Wendell Berry

Introduction

The ‘Inhabiting Memories & Landscapes’ conference will relate either directly or indirectly to the writings of Wendell Berry, the well-known agrarian poet, novelist, essayist, conservationist, and farmer. Berry has received numerous awards, including  The National Humanities Medal, the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, The Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion, and Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and a Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Early Life & Academic Career

Wendell Berry was born on 5 August 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky during the Great Depression. Although his father studied law, he returned to the family business of farming tobacco, later founding a local tobacco farming co-op that Berry later praised in one of his essays. Berry grew up on the family farm, attending school at Millersburg Military Institute before leaving home to attend the University of Kentucky. After earning an M.A. in English and marrying Tanya Amyx in 1957, he embarked on an academic career that included a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship to Italy and France, and teaching positions at New York University and the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky & Farming

In 1977, Berry resigned from teaching to devote himself full-time to writing and farming the land he and Tanya had purchased in the 60s. In several of his essays, he writes about the experience of relearning the art of husbandry, the early mistakes he made as he sought to impose his will on the land, and the wisdom he gained as he came to know and appreciate the landscapes and character of his property. An admirer of the Amish, he gradually moved away from mechanised farming in favour of traditional horse-powered approaches. His experiences deeply informed his philosophical, religious, and social outlooks. This can be seen in three themes of his writings: sabbath, conviviality, and husbandry.

By sabbath, Berry means weaving rest and delight into our relationship with the land and our communities. Drawing on the Judeo-Christian notion of the sabbath rest, he understands this to be a vital antidote to the relentless busy-ness of modern life and the relentless exploitation of the earth. Without sabbath, there is no occasion for healing.

Conviviality refers simply to the living well with the land and neighbours. This is done through love that arises from knowledge and familiarity. In his essay, ‘The Work of Local Culture’, he argues that it’s only by learning each others stories and knowing the stories of those handed down from our parents, that local communities can know how to live well with their places.

Finally, Berry often extols the old-fashioned art of husbandry, which he describes as striving not only to do no damage to the land under ones care but also improving the land through for ones sympathetic work. Sabbath and conviviality are necessary parts of effective husbandry, which he argues requires small-scale farms, diversified farming (annuals, perennials, and livestock), local economies, and local knowledge.

Conservationism

Berry is arguably best known for his passionate advocacy for the conservation of the environment and local cultures. Again and again in his writings, he laments economic and government policies that undermine local economies and culture and pay little regard to the well-being of the land. He is a particularly strong critics of strip mining, agrobusinesses, and monoculture farming, arguing that each causes catastrophic damage to the earth. He has frequently participated in protests against mining and nuclear energy and was among the first to warn about the widespread erosion of topsoil through industrial farming techniques.

Berry, however, has also been a critic of the environmental movement–indeed of all movements–for not being sufficiently mindful of local places, idolising the wilderness, and over-emphasizing climate change at the expense of other environmental concerns, not least topsoil erosion. His ideal might be described as deeply conservative insofar as he envisions a world in which society is ordered towards the conservation of local environments and cultures. Repeatedly, he argues for conviviality and husbandry, ways of life that seek to use the land according to its nature and to live well with one’s neighbours. Despite his criticisms, Berry’s The Unsettling of America is considered by meany to be a core text of the American environmental movement.

Writings

Berry is one of the most prolific authors alive today. His writings span seven decades and include fiction, poetry, and essays on a wide variety of topics. Almost all of his works, however, draw lessons from the place and people of Henry Country, Kentucky, even when this is fictionalised in his novels and short stories as Port William. Among his best known works are:

  • Nathan Coulter
  • Hannah Coulter
  • Jayber Crow
  • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
  • The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural
  • What are People For?
  • Life is a Miracle
  • Sabbath Poems
  • The Art of Loading Bush: New Agrarian Writings

Recently In the UK, his essays have been collected by Paul Kingsnorth in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry.

It’s a though Berry wants to dig deeply into the place that is his home through his imagination and rational discourse in the same way that he digs into the soil of his farm. His works are exemplary in their capacity to draw lessons for the world through their reflection on the particular. This, his works exemplify his philosophy: by living well with ones home through deep knowledge and love is the best and perhaps only way to live sustainably and convivially with nature and our neighbours.

Influence

The influence of Wendell Berry’s writings and advocacy in America is difficult to exaggerate. They have even been identified recently as helping to shape Barak Obama’s economic policies. His influence on the environmental movement has already been noted, but a survey of books, essays, fiction, and poetry that engage with his writings reveals his influence on an array of authors, including economists, literary scholars, poets, sociologists, theologians, educationalists, novelists, and social commentators.

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