Meeting Wendell Berry

Nearly every weekday, Wendell or his wife, Tanya, will stop by his P.O. box. The retail hours of the post office are just 10:30 am to noon, but Berry, a prolific letter writer, is a frequent patron. (The mail route in Port Royal offers service on Berry’s road but, like most conveniences, he doesn’t use it. “We want to support the local post office,” Berry explains. “We need that post office.”)

Here, in Kentucky, he has seen industry — coal, for example, once one of the state’s biggest employers — fleece the land and the people, sowing resentment. “The idea that rural and urban America describe two economies, one thriving and the other failing, is preposterous,” he tells me. “We’re joined by one economy. And it’s a one-way economy — the sucking and the digging is out here. The delivery is in the city. They’re prospering because they’re plundering their own country.”

The resulting slow bleed of life and self-sufficiency from small towns alarms the author. When Berry was growing up, many people worked at local farms or businesses. Today, nearly everyone is a commuter, working under a boss, and the small farms he remembers have largely vanished. “It’s a very significant change,” Berry says, “from self-employed to employee.”

Recognizing the problem of keeping people living and working in small communities like Port Royal, Berry’s daughter, Mary, founded the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, in 2011. It is a nonprofit with the goal of strengthening the bond between small farmers and the urban communities they serve. Mary says she hoped she could help “give people who want to farm something to come home to.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry is still ahead of us" by Hope Reese at Vox.


Mary Berry interviewed by Library of America

Library of America: In practical terms, how do you see the work you do at the Berry Center extending or perpetuating your father’s legacy?

Mary Berry: I started the Berry Center in 2011 to continue the work of my family for small farmers and land conserving communities, and to improve the culture of agriculture. My father says that his father, John Marshall Berry, did the important work and he and his brother, John Marshall Berry, Jr., just took it up. We have now taken it up at the Center, advocating for ways to put a stabilizing economy under good farming and to foster a culture that will support it.

We started with an archive of my family’s papers, papers that tell the story of how the agrarian mind works when put into service of a particular place. My grandfather, John Marshall Berry, was a lawyer, farmer, and principal author of the only farm program in the history of our country (the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-Operative Association) that served the people it was supposed to serve—the small family farmer. His papers highlight the program and a way of life that he honored. We have to change the way we judge and understand the history of agriculture in this country. These papers give us a way to do that.

Read all of  "Mary Berry: Extending Wendell Berry’s legacy is 'the most hopeful work I can think of'” at Library of America.


Wendell Berry interview in The New Yorker

A lot of people now come of age in places that feel like no place—a kind of vague American landscape, sculpted in part by corporations—which occasionally makes me wonder if homesickness, as a human experience, is itself on the verge of extinction.

Well, part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, “Where you from?” And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere. I’ll tell you a little bit of my history that may be pertinent. My mother was born and grew up in Port Royal, my father about four miles south. Both of their families had lived here since about the beginning of the nineteenth century. When I came to teach at the University of Kentucky, Tanya and I thought we would live in Lexington, and we would have “a country place.” And we hardly had laid our hands to this house, which needed some preservation work, when we realized, we’re not going to have a country place, we’re going to live here. And so we have. We bought this home and twelve acres in the fall of 1964, and moved in, in the midst of renovations, in the summer of 1965. That put our children here, and now we’ve got grandchildren who are at home here. That comes from a decision that we made to be here, and to be here permanently.

See all of "Going Home with Wendell Berry" by Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker.


Wendell Berry on computers, again

What made you want to publicly declare your intention to abstain from the computer bandwagon?

It seemed to me that everybody was jumping into this as if it would save the world. And that was really the way it was being advertised. “This is the solution to all our problems. This is going to speed things up.” And so, I made a little dissent. It’s really a tiny little no that I said.

While you were staging that “little dissent” President Ronald Reagan declared the computer revolution “the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

The idea that you’re free if you buy everything that’s marketed to you is absurd. You’ve become free only when you begin to choose. Take it – or leave it. That’s our freedom, that’s real freedom.

The way the human race practically bought into this computer sales talk was just contemptible. You come on the market with this thing. It’s exactly the way they marketed television. “This is the answer. Everybody’s going to be smarter now. Everybody’s going to be in touch.” Same line. And they don’t anticipate any negative result. Never.

Read all of "Why Wendell Berry is still not going to buy a computer" at The Christian Science Monitor.


Wendell Berry in conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge

Wendell Berry: The issue there again, it seems to me, is the acceptance of a limit. Science that accepts limits would do no harm to an ecosystem or a human body. This is very different from the kind of science that too frequently turns out to be product development, without control of its application. The nuclear scientists who developed the atomic bomb are a very good example. But so are chemists who develop toxic substances for a limited use that they have in mind, but then turn it loose on the market and into the world. So you develop a chemical to control weeds in crops, and you ask only the question of whether or not the weeds are controlled; you don’t ask what happens when it runs off into the rivers.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: This is why there has to be the precautionary principle, as Rachel Carson reminded us. But the only entities really capable of enforcing the precautionary principle are governments—and trade treaties and the globalizing economy have given giant multinational companies more and more power over governments. We’ve seen these last thirty years the enormous damage that this power shift created. And then with the financial breakdown in 2008, it was so clear that we needed regulation; but it didn’t happen.

WB: The global economy is almost by definition not subject to regulation. And this simply means that corporations can pursue economic advantage without limit, wherever in the world those advantages are to be found. And as I’ve thought of it in the last several years, it has seemed to me that we’ve had a global economy for about five hundred years—ever since the time of Columbus. And this allowed us to think that if we don’t have some necessity of life here, we can get it from somewhere else. This is the most damaging idea that we’ve ever had. It’s still with us, still current, and it still excuses local plunder and theft and enslavement. It’s an extreme fantasy or unreality, the idea that if we don’t have it here, we can get it somewhere else—if we use it up here, we can get it somewhere else. It’s the stuff of fantasy.

Read all of "Caretaking," a conversation between Wendell Berry and Helena Norberg-Hodge at Orion.


Interview with Mary Berry and Leah Bayens on the Wendell Berry Farming Program and other good things

The fourth episode of The Membership, a podcast about the life and works of Wendell Berry, consists of an interview by John Pattison with Mary Berry, director of The Berry Center, and Dr. Leah Bayens, director of the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College.  It is a wide-ranging conversation about the ideas behind The Berry Center, the economic and cultural realities of small farming, and the Berry Farming Program.

Of that program, Mary Berry says, "We're trying to do what the culture has failed to do because the economy has wrecked farm culture. We're trying to get these kids not just the education that a citizen of this country ought to have,  but we're also putting them together with people who have the cultural knowledge, who can make a living on using and reusing and fixing and so on. So, you know, if we had the culture that my father grew up with there'd be no reason for this."

Listen HERE. And subscribe to the whole podcast for consistently great conversation about the work of Wendell Berry. And support the work of The Berry Center as best you can.


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.


Wendell Berry in conversation at The Kentucky Book Fair, November 2018

At the Kentucky Book Fair on November 17, 2018, Wendell “I don’t take what I write all that seriously” Berry spoke with Jon Parrish Peede, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The event was moderated by Dr. Morris Grubbs of The University of Kentucky. HERE IS A LINK to an audio recording of that conversation.


Wendell Berry in conversation with Crystal Wilkinson

This year's KY Arts and Letters Day [November 10, 2018] at The Berry Center featured a very special keynote for our NEA Big Read: Agrarian Literary League of Henry County. Kentucky authors Wendell Berry and Crystal Wilkinson joined in conversation with moderator Debbie Barker to talk about their work, Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, growing up in and writing about rural places, and the legacy of black agrarianism in the South. Visit berrycenter.org to subscribe to our newsletter and find us on Facebook and Instagram for more information about events and goings-on at the center. Filmed live on location in New Castle, Kentucky.

 


Conversation about the Wendell Berry/Gary Snyder correspondence

Paul Swanson in conversation with Chad Wriglesworth:

Chad Wriglesworth is a professor (at St. Jerome’s University), literary critic, book editor and writer. What most strikes me about Chad is his love of words. You will hear in our conversation how he lights up on the poetic turn of phrase, or a word that is precise enough to communicate exactly what is intended. Chad compiled and edited the letters for Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. This book is riveting and I begged it not to end. The tone, tenor and rhythm of the letters are the manifestations from the lives of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. If you are a fan of this podcast, you are no stranger to hearing about Wendell Berry; Kentucky agrarian, poet, novelist, essayist, to name just a few of his attributes. Gary Snyder is also a man of letters from the same generation and equally as counter-culture but from another slant. Snyder is a poet, Zen Buddhist, essayist and leans into a more hunter-gatherer philosophical stance.

To here the conversation, visit Contemplify.