UK mural lawsuit is dismissed

The controversial mural at the center of a lawsuit between the University of Kentucky and Wendell Berry must be maintained and cannot be removed, according to a court order filed Monday that also dismissed the lawsuit. The ruling comes after a years-long debate between students, administration and Berry over what should happen to the mural, which depicts Black workers — possibly slaves — planting tobacco and a Native American person wielding a tomahawk. Berry and his wife, Tanya, filed the lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court in 2020 to halt the removal of the mural. Tanya is the niece of the mural’s artist, Ann Rice O’Hanlon.

Read all of "Judge dismisses Wendell Berry’s lawsuit against UK, but says controversial mural must stay" by Monica Kast at

Earl Butz v. Wendell Berry debate transcript

Thanks to the generosity of Mark Musick, here is a link to a transcript of the debate (audio here) between former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and Wendell Berry. It occured on November 13, 1977 at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. Originally published in the Spring, 1978 edition of The CoEvolution Quarterly, the text here was re-printed in News that Stayed News: Ten Years of CoEvolution Quarterly, published in 1986. Download Earl Butz v. Wendell Berry - 11-13-77

BUTZ: I asked Dr. Berry this evening how big a farm he had, and he said fifty acres. I said, "Do you farm with horses?" He said, "Yes." But you see, Dr. Berry can do that because he has a substantial income as a poet, as a writer, as a professor at the University of Kentucky. He can afford to pay the electric bill—he doesn't have to have kerosene lights. He can afford to have an automobile—he doesn't have to drive a horse and buggy. He can afford to do those things because he takes outside income. Let's never forget that. That's true of many writers who write about such things as he does.

People say, "Butz, you're not for the family farmer." Of course I am. I'm for the family farm to make a decent living for the farm family. I don't want that family to starve to death slowly. I want that family to be able to enjoy some of the amenities of life-a color TV set, electric lights, indoor toilets. I want them to be able to afford an automobile and a vacation trip once in a while.


BERRY: Well, since Mr. Butz referred to my life, which is something I didn't intend to do, I may as well tell you about it. I know a little bit more about it than Mr. Butz. I am a school teacher and a writer. I've written a lot of books, which haven't exactly sold like hot-cakes. I may have made a year's salary out of it by now—not a large year's salary. I turned away from the main line of a teaching career. I was living in New York City, and I got a chance to come home and teach in the University of Kentucky. And then I went all the way home, to Henry County where my family, seven generations of my family, have lived and now live—not on the farm I live on, but on the next farm.

I just had twelve acres for a while, most of it steep, and I could hardly have called myself a farmer then. But a developer bought the forty acres next to me and was going to cover it up with little cottages, without any plumbing or sewage. He did some rather bad bulldozer work on it and made a hideous mess of it and failed. Then I bought him out, and I've spent the last four years restoring that forty acres. It has been expensive. The land could never have paid for the operation. I paid for it out of my salary. It's productive land now—steep; by modern standards, marginal. It's producing enough cattle now to pay the taxes, and we're taking our subsistence from it. I should say that subsistence taken off that little farm makes our domestic economy extremely sound. I've done the work with horses.

I've done it because I like horses, and because driving horses, I'm independent of the oil companies. I like that. Also, having horses makes economic sense. A good broke team of young mares now brings from two thousand to ten thousand dollars without any trouble at all. So I don't want any of you all to worry about me, because I farm with horses.

I was wondering how my neighbors were thinking about it until one stopped—an old man—and told me how proud he was of me, and until another stopped just the other day, a young man, and asked me if I could find him a team. He said that he thought he'd cultivate his crops with them and do—one—a better job, and—two—a cheaper job than he could with his tractor. He's right on both counts.

It goes on: Wendell Berry, Wife, and Typing

This article is a bit of a hand grenade, but it's worth understanding that the argument is still a thing.

While thinking about the problem of the Unfinished Revolution recently, I was reminded of this essay, "Feminism, The Body, and The Machine,” by foolish liberals’ favorite reactionary, Wendell Berry.  Berry wrote an essay, published in Harper’s Magazine, defending his refusal to buy a computer.  He mentioned in passing that he wrote his manuscripts in pencil and had his wife type the fair copy for publication on a manual typewriter.  When confronted with some blowback for making his wife do shit work while he did the fun part of writing, he wrote the linked response.  In the most petulant manner possible, Berry sniffs that his critics judged him unfairly, but he never provides any real evidence demonstrating that his wife was not exploited by their relationship.  

Berry wrote one specific line in the linked piece that demonstrates better than anything else why feminism is stalled and in retreat.  He claims, in the middle of his Peak Privileged White Dude Whine, “I understand that one cannot construct an adequate public defense of a private life.”  This is immediately and effectively contradicted by his own statement that his critics fail to consider a number of other possibilities: “that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing.”  He obviously knows that some facts could blunt his critics and yet provides no evidence of any of those things.  Since he mentions that his wife might find some “use and meaning” in doing his shit work, I think it’s worth examining how he describes their respective tasks. 

Read all of "The Unfinished Revolution" by Karen Cox at Daily Kos.

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.