Wendell Berry: An Agrarian Hero
"WE ARE DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY - I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so."- Wendell Berry, "Compromise, Hell!" (2004)
There is a Cree prophesy which states:The Native Americans, original caretakers of this land, understood stewardship and the unequivocal responsibility that people have to maintain balance with the environment. One can only imagine their utter shock when the early Europeans arrived and brought with them (besides disease) the notion of greed. Rather than taking only what was required for sustenance and wasting nothing, these newcomers had little respect for the land or the animals which inhabited it. Four centuries following the arrival of Europeans to this continent, Wendell Berry has not only recognized the repercussions of such a malignant, selfish attitude toward nature, he has dedicated his life to raising awareness of our less-than-desirable state while actively pursuing change.
Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only then you will find out that money cannot be eaten.
Wendell Erdman Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky, on August 5, 1934, the youngest of four children. His father, John M. Berry, Sr., was a founder of the Kentucky Burley Tobacco Growers Association and a highly respected attorney. Berry grew up in an agricultural environment, and from a young age, he wanted to be a farmer (Angyal, 1994).
His mother, Virginia, read to him from the time he was three or four weeks old, thus introducing him to books and poetry. He began school at New Castle Elementary School, and although he enjoyed reading, young Wendell was an indifferent student. He did not apply himself in his studies and was more interested in outdoors activities, such as hunting, trapping, and fishing. In response to the boy's lack of self-discipline, his father sent Wendell, along with his brother John, Jr., to Millersburg Military Institute near Paris, Kentucky in 1948. Wendell disagreed with the Institute's strict discipline, regiment of sports, and obedience to student officers, but he graduated in 1952. The same year, he enrolled at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, enthralled to be at a civilian institution. He had decided to become a writer and, logically, pursued a major in English (Angyal, 1994).
Berry graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1956 with a B.A. in English and enrolled in the graduate program that same year, having already had manuscripts accepted by Prairie Schooner and Poetry magazine. He acquired more than education during college, however. Berry met his future wife, Tanya Amyx, and they were married on May 29, 1957. Following a short stint teaching at Georgetown College, he realized he would rather be a writer than grade freshman papers. In 1958, he was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to the Creative Writing program at Stanford University, and the aspiring author, Tanya and new daughter, Mary Dee, left Kentucky for California. During his fellowship, Berry finished the manuscript of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, and it was published in April 1960 (Angyal, 1994).
That year, Berry and his family returned to his Kentucky home. It was a short-lived visit though. The following year, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to live and write in Europe, primarily France and Italy, with his family. Upon returning to the United States in 1962, he accepted a position at New York University as assistant professor of English and director of the freshman English program. On August 19, Wendell and Tanya's second child, Pryor Clifford, was born. The busy New York lifestyle, however, did not suit the nature-loving Berry, and he accepted a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 1964. This move allowed him to return to the land his family had maintained for nearly two centuries--this time to stay (Peters, 2007).
The rural Kentucky agrarian lifestyle has remained at the center of Berry's works throughout his career. One of his primary concerns is the displacement of small, eco-friendly family farms with highly-industrialized, exploitive commercial ones. Biographer Andrew J. Angyal explains:
Wendell Berry's concerns are both economic and moral at heart. He presents a comprehensive criticism of the methods, assumptions, and effects of industrial agriculture and proposes instead methods of sustainable agriculture based on the use of solar energy, diversified crops, organic fertilizers, crop rotations, and draft animals. (p. 31)
In The Long Legged House (1969), Berry's first collection of essays, he illustrates his intellectual development as a moral thinker and practitioner of the Thoreauvian ideals of social protest. Berry's works also reflect the increased environmental awareness of the decade (Angyal, 1994).
In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build a dam on the Red River Gorge in Powell County, Kentucky. The intended purpose of the dam was to control floods and create a man-made lake for recreation. It would also, however, flood the scenic Red River Gorge with its magnificent wilderness landscape, in which Berry often hiked and camped. He became active in the intense twenty-year political battle to preserve the area. His most important contribution to saving the region was the publication of The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge in 1971. The long-natured essay of Berry's, combined with stunning black-and-white nature photography by Gene Meatyard, earned critical acclaim and helped publicize the efforts to save the gorge (Angyal, 1994). Although the Clifty Wilderness, through which the Red River runs, was designated in 1985, on December 3, 1993, the battle over the gorge came to a close with Red River's entry into the Wild and Scenic River System. President Bill Clinton signed the declaration into law which provides protection for the 17.4 mile section of the river and eliminates any future possibility of a dam being constructed in the region (Wikipedia, 2007a).
In 1977, Berry left the University of Kentucky. He wanted to devote himself full-time to writing and farming, and he disliked the university's increasing technological emphasis and declination of traditional liberal arts curriculum. The same year, he published The Unsettling of America, one of his most influential works. The book is an attack on agribusiness. Berry finds a blatant connection between the gigantic, destructive farming operations and the military-industrial complex, as many of the commonly-used pesticides were originally developed through chemical warfare research. The book serves as a commentary on America's hasty, careless, and wasteful land management practices (Angyal, 1994).
Berry returned to teaching at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 1987 with a schedule allowing him to both teach and farm. He has remained a major spokesperson in the environmental movement, particularly in regards to the relationship between agriculture and the environment. One of his principal objections is misuse of the land, whether at the hands of misguided government policies, poor farming practices, strip-mining, land speculation, development, or absentee ownership (Angyal, 1994). "His view of land ownership is intensely moral, combining careful stewardship and restoration to correct prior misuse" (Angyal, p. 34).
Wendell Berry currently resides in his native Henry County where he continues to actively farm 125 acres. He is a prolific author, poet, and social critic, with thirteen books of fiction, sixteen books of poetry, and twenty-three collections of non-fiction. He has garnered countless awards for his writings, including the Lannan Foundation Award for Nonfiction (1989), the John Hay Award (1993), and the T.S. Elliot Award (1994) (Peters, 2007). In 2006, he was named Kentuckian of the Year for his writings and environmental contributions (Wikipedia, 2007b). A man of his convictions, he continues to vigorously oppose the misuse and unnecessary destruction of land. In his 2004 essay, "Compromise, Hell!," he asserts that "we need to give an absolute priority to the caring well for our land - for every bit of it. There should be no compromise with the destruction of the land or of anything else we cannot replace" (Berry, 2004, p.26).
Angyal, Andrew J. (1994). Wendell Berry. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Berry, Wendell. (2004). "Compromise, hell!". In The way of ignorance (pp. 20-27). (2005). Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard.
Peters, Jason (Ed.). (2007). Wendell Berry: Life and work. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
Wikipedia. (September 19, 2007a). Red River Gorge. Retrieved September 24, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_River_Gorge
Wikipedia. (September 24, 2007b). Wendell Berry. Retrieved September 25, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendell_Berry