“There’s something ageless about Wendell Berry”
– Garrison Keillor
It’s a rainy spring afternoon on Wendell Berry’s hillside farm in Henry County, northeast of Louisville. He’s taking a break, sitting at his kitchen table, talking about what it was like to get a medal from The President. “It was extraordinary. It was an experience totally unprecedented for me. But I’m not a person who’s much at ease in exalted public circumstances.”
Berry received the National Humanities Medal in a White House ceremony in March. He says winning the award was a great honor, but it also begged an uncomfortable question: “Is this what I’ve been working all my life for? The answer, of course, has to be no.”
For nearly 50 years, Wendell Berry and his wife have farmed the same land not far from where he grew up. He’s also published more than 40 books including novels, poetry and essays. He says he’s never had a bestseller but he certainly has fans and admirers, among them, The President, and Garrison Keillor, who’s published Berry’s work in his anthology series Good Poems. Keillor says of Berry, “His passion for the land is moving and it’s not put on, it’s not romantic. There’s something ageless about Wendell Berry.”
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
That’s a section of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”. While he’s earned a reputation as a writer, he’s been willing to put that reputation on the line. In February, he joined a group called Kentucky Rising that held a sit-in at the office of Governor Steve Beshear. The group was protesting the state’s sanctioning of mountaintop removal coal mining, among other issues. Berry and thirteen others spent three days and nights there.
Matt Murray is the editor of the University of Kentucky student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. Murray spent that weekend covering Berry and the protesters from inside the governor’s office. Murray says, “Anytime people seemed tired, sad, down, hungry, he’d be the one to say ‘We’re doing it for this reason. He was the constant reminder of why they were there, but not the guy who would say, ‘We need to do this, this and this.”
Berry joined that protest and others because he says there’s no justification for people doing permanent damage to the environment – although he doesn’t say it that way. Wendell Berry hates term ‘environment’. “We’ve got to quit talking about the environment, and start talking about places that we call by name. I refuse to call myself an environmentalist or to use that word as if it meant something.”
The term environment is too vague, he says, and doesn’t help communicate what he sees as the central problem: That we’ve created an economy and a society that neglect one of the primary laws of evolution: Adapt to your local, natural surroundings or die. “The answer, he says, is to consider the uniqueness of places and then try to understand how the human economy can be fitted to those unique places, and you can’t get to that by talking about the environment. Nobody has ever called their home places the environment.”
Berry pauses then, checks the clock and looks outside. The rain has stopped. He’s ready to get back to work. Writing may have earned him more awards than farming but that’s not why he’s done either of them.
“If you have work that you feel called to do and you feel capable of doing and that you like and you’ve been free to do it for many years, you are extremely fortunate. That is the real reward – doing the work itself.”
And Wendell Berry puts on his boots and his coat and heads back out to the farm.