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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

From the Living on Earth Profile Series #8: Wendell Berry: Philosophical Farmer

Air Date: Week of

Farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry has written some thirty books. Most of them deal with issues firmly rooted in Berry’s native rural Kentucky. John Gregory of member station KFPL in Kentucky spent some time with Berry and has this profile.


CURWOOD: For more than 25 years, Wendell Berry has farmed a small piece of river bottom in his native Henry County, Kentucky. Along with tobacco, sheep, and vegetables, Mr. Berry has also cultivated a garden of literature: poetry, short stories, novels, and essays about the people and the land around him and the issues that deeply concern him, from racism and international trade to sustainable agriculture. John Gregory produced this profile of Wendell Berry.

(People singing to guitar)

GREGORY: There's something fitting about seeing Wendell Berry in a church beneath a stained glass window. His long, lean body folded into a chair, as his knees bounce in time to a song about gardening.

(Singing continues and finishes)

GREGORY: At 60 years old, Berry makes few appearances these days and gives even fewer interviews. He's all talked out, he says. But for the crowd of about 100 faithful gathered at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, Berry gives a speech that is equal parts lecture, conversation, and sermon.

BERRY: I've often explained my work as an essayist by saying that I'm a scared man. And I think I really have mainly written in, as a way of dealing with my own fears.

GREGORY: This night Berry says he is troubled by the industrial development along a favorite stretch of country road. And the reckless cutting of trees in southeastern Kentucky. These are extensions of a theme that Berry has written about for years.

CLAY: He fears that people aren't going to listen, and that we're going to destroy the Earth.

GREGORY: Pam Clay is the director of the Kentucky Organic Growers. The project is based on one of Wendell Berry's basic philosophies in which small family farms grow food for their neighbors, not for people thousands of miles away. Berry says this helps strengthen their communities and makes them more self-sufficient. Clay says Berry writes out of a sense of responsibility to share his insights.

CLAY: There's a scripture that "Where much light is given, much is required." And Wendell really does have an understanding that comes to him before it reaches the rest of us.

GREGORY: Berry makes his home in a narrow river valley of north central Kentucky, near where his family has lived for generations. It's populated by people much like the characters in Berry's fiction: humble, hardworking farmers bound, sometimes stubbornly so, to their agricultural traditions. Wes Jackson, a writer and the founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is a long-time friend of Wendell Berry.

JACKSON: Wendell was grounded in community life. And he saw the decency that was inherent in that way of life, and he saw it disappearing. And he's a man of loyalties.

GREGORY: So loyal that in the mid 1960s Berry returned to Kentucky after studying at Stanford University, traveling to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and teaching at New York University. He bought some land, and with his wife Tanya began farming.

JACKSON: What I think is extraordinary is that we find somebody that is as gifted as he is, intellectually, that puts himself right into the problem. And throws his elbows out and insists on working at it right from the inside.

GREGORY: The titles of some of Berry's 30 books reflect the issues he's tackled: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, The Gift of Good Land, Fidelity, What Are People For?, and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Berry says he's accepted the fact that he may be unable to get people to change.

BERRY: I think you've got to be ready to pounce on whatever success comes your way and trust that that process will accumulate force and intelligence and allegiance and go on. If it doesn't, then I'm ready for that, too.

GREGORY: Berry's ideas have been criticized as simplistic, antiquated, and utopian. He's also been heralded as the prophetic American voice. Pam Clay describes Berry as a painfully shy man who is loyal to his friends and enjoys a good laugh.

CLAY: And it's not that Wendell is an idol and we need to all do what Wendell does. We all need to be thoughtful about how we meet our basic fundamental needs. How am I going to feed myself? How am I going to move around in this community? That's what Wendell's been saying.

GREGORY: For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Louisville, Kentucky.



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