Counterpoint Press. Snyder and Berry join us to talk about their long-distance writerly relationship.
“Advice? I don’t like to advise people I’ll never see again. I have become really adept at dodging the request for advice,” said a jocular Wendell Berry, as he sat on stage with his dear friend – Amish farmer and writer – David Kline before several hundred farmers in La Crosse, Wisconsin at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the farmer-owned cooperative CROPP, best known by its brand name, Organic Valley.
In early April, I had the distinct honor of joining Organic Valley Mission Executive – and my mom – Theresa Marquez for an interview with Berry for Underground Airwaves, a bi-monthly storytelling podcast that Edible Portland produces. (Listen to the full episode above or free from theiTunes store – search “Underground Airwaves.”) Berry had been asked by her what words of wisdom he had for the farmer-owned co-op. And despite his playfully gruff answer, he has not been adept at dodging requests for advice. In fact, the opposite is true: Since he first publishedThe Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture in 1977, Berry has used writing as a tool of influence to champion the value of family farming and caring for the earth.
I find so many details about this story life-giving, but the real solidifying agent for my respect of Wendell Berry is that his child knows and can articulate why she respects him so greatly as to devote her adult life and the family she started to following in his footsteps. Many great leaders of men have inspired the masses while leaving wreckage at home, but those devoted eternally to their families carry a certain weight that should not be overlooked.
As a parent myself, the greatest impact of this story is the fact that above all else in their relationship, Berry’s daughter has been moved by a realization that she has always existed in her father’s love, affection, and forgiveness. She came to realize that, whether she knew it or not, he cherished her, delighted in her personality, and was always ready to pardoned her missteps.
A visitor to this site, Harry Holdorf, has shared these thoughts:
It’s a hackneyed cliché that great poets, writers, thinkers, are seldom recognized by their contemporaries. Cultures are so caught up in their own little dioramas, the bigger pictures often pass by unseen. Perhaps future generations will recognize Wendell Berry as the greatest poet, writer, thinker of our time.
Wendell’s spent much of his eighty years being FOR what our whole culture’s AGAINST: small-farm organic agriculture, with an extremely close, sustainable connection to the land. He’s written dozens of books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of essays, received much recognition, continuously crusaded against strip mining and mountaintop removal; prefers a team of horses over a tractor, and a deluxe two-hole composting outhouse over a septic system.
I first met Wendell in California in the Sixties: he taught a writing seminar on the second floor of the Inner Quad, around a large oval table. Wendell was not having an easy time getting across to us dozen West Coast undergraduates the essence of his Agrarian Jeffersonian philosophy. At one point a frustrated guy named Obadiah contributed to the conversation by spending five minutes crawling around under the table.
Last week, we found out on-line (uufranklin.org) that, for Sunday’s service, our friends, Paul and Lara, were re-enacting a Sun Magazine interview with Wendell, so we drove over. Lara, a take-no-guff New Orleans lady, was wearing a beautiful feather-in tanned chicken hide hat; Paul, unadorned, appeared exactly as he is: organic, sustainable, off-the-grid, bio-intensive.
When we started reading the Responsive Reading from the back of the UU songbook, I thought it sounded a lot like Wendell; turned out, it was Wendell. Here it is:
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
Then a long time after we are dead,
The lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run clear as we never know it,
And over it the birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
An old forest will stand, its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing out of the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting,
Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove,
And memory will grow into legend,
Legend into song, song into sacrament.
The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds,
Will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.
New York, NY, March 20, 2014 – The American Academy of Arts and Letters will hold its annual induction and award ceremony in mid-May. Secretary of the Academy, Billie Tsien will induct nine new members into the 250-person organization: Robert Adams, Ann Hamilton, Bill Jensen, Wendell Berry, Ha Jin, Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolff, David Lang, and Alvin Singleton. President Henry N. Cobb will induct honorary members Alice Waters, Thomas Adès, John Banville, Toyo Ito, Leon Kossoff, Magnus Lindberg, Haruki Murakami, and Colm Tóibín. Elaine Scarry will deliver the Blashfield Foundation Address, titled "Beauty and the Pact of Aliveness." An exhibition of art, architecture, books, and manuscripts by new members and recipients of awards will be on view in the Academy’s galleries from May 22 to June 15.