35 Who Made a Difference: Wendell Berry

A Kentucky poet draws inspiration from the land that sustains him

Wendell Berry
Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Berry, farmer and poet, has lived in sight of the Kentucky River for 40 years, in a landscape where generations of his family have farmed since the early 1800s. The river is probably the only mainstream close to his heart. As a farmer, he has shunned the use of tractors and plowed his land with a team of horses. As a poet, he has stood apart from the categories and controversies of the literary world, writing in language neither modern nor postmodern, making poems that have the straightforward elegance of the Amish furniture in his farmhouse. And in recent decades, he has produced a body of political thought, in a series of essays and speeches, that is so Jeffersonian it seems almost un-American in today's world.

Berry argues that small farms and farm communities are as vital to our liberties now as they were in Jefferson's day. The agribusiness corporations and developers that have all but replaced them, he warns, are eroding our freedom along with our soil. In a recent essay, "Compromise, Hell!" he writes: "We are destroying our country—I mean our country itself, our land....Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us."

At 71, Berry and his wife, Tanya, live on their 125-acre farm, producing almost all the food they eat: table vegetables from the garden, meat from their flock of sheep. They sell some sheep and take firewood from the woodland, and their livestock graze on green pastures. During Berry's years as a writer—he has produced some 40 volumes of poetry, fiction and essays—and a teacher in the English department at the University of Kentucky, the couple has practiced and achieved the respectable degree of self-sufficiency that Berry preaches. They have improved the land, raised a family and seen both of their children take up farming nearby. Their son, Den, and his wife, Billie, raise cattle, corn and hay on a farm five miles away; Den makes furniture to augment the family income. Their daughter, Mary, and her husband, Chuck Smith, ten miles away, have preserved an old farm by turning it into the Smith-Berry winery, while also raising cattle and crops.

Twenty-five years ago, Berry wrote in Smithsonian about the hard work of reclaiming land that had been neglected and abused, of learning how to properly cultivate and care for it. When I visited the farm recently, he was pleased to show me how the land has responded. "Tanya and I just got back from a sheep sale," he remarked, "and I drove up the creek and thought, this is so beautiful, completely beautiful. You don't know how beautiful it is unless you see it every day. You may forget about it in the frustrations and heartbreak of farming and your life, but then it'll come to you again, you'll see it again."

Berry has criticized the environmental movement for separating wilderness from farmland in its conservation campaigns. Showing me around the place, he said, "This is the front line of the conservation struggle too. I don't think people realize how much work, actual physical work, would be involved in restoring this country to some kind of health. My experience over the last 25 years has been that not many people speak, or can think, from the point of view of the land. As soon as the conversation shifts from issues actually affecting the land, to 'the environment,' then you're done for. People think of it as something different from themselves, and of course it isn't."

No less critical of the agricultural establishment, Berry gained considerable public attention 30 years ago with his book The Unsettling of America, a manifesto against the government's advice to farmers: get big or get out. "I suppose the main misfortune in my life," he says, "is that the public situations I've tried to address haven't changed very much. I thought that book was a way of taking part in a public conversation, and the public conversation hasn't happened—not, for sure, in the capitols or in the mainstream media."

Berry has been joined by a growing community of allies, however, in pressing Jefferson's claim that "The small landholders are the most precious part of a state." And the public, for its part, has been showing an increased interest in farmers' markets, locally grown organic produce, and consumer co-ops that offer healthier foods—all signs that small farms, after decades of decline, could someday make a comeback. The greatest obstacle, Berry worries, is a lack of people to work the land. "How are you going to get these people?" he wonders. "And how are you going to keep them at it once you've got them, past the inevitable disillusionment and the weariness in the hot sun?" When I remind him of an old popular song about farm boys returning from World War I—"How're you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"—he responds: "How are you going to shut up that voice that's now in every American mind, "I'm too good for this kind of work'? That is the most insidious voice of all."

As a young man, Berry thought he would have to leave his native place and way of life. "In high school my teachers were telling me, you can't amount to anything and stay where you're from. So when I left here I assumed I would be an academic wanderer perhaps, that I'd be going with my 'talent' from one university to another, so I could amount to something. When I decided to come back here, a lot of people I respected thought I was deliberately achieving my ruin." Now his life, and his poetry, belong to the place he came back to. "I realize every day how extremely fortunate I've been as a writer to live where my imagination took root," he says. In his poetry he often gives thanks for his surroundings. He seeks to write, he says in a recent poem, in "a tongue set free from fashionable lies."

I ask if he sometimes feels like an Old Testament prophet, a voice in the wilderness. He can't afford such thoughts, he says. He is determined to have hope. "Part of the reason for writing all these essays is my struggle never to quit, to never utter those awful words 'it's inevitable.'" His writing has sometimes been called radical, but he thinks of himself as a conservative, conserving what is most human in our landscape and ourselves. "You know," he says, laughing, "if you subtracted the Gospels and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence from my work, there wouldn't be very much left.”

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