Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry used a national address this week to remind Americans of their connection to the land. As the country’s 41st Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, he spoke to an audience in D.C. about corporate greed and called on Americans to return to the land.
Berry’s address “It All Turns on Affection” wove his family’s story into a message of a kinder economy. He drew contrasts between what writer Wallace Stegner called “boomers” and “stickers.”
“The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power,” Berry said. “Stickers, on the contrary, are motivated by affection. By such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”
Berry said boomers have become the dominant culture in America, as land is treated as expendably as coal or oil. But the blame doesn’t fall solely on corporations. Berry argued that people are complicit in the country’s greedy culture, and that people have let corporations assume that land and people can be separated with no consequences.
“If farmers come under adversity from high costs and low prices, then they must either increase their demands upon the land and decrease their care for it, or they must sell out and move to town,” he said. “And this is supposed to involve no ecological or economic or social cost.”
Berry rejected that notion, and said there’s no way to separate a country and its people.
Berry wasn’t chosen for the honor solely based on his volumes of poetry and prose. National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Jim Leach called him “a modern-day Thoreau,” and also noted Berry’s activism. Most recently, Berry has been a vocal opponent of mountaintop removal coal mining, but in the past he’s also spoken out against the Vietnam War, nuclear power and the death penalty.
When the NEH chose Berry to deliver the lecture, Chairman Jim Leach told WFPL he was aware that Berry could be a polarizing figure.
“His views are not always appreciated by everyone,” Leach said. “His lifestyle, however, has to be one of the most respected one can conceive of. That is, very few people write and live what they write about.”
This was underscored by Berry’s speech. Afterwards, Leach briefly took the stage again to remind the audience that Berry’s views weren’t necessarily representative of the U.S. government.