On Wendell Berry's Christianity

It was in 1979 that Berry published his first essay on a biblical vision of stewardship, started writing his sabbath poems, and began drafting Remembering. At this time, he was also carrying on a remarkable correspondence with the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder in which he takes up, albeit uneasily, the defense of the biblical tradition. Berry’s revisions to his earlier work provide another window into his changing stance toward Christianity during these years; when he selects his poems for the 1985 Collected Poems, he omits several of his early poems that conveyed a kind of pagan, animist vision of creation.

What seems to underlie this shift is Berry’s growing sense that the Christian language of Creation was indispensable for rightly articulating the human place in the world. As he writes in his 1979 essay “The Gift of Good Land,” “the idea of the land as a gift—not a free or a deserved gift, but a gift given upon certain rigorous conditions” has far-reaching implications, and working out the implications of Creation-as-gift animates much of Berry’s later work.

Read  a section of Jeffrey Bilbro's "When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking Like a Christian?" at Christianity & Literature.


Recent Interview with Wendell Berry

You have written eloquently about how growing up in a farming community in northern Kentucky, where your family has lived for generations, shaped your life and work. Tell us about this experience and its influence on your life choices.

I grew up in Henry County, Kentucky, which at the time of my birth and for a while afterward was an agrarian county. The businesses in the towns were supported by agriculture, which they, in turn, supported. My father was a lawyer who all his life was also a farmer. He made sure that I learned farming, as well as the principles of the organization he served, the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association. By means of price supports and production controls, it maintained the small farmers of this part of the country for about six decades. Tobacco became indefensible after the 1965 Surgeon General’s report, but the principles of the Association remain right for agriculture.

My father, a principled agrarian, was concerned about having a writer for a son, afraid that I wouldn’t make enough money to feed my family. But two things happened. One was that I became gainfully employed; the other was that my writing, especially the Unsettling of America (1977), revealed to him how much I had inherited from him and how my work carried his values on into my own life and time.

Read all of "For Love of Place: Reflections of an Agrarian Sage" at Great Transition Initiative.


An Interview with Wendell Berry about Education

Berry: I was a very good boy until I was in the third grade. And from then on I hated school. 

David: Because you were forced to stay inside?

Berry: Well, I had experienced freedom in the countryside, and to tell you the truth there wasn’t a lot going on in school that was very interesting. But I didn’t like the confinement. I made a lot of trouble, and I didn’t understand the implication of the trouble I was making. The implication was that I was going to get sent to a military school. At 14 I went away to school with my brother, who was a year younger than I. We went to Millersburg Military Institute up in central Kentucky. And I was about as well-suited to that as I would have been to, I don’t know, an assembly line, which in effect it was. And while I was there I had the good fortune to have maybe three teachers who really did something for my education. I received kindness from more teachers than that, from a couple more. There were two curricula: The first was what they intended to teach you, the second was what they didn’t intend to teach you. I learned something from both. But I had a bad attitude that they discovered early. It was defiance. Also I learned just to slip away and go for a walk somewhere. When I got to college, I liked that. There were, oh, half a dozen teachers I found in college who really did affect me. I respected them. The ones I respected the most were the ones who were hardest on me. But they had something to offer, you see. The teacher I had most often in college was Thomas Stroup. He taught Milton. He started me reading Spenser, although he didn’t teach a Spenser class at that time. He read T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” one afternoon in his office, read it beautifully. He kicked me out of class one day and told me in front of everybody, “Your arrogance is exceeded only by your ignorance.” 

Read the whole of "Education Is A Dangerous Thing: A Conversation With Wendell Berry" by David Kern at Forma: A Magazine from the Circe Institute.


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.