The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D., dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, and the Rev. J. Barney Hawkins IV, vice president for Institutional Advancement at VTS, visited Wendell and Tanya Berry, on their farm in Port Royal, Kentucky on Thuesday, August 21, 2014. The Dean’s Cross for Servant Leadership in Church and Society Award was presented to Mr. Berry at this time.
Earlier this month about 40 Vermonters got together in a candlelit barn in Fayston to celebrate the 80th birthday of a Kentuckian who did not attend, the writer and farmer Wendell Berry.
Berry’s poems, essays and novels are part of the intellectual foundation of the American environmental movement. He has written that we humans must learn to live in closer harmony with nature, and that small-scale farming and locally grown food are a key part of any coherent environmental ethic.
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Jayber Crow è un romanzo nostalgico su un tempo passato – un’America rurale e più rispettosa verso la natura, più innocente –, che ha un sapore dolce e amaro, come tutte le cose struggenti. Il barbiere di Port William con la sua testimonianza ci ricorda che l’uomo è solo un elemento di un ecosistema, ma anche il più pericoloso, il più devastante. Il protagonista si inserisce nella grande tradizione americana del Trascendentalismo, scegliendo un modo di vivere degno di Henry David Thoreau.
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It is inherently ironic for me to write about this on a computer, given that my introduction to Wendell Berry (and the piece of writing that inspired me to go on a Wendell-Berry-reading-rampage) was his essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer."
But as Mr. Berry once told me in a letter, we all live with a series of compromises we did not choose. So I will use this computer and this electricity to tell you the story of how I came to meet Wendell Berry, perhaps our nation's greatest creative voice in the conservation movement.
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On one hand there is the rather unexpected sight of a tobacco farmer born in 1930s Kentucky pondering aloud how he might feel were he “one of a homosexual couple.” On the other, we recall that Berry’s work invokes the ideals of the 1960s at least as much as it does those of the Bible Belt, and that he has connections to a Democratic Party which today cares far more for the gospel of sexologist Albert Kinsey than for its historical voter base of country folk and factory workers. In other words, Berry’s Georgetown College speech highlights a deep contradiction within the man’s rural mystique. The Georgetown speech calls for a serious and honest re-evaluation of the thought that led up to it, and we might begin such a re-examination by considering Jayber Crow, Berry’s widely celebrated millennial novel.
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Our conversation revolved around the state of higher education, farming, marriage, publishing, and Kentucky. And after I mentioned to him that I use his novel, Jayber Crow, in my introductory theology class, we ended up having what I hope was a mutually enriching conversation about the Trinity and the importance of having a truly incarnational theology. "Are you an incarnational theologian?" he asked me, and when I said that I was, I saw a glimmer of relief in his eyes. His concern was that I, as a theologian, might bear some resemblance to the beauty-in-the-world-denying preachers about whom he so frequently rails. Indeed, when I was later briefly out of the room, Wendell looked over at Kim and said, "Well, I'm enjoying this quite a bit more than I thought I would." I was not one of those theologians!
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Wendell Berry doesn’t just appeal to “crunchy con” writers and conservatives, who probably enjoy his more pastorally-focused prose. His work is about more than farmers and fields, though he definitely promotes the rural. Anyone—urban dweller and rural citizen alike—can appreciate Berry’s focus and emphasis on place. A prolific novelist, all of Berry’s novels focus on one town, placing themselves within its geographic and relational limits. It is as if, even here, he wants to focus on the particulars, to love one place, even a fictionalized one. These are the characters, families, and social dynamics he wants to invest in.
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Well, we’re stuck with the word “sustainability” because it’s clearly something we have to strive for. But we had better be a little humble about it, because we Americans have not sustained anything for very long. And the stuff that we have sustained, we haven’t done it deliberately until the last few years. So this issue of sustainability requires a lot of careful thought about ways of work and kinds of materials and it’s a conversation that we’ve just begun. The thing that we’re most needing to sustain is the health of the ecosphere, which is a big job. It then divides itself naturally into the need to sustain local ecosystems. The great fact of our time is that while our conversation about sustainability is trying to get started, we’re destroying the health of the local ecosystems.
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