On Wendell Berry's 1977 debate with Earl Butz

[Note: The chronology of Berry's life found at the back of each Library of America volume says that this debate took place in November of 1978. But other evidence contradicts that. I'm pretty sure that the LoA chronology is wrong. tm]

In 1977, two of the most influential figures in the history of American agriculture met at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, to debate two widely differing visions of farming, culture, and the future of American farmland. Wendell Berry, the renowned poet, farmer, and writer defined the difference between himself and his rival, Earl Butz—the Secretary of Agriculture (1971 to 1976) widely credited with setting in motion the rapid consolidation of farmland in the United States—in simple terms. “We may never meet,” said Berry, “because he’s arguing from quantities while I’m arguing from values.” Where Berry saw the widespread loss of community, rural values, and care for the land, Butz saw an opportunity for increased profits. 

The 1977 debate between Wendell Berry and Earl Butz, still relatively unknown next to the rest of Wendell Berry’s oeuvre, provides a fascinating look into the ideology of industrial agriculture and the courage of those who oppose it. The work of farmers, writers, and activists like Wendell Berry inspire the work of Agrarian Trust to radically transform the US food system. The agricultural system built by profit-motivated politicians like Earl Butz, and its destructive effects on our health, communities, and livelihoods can no longer be justified. 

Read all of "Butz’s Law of Economics" by Noah Wurtz at Agrarian Trust

Listen to the debate here: Wendell Berry vs. Earl Butz debate 1977


Wendell Berry responds to UK Mural Removal Plan

The new plan rests upon the university’s case against the fresco, which remains a flimsy rationalization, in several ways open to question. It ignores the fresco's considerable value and significance as a work of art, which has been attested by qualified critics, some of whom have been employed as such by the university. It has therefore the standing of an artwork of established worth. Insofar as the university has already publicized its disapproval of the fresco and concealed it from public view, and insofar as President Capilouto has expressed publicly his willingness to destroy it, and insofar as he and the university now assume willingly the risk of its destruction, the university is implicated in acts and threats of censorship. This appears to be a precedent that can be expanded without limit. If President Capilouto, largely on his own initiative, can define or sequester or endanger or destroy this fresco, what then can prevent him from forbidding an invited speaker to speak, or from forbidding any book to be assigned by a professor, or from removing a disfavored writer's books from the university library?

Read all of "UK's plan for Memorial Hall mural dishonors honest thought" by Wendell Berry at Lexington Herald Leader.

For more information on the history of this controversy see: "Wendell Berry files suit to prevent removal of UK mural."


More thoughts on Wendell Berry's The Need to Be Whole

While Berry says the reaction so far to The Need to Be Whole, out Oct. 4, as opposed to the blowback he got from early readers, has actually been mostly positive, the book is decidedly not an exercise in public relations. Berry decries slavery while arguing that the motivations of the South were not all malevolent, just as those of the North were not all noble. (To wit: Lincoln's 1862 admission: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.") He posits that the term "slavery" is equally applicable to the life circumstance of some people today, including "highly paid professionals who cannot escape work they consider demeaning or destructive."

Berry stakes out these positions defiantly and with conviction, shrugging off the possibility of a hostile, maybe even legacy-damaging response. As he remarked when my wife, Linda, and I visited Wendell and his wife, Tanya, on their Kentucky farm last fall, "It's too late for it to ruin my entire life." He gave Tanya credit for this witticism.

Read all of "Beyond Good and Evil: On Wendell Berry's Brave New Book" by Bill Lueders at Common Dreams.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry's new book

The Need to Be Whole elaborates on themes Berry explored in his 1970 book on race, The Hidden Wound. Both argue that racism has a damaging effect on both white people and black people, and that injustices to both races have a deeper cause. He likens the "decline of a small black community in Chicago" to "the decline of the now nearly all-white small towns in my rural county." If both these things are occurring, he says, "then the problem cannot be race prejudice, or only that, but a prejudice of another kind."

He counts Martin Luther King Jr. as an ally in this analysis, saying the civil rights leader's own impulse toward wholeness moved him "from concern for black people to concern for poor people to concern at last for all people, their land and culture." Berry also pulls in the perspectives of others, including writer Ernest J. Gaines, whom Berry knew well, and bell hooks, who visited him at his farm. And while making his definitive life statement on the issue of race, he also explores all of the other issues—including the importance of community, localism, and physical labor—that run constantly through his work. ("Tanya," he relates in the introduction to his 2017 essay collection, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, "says my principal asset as a writer has been my knack for repeating myself.")

Read all of "Beyond Good and Evil: On Wendell Berry's Brave New Book" by Bill Lueders at Common Dreams.


Wendell Berry speaks against development plans

Berry rued the placement of a large industrial operation "right in the middle of one of our finest agricultural landscapes," and Wayne went so far as to call Angel's Envy a "colonizer."

"This is a very sacred place that God made – it's called Henry County," he said.

Despite the opposition, the commission nonetheless approved the industrial rezoning of the property and the conditional use permit for the agritourism destination. in  The commission added binding elements to the development plans prior to approval that included certification of data and charts provided by Angel's Envy that concerned naturally occurring flora and ethanol concentrations related to generation of whiskey mold.

Read all of "Planning commission recommends Angel's Envy rezoning, Bourbon Trail development" by Robb Hoff in Henry County Local (12 August 2022).


A Profile of Wendell and Mary Berry

Wendell Berry has spent a lifetime promoting an agrarian vision in which people and animals live in harmony with the land. As we drive around in his ancient pickup truck near his farm in Point Royal, Kentucky, he describes the way a farmer, plowing with a team of horses, understands when they need to rest.

“There’s sympathy when he looks at his team and he knows he’s asked enough of them,” Berry tells me. “By the same sort of sympathy, a farmer farming on the right scale knows the needs of the land.”

As we drive through Henry County, which includes Port Royal, Berry tells stories about the people who have lived here for generations. The winding country road rises and falls past small plots broken up by hollows and steep hillsides. Crumbling rock walls, more than a century old, line many of the fields. Nowadays, many of the people who live here are retirees or commute to jobs elsewhere.

Read all of "A Way of Life Being Lost" by Ruth Conniff in The Progressive.


A Ride with Wendell Berry

               Wendell pointed out his son’s farm as we passed and commented on the health of the cattle. We drove through Port Royal, the inspiration for Berry’s fictional town of Port William. Arriving at the next stop—a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, I worked up the nerve to ask Wendell to sign the two books I had so optimistically brought along. He smiled and signed both with personal inscriptions. While he signed we discussed black walnuts, a recently discovered population of American chestnuts, and yes, I even found a way to work pecans into the conversation. Wendell perked up at the mention of pecans, and remembered fondly that his parents had a pecan tree in the yard when he was growing up.

Read all of "Riding with Wendell" by Lenny Wells at Thoughts from the Orchard.

 


A Profile of Wendell Berry

I first heard of Wendell Berry when I was ten years old. One evening in 1964, my father, Dan Wickenden, came home from his editorial office at Harcourt Brace, in midtown Manhattan, and described his new author: a lanky youth of thirty, who sat with his elbows on his knees, talking in a slow Kentucky cadence and gesturing with large, expressive hands. An image lodged in my mind—busy men in dark suits, their secretaries typing and taking dictation, while Berry told amusing stories in bluejeans and scuffed shoes. (Tanya disabused me of that part of the memory: “Khakis, maybe. Not bluejeans.”)

I remembered this encounter not long ago when I pulled from a bookshelf “A Continuous Harmony,” a collection of Berry’s essays that my father edited in 1971. With its homely brown jacket and yellowing pages, it looked its age, yet it spoke urgently to our current compounding crises. One of the pieces, “Think Little,” announced, “Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet.” Berry went on to say that he was “ashamed and deeply distressed that American government should have become the chief cause of disillusionment with American principles.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry's Advice for a Cataclysmic Age" by Dorothy Wickenden at The New Yorker.


Wendell Berry receives University of Notre Dame's Henry Hope Reed Award

In conjunction with the Driehaus Prize, the $50,000 Henry Hope Reed Award, given annually to an individual working outside the practice of architecture who has supported the cultivation of the traditional city, its architecture and art, will be presented to Wendell Berry, an American poet, novelist, cultural critic, environmentalist and farmer, for his contributions to the discourse about nature and the city. 

“Berry is the bard of rural life in America, a writer and poet whose work speaks for the Earth and challenges us to appreciate and steward nature as the foundation of our sustenance, our well-being and a reflection of who we are as a culture,” said Polyzoides. “His writing and commentary have had an indirect but still profound influence on our built environment, offering inspiration and direction as to where and how nature should prevail over architecture, a fundamental question for our age.” 

Read the complete article at Notre Dame News.


Russell Moore on Wendell Berry's possible response to Lee statue removal

Around the time that I had sent my response to the student, I was out at the poet and novelist’s farm, where at his kitchen table I awkwardly brought up the subject of Lee. I say “awkwardly” because I was quite sure that Berry would disagree with my counsel. After all, I had just read a defense he’d made of Lee, and I was sure he would think that the picture’s removal was one more example of a mobilized and rootless modern society that refused to even remember the past.

Other than the one essay, however, I really had no reason to guess his response. Berry, after all, is an agrarian writer but decidedly not in the strain of “moonlight and magnolias” Southern agrarianism, which at best whitewashes and at worst romanticizes the violent white supremacist caste system of old Dixie. To the contrary, he has written poignantly on the “hidden wound” of white supremacy and the damage it has done.

Read all of "Good Riddance to the Robert E. Lee Statue" by Russell Moore in Christianity Today.