An audio interview with Wendell Berry

Back to the Roots is a podcast that aims "to connect people with organic farmers across the country, from Amish country in Ohio and Indiana to farmers on the West Coast." They have just posted a substantial and wide-ranging interview/conversation with Wendell Berry.

See the list of podcasts HERE.

Go directly to the Wendell Berry interview (mp3) HERE.

Wendell Berry on his literary friendships

In the course of collaborating with Wendell Berry on the chronology for our new collection of his fiction, Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II), we persuaded him to elaborate on an initial set of notes regarding his fellow writers and teachers through the years. The results appear below, as a Library of America web exclusive.

Hayden Carruth. I first encountered his work in May of 1964. He first wrote to me in response to my poem “Meditation in the Spring Rain," I remember. But I don’t remember the year. After that we visited back and forth several times and carried on a lively and (to me) very valuable correspondence as long as he lived. I love him and his work very much.

Harry Caudill. In 1963, when I was living in New York and knew I would return home, Harry published Night Comes to the Cumberlands. I read it in the summer of that year. It showed me what it might mean to be a responsible Kentucky writer living in Kentucky, and it affected me deeply. Gurney Norman introduced me to Harry and Anne Caudill when I visited him in the summer of 1965. Harry (until his death) and Anne, Tanya and I became close friends and did a good deal of visiting and talking. Harry opposed the coal industry in coal country, pretty much face to face. He was, and he remains, a landmark.

See all of Mr. Berry's comments at Library of America.

A Profile of Tanya Berry

That’s the home Tanya Berry has made, in a rural community that endures — at least for now — because of people like her. Over those years, she has honed skills in farm work and the domestic arts, while serving as perhaps the most important fiction editor almost no one has heard of, married to one of the most important American writers almost everyone knows.

All this started more than a half-century ago with her leap of faith that an artsy city kid could learn, from scratch, what was needed to make a farm home. She grew up mostly in California, moving around often, and the early years of their marriage took them from Kentucky back to California, then to Europe and New York — part of what she once assumed would be a cosmopolitan life with a writer and academic.

But Wendell wanted to go home, and Tanya wanted to put down roots somewhere.

“He needed to be home, and I was flexible because I didn’t belong anywhere in particular. So, I took this on with him,” she says. “It’s not always been perfect. None of it has been perfect. But it’s been right. It’s been the right thing.”

Read the complete essay by Robert Jensen at Yes! Magazine.

Laura Dunn interviewed about Wendell Berry film

By way of answering that question: what did Mr. Berry think of the film? Has he seen it yet?

He saw a 20-minute version of the film very early on. I was a little worried that once he saw that he was going to shut the whole thing down, but apparently — I don’t know this from him, but from Mary — it really moved him emotionally. But he also wondered, “Is the argument clear? Could it be clearer?” Those were his two responses, and for me that was good feedback.

To my knowledge, he hasn’t yet seen the full film. The indication is that he will eventually. He doesn’t have a TV, he’s not going to go to a movie theater — God forbid he ever set foot in a movie theater — but we’ve provided him with the means to see it, so I hope he will see it. Tanya and Mary and Steve Smith, the farmer in the film, they’ve all seen it many times now. But Wendell did tell me how much he thought the 20-minute version captures something, and how important that is, and so that’s good enough for me.

Read the complete interview by Daniel Clarkson Fisher at NONFICS.

On Wendell Berry's current book and film

WENDELL BERRY CELEBRATED his 83rd birthday in August. He is old. But not so old that he can’t kick and spit and fight every force that threatens to destroy his way of life and, thus, his worldview. “What I stand for is what I stand on,” the seventh-generation Kentucky farmer and urgently prolific scribe wrote in 1980. And, indeed, Berry returns again and again to his hometown of Port Royal (Port William in his fiction). By pledging allegiance to all things local, he has brought global attention to the plight of fragile rural economies and the importance of sustainable agriculture.

In his latest book, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (available in November from Counterpoint), Berry continues to rage against machines: the laptops and high-tech tractors he believes are causing us to lose touch with each other and our environments. He laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Yes, Berry’s a bit of a curmudgeon, who likens our smartphone obsession to drug addiction and prefers horse-drawn plows to simulated horsepower. He writes longhand before his wife, Tanya, converts the manuscripts on a Royal Standard typewriter. Such anachronistic tendencies, however, point to more than mere nostalgia—namely, a clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress. As the journalist David Skinner noted in 2012, “Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times.”

See the complete article by Brian Barth at Modern Farmer.

Solving the Wendell Berry/Ralph Ellison quotation mystery

Dear Quote Investigator: The nature writer and activist Wendell Berry has been credited with a statement about knowing one’s place in the world:

If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.

Yet, this saying has also been ascribed to the novelist and critic Ralph Ellison. Would you please help clarify this situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ralph Ellison published the landmark novel “Invisible Man”. During one key episode in the book an old gentleman approaches the narrator to ask directions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought—to lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, I’ve learned to live without direction. Let him ask.

As the forgetful gentleman approaches, the narrator recognizes him as Mr. Norton who has asked for directions in the past, and the two converse:

“Because, Mr. Norton, if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are. So you came to me out of shame. You are ashamed, now aren’t you?”

“Young man, I’ve lived too long in this world to be ashamed of anything. Are you light-headed from hunger? How do you know my name?”

Read the complete article at Quote Investigator.

Wendell Berry's reflections on the events of September 11, 2001

This film uses an interview with Mr Berry that was apparently filmed in 2006.

In response to the events of September 11, 2001, Kentucky author Wendell Berry wrote the essay "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear". Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith matched his words with scenes of Kentucky and interviewed Wendell years later about the process of writing in response to crisis and the essay's continued relevancy. This is the first time Appalshop has made this work publicly accessible. KET shares this piece each year to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001.

 The text of the essay "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear" can be found HERE at Orion Magazine.

On Wendell Berry in California

The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places. In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”

But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.

Read the complete article by Matthew D. Stewart at Boom California.

On U. S. theatrical premier of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Next Friday (June 30) a film featuring the work of Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry will enjoy its U.S. theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York City. “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” is a cinematic account of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the mind’s eye of writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, an alumnus and former faculty member of the University of Kentucky Department of English.

The first documentary about Berry, one of America’s most significant living writers, “Look and See” was filmed in and around Henry County, Kentucky — where Berry has lived and farmed since the mid-1960s. Filmmaker Laura Dunn weaves Berry’s poetic and prescient words with striking cinematography and the testimonies of his wife Tanya Berry; his daughter Mary Berry, a UK alumna and executive director of The Berry Center; and neighbors, all of whom are being deeply affected by the industrial and economic changes to their agrarian way of life.

Read the complete article by Whitney Hale at University of Kentucky News.

On the Letters and Friendship of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

Say the names Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder in some circles and you will elicit everything from abject worship to ennui. I belatedly came to awareness of both of them in the late Seventies and early Eighties—Berry for his finely wrought essays and stories (I did not have the maturity to appreciate his poetry then) and Snyder for his poems that were so authentically rooted, many of them, in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. And though I appreciated both writers, and regarded both as exemplars of environmentally conscious writing, it never once occurred to me that they might be friends.

I pictured Berry plowing with mules on his Kentucky farm, and I pictured Snyder in the Sierra, running the ridges like a wolf. I thought of Berry as a student of the Scriptures, working out a biblically based land ethic, and I thought of Snyder as a Beat practitioner of Zen. But in spite of these differences they have been friends for almost half a century, first brought together in correspondence by their mutual publisher, Jack Shoemaker, and kept together all these years through mutual admiration—and sometimes by mutual consternation.

In Distant Neighbors, Chad Wriglesworth has done us the service of collecting and selecting forty years of their correspondence, from 1973 to 2013. In the fall of 2015, I was asked to introduce and interview Gary Snyder at a reading, and I told him before we went on stage that I was halfway through this book. “Wendell and I argued about two things for forty years,” Snyder declared: “Buddhism vs. Christianity, and wilderness vs. agriculture.”

That pretty much sums it up.

Read the whole article by Paul Willis at Education & Culture.