Vox – A champion of the unplugged, earth-conscious life, Wendell Berry is still ahead of us

A champion of the unplugged, earth-conscious life, Wendell Berry is still ahead of us

The writer and farmer’s impassioned arguments on farming, technology, and the urban-rural divide have taken on a new urgency.

By Hope Reese

October 9, 2019 9:41 am

Wendell Berry, 85, on his farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. He left his budding career as a New York academic in the 1960s to return to his hometown.

Guy Mendes

PORT ROYAL, Kentucky — Wendell Berry doesn’t like screens. The 85-year-old writer doesn’t own a TV, computer, or cellphone. If you call the landline at his country home in Port Royal, you won’t reach an answering machine. When he reads this profile, it will be because someone else printed it out. And, if his general approach to life is any indication, he will probably take his time.

It’s virtually impossible to imagine life in the modern world without our technological accessories, but Berry has consistently presented this spartan circumstance as a compelling proposition: An unplugged life, rooted in nature, he has argued, is the key to fulfillment.

As urban farms and tiny homes and movements to unplug proliferate, it’s clear that Wendell Berry is, once again, ahead of us.

Perhaps most known for his 1977 bestselling book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, the writer and farmer has served as a moral beacon to Americans for half a century, warning of the dangers of consumerism, industrial agriculture, and the dissolution of rural communities. Now, as we face the greatest environmental crisis in history and grapple with deep polarization, his impassioned arguments on subjects ranging from industrial farming to technology have taken on a new urgency.

“The idea that rural and urban America describe two economies, one thriving and the other failing, is preposterous”

He has insisted on individual responsibility: Indeed, Berry contends climate change advocates don’t go far enough and that “the origin of climate change is human laziness” — a view now widely adopted by those who would ban straws and limit their air travel.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Berry has also anointed himself a defender of rural Americans. As a never-ending flood of articles, think pieces, and analyses have attempted to understand how Trump was elected, placing the blame squarely on people living in the Midwest, South, and particularly those far from urban centers, Berry has called attention to the stereotyping of rural residents and the economic distresses these areas have endured.

In a 2017 letter he wrote to the New York Review of Books, Berry called an article’s characterization of the “southernization” of rural Americans — presumably making them sexist, racist, and increasingly uneducated — as “provincial, uninformed, and irresponsible.” Instead of continuing to ignore their plight, Berry suggests, we ought to acknowledge the plundering of these rural regions by their urban neighbors. “Rural America is a colony,” Berry wrote, “and its economy is a colonial economy.”

The writer and activist Michael Pollan — who was greatly influenced by Berry — suggests that Berry remains a singular sort of truth-teller.

The Unsettling of America, which rang the alarm bell about the future of farming, was “prescient,” Pollan says, forewarning “the industrialization of farming: what it was going to do with farmers, what it was going to do with the land, and what it was going to do to rural communities, which was wreck them.”

“How many voices do we have like this?” Pollan asks. “True rural voices that can speak to those in the cities?”

Seven generations of farmers

If you ask the average person in Kentucky what he or she knows about Berry, those who have heard of him will tell you he’s a poet, or novelist, activist, environmentalist, or farmer. The truth is that Berry is a Renaissance man, skilled at all of it.

He has lived on Lanes Landing Farm in Port Royal for more than half a century, since he left behind a budding career as a New York academic. But Berry, the author of more than 40 books, is well regarded far beyond the rolling hills of his home state. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him with the National Humanities Medal. In 2015, he was the first living writer inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. In May, a boxed set of his work was published by the Library of America — making him one of only two living writers to have received the honor.

President Barack Obama presents a National Humanities Medal to Wendell Berry in 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

All of that time, he’s devoted himself to Lanes Landing, to nurturing the land, maintaining close relationships with friends and family, and crafting ideas about how best to sustain the earth and community there.

Berry rarely grants interviews, and the only way he wanted to be reached, initially, was through handwritten letters. I began writing to him in March, and though he responded each time, he kept me at arm’s length, wanting to know more about my intentions before committing to meet or talk to me. Months passed before he relented, and when he did, he joked on the phone that I could tell my editor he was a grumpy old man.

Berry and I finally settled in the living room of his cozy home on a sunny summer morning. The built-in shelves that surrounded us were stacked with books, from dictionaries to history books to Ann Patchett novels. He sat across from me in a rocking chair, arms crossed, wearing khakis with some minor paint stains and a button-down shirt with a small notebook peeking out of the front pocket. On his feet, he wore black socks and sandals.

Outside the open window to my right, past the front porch, was a leafy landscape with the Kentucky River in the distance. Berry is breeding rams for several friends who have sheep flocks and has a dozen yearling ewes (one of whom I met on my walk up to the farmhouse) that he raised for his neighbor. The menagerie Berry once cared for has become “much diminished,” he says, because he doesn’t have the strength for more.

Berry was born not far from here in 1934 in New Castle, Kentucky, but his family has lived in Port Royal for years. They were a family of farmers, seven generations of them: His father was a lawyer and farmer. Berry was a contrarian from an early age, joking to his well-educated dad that he wanted to become a bootlegger. Instead, Berry attended a military high school; he “waged four years there in sustained rebellion against everything the place stood for, paying the cost both necessarily and willingly,” he wrote in his first essay collection, The Long-Legged House.

Port Royal (current population: 64) has changed radically. When his mother was young, Berry says, the town had 16 businesses. During his own childhood, there were 12. Rick’s Farm Center — a local farm-supply store with a small eatery featuring a lunch special for $5.75 when I visited — is currently the only enterprise, excluding the post office.

Nearly every weekday, Berry or his wife, Tanya, will stop by his P.O. box. The retail hours of the post office are just 10:30 am to noon, but Berry, a prolific letter writer, is a frequent patron. (The mail route in Port Royal offers service on Berry’s road but, like most conveniences, he doesn’t use it. “We want to support the local post office,” Berry explains. “We need that post office.”)

Here, in Kentucky, he has seen industry — coal, for example, once one of the state’s biggest employers — fleece the land and the people, sowing resentment. “The idea that rural and urban America describe two economies, one thriving and the other failing, is preposterous,” he tells me. “We’re joined by one economy. And it’s a one-way economy — the sucking and the digging is out here. The delivery is in the city. They’re prospering because they’re plundering their own country.”

The resulting slow bleed of life and self-sufficiency from small towns alarms the author. When Berry was growing up, many people worked at local farms or businesses. Today, nearly everyone is a commuter, working under a boss, and the small farms he remembers have largely vanished. “It’s a very significant change,” Berry says, “from self-employed to employee.”

Recognizing the problem of keeping people living and working in small communities like Port Royal, Berry’s daughter, Mary, founded the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, in 2011. It is a nonprofit with the goal of strengthening the bond between small farmers and the urban communities they serve. Mary says she hoped she could help “give people who want to farm something to come home to.”

Berry’s granddaughter, Virginia Aguilar, directs the agrarian cultural center and bookstore at the Berry Center. “There is a lot working against young people having a connection with place,” she says. “There’s the language of upward mobility — that if you have a good mind, you’ll take your talents elsewhere.” Even Aguilar, with a commitment to her hometown, had a difficult time acquiring land in Henry County.

Those who still farm here, Berry tells me later, need to support it through non-farming jobs, such as working in steel and chemical factories along the Ohio River, construction jobs in Louisville, or at the state penitentiary in nearby La Grange.

“People come out here in the summertime, and it looks pretty and they say how beautiful it is,” he says. “But you could drive from Shelbyville to New Castle through some of the best grazing land in the world and I bet you won’t find a single farm with a kitchen garden or a family milk cow or a flock of chickens. They may be spending the night out there. But they’re not living from the country. Which means, in a certain profound way, they’re not living in the country.

“This little community that used to be coherent, sufficient to itself,” he says, “is a bedroom community where people come to sleep and watch TV.”

Guy Mendes

Leaving New York City

Berry himself was once lured away by the promises of urban life. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1957, Berry landed a fellowship at Stanford University, followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship and a job teaching English at New York University.

In 1964, Berry lived in what many considered the intellectual and cultural epicenter of America: Greenwich Village. But against the advice of his colleagues, he decided to leave his position in New York after only two years. He loaded everything he and Tanya owned into a Volkswagen Beetle and headed west toward Kentucky.

Despite his colleagues’ warnings, Berry insists that life in the country has been intellectually fulfilling. “People come down and say, ‘Who do you talk to?’” he says. “As if a published writer like me would have very limited choices in a place like this. Well, we talk to everybody! Sometimes valuable things turn up. Some of my best teachers never went beyond the eighth grade.”

Berry purchased his home and 12 acres of land in Port Royal the same year he left New York, and he began the difficult task of healing the land. He tells me that there were “spots of erosion, scars on the land,” and there was also a lot of work to do in getting it fenced. Instead of using tractors, Berry opted for horse-drawn plows. His farm eventually yielded a small profit, but the benefits were mostly drawn from the self-sustaining nature of the endeavor, the fact that the Berrys were producing their own food.

In the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Berry also began writing about his surroundings. But unlike Thoreau and Emerson, who were simply visitors to the natural environments they wrote about, Pollan says that Berry was actually engaged with nature: “He wasn’t just a spectator. He was a farmer.”

Berry is now also arguably the greatest writer in Kentucky history. Max Rudin, the president of the Library of America, wrote in an email that Berry is “our essential modern exemplar of an American way of thinking and writing about nature, and place, that refuses to distinguish cultural, moral, and spiritual questions from scientific and technological ones.”

As for his prose, it is clear, succinct, profound. He is skeptical of euphemisms, political correctness, and movements. He hates the vague term “the environment,” preferring to discuss trees, insects, soil — the concrete things we can see and work with. Pollan says that Berry is “suspicious of abstractions because he knows what hides behind abstractions: hypocrisy and greed.”

Bill McKibben’s environmental activism was spurred after his wife gave him a copy of Berry’s 1979 essay collection Home Economics, which offered ideas on how we can live a simple and grounded life at home. “There’s no writer working in the English language I admire as much,” McKibben says.

For the author Barbara Kingsolver, he’s something more: A fellow Kentuckian whose writings she turned to, she wrote in an email, “after I left home and learned with a shock that the outside world looks down on us.

“Decade after decade, I keep running up against the bigotry of American mainstream culture against Appalachians, farmers, and rural life, and I always come back to Wendell for solace,” she wrote. “Quietly and without bitterness he brings me home to myself, reminding me that all the ‘hillbilly elegies’ in the world can’t touch the strength of our souls or the poetry of our language.”

Berry is now at work on a book about race, a follow-up of sorts to one he wrote 50 years ago called The Hidden Wound. “The conversation about race has become really degraded,” he says. “It has been reduced to slogans and stereotypes.” His new book will address the removal of Confederate monuments as well as “deal with the persistence of slavery” — Berry’s great-grandparents, in fact, owned slaves — and the idea that this ended when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, he says.

“It’s either the hardest book I’ve ever done, or I’m the oldest I’ve ever been,” he joked at a book event in Louisville this spring.

Staking out “a clear, rigid position”

On an ideal day, Berry splits his time between farming and writing. He writes in a small farmhouse on his property, overlooking the Kentucky River. The season, weather, and farming demands determine his work schedule — when it’s cold out, he’ll write indoors, but during the summer, he prefers writing outside. Because he doesn’t like using electricity to write, he will write from the untethered farmhouse during daytime hours when natural light filters through a 40-pane glass window.

Berry cracks open a notebook and begins writing, by hand, in pencil. He writes on the right page, leaving room on the left for corrections, a system he tells me “works perfectly.” Then he will hand it over to his longtime typist and editor, Tanya, who types it up on their old Royal Standard typewriter — the same one they bought new in 1956. In the next phase, a second typist will take over, entering Berry’s words into a computer, and he will send the finished draft to his publisher.

After a 1988 essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Berry attracted critical responses from readers who perceived that Tanya was being treated unfairly in the equation, or argued that Berry was only able to operate in an old-school way because Tanya was a “secretary,” or “a low-tech energy-saving device.” Berry responded to those letters by saying that it was unfair to assume anything about his arrangement with Tanya — readers didn’t know, for instance, whether Tanya was paid, or enjoyed the work.

I ask Berry what the actual breakdown of domestic labor was in the household. He mentions that Tanya liked to cook, and he would often clean. Then, he says with his usual acid wit: “Well, I suppose if we were getting married now, we would have to sit down and negotiate — probably hire a team of attorneys to help us sort it out. Or maybe a psychologist or two.”

Berry is stubborn, which is both his greatest strength and his weakness. And his views, influenced by a moral tradition — he still references the Seven Deadly Sins, for instance — have a certainty baked into them. When I ask how his ideas have evolved, he tells me that though his understanding of the issues is more complex, he stands by his original ideas. He believes we are too quick to adopt new technologies, that there are critical implications in these behaviors and purchases.

And although Berry doesn’t own a computer, a friend once persuaded him to sit down and try one.

“I put a question to it,” he recalls. “I would like to know how to make a slaughterhouse that would take care of every kind of product, from fish to beef, could slaughter it, dress it, prepare it for market, and compost the offal.”

It didn’t work, he concluded: “The computer didn’t know.”

This unyielding stance has often led people to view Berry as a curmudgeon — a categorization his daughter, Mary, dismisses. “He never stops being grateful,” Mary says, adding: “He’s not grumpy, dammit!”

Rather, Pollan says, “Wendell stakes out a clear, rigid position and does not move from it. You see the world move toward it, very slowly. It can look anachronistic. It can look unreasonable. But I’ve witnessed the power of that kind of stubbornness.”

Wendell Berry at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky, in 2011. Berry doesn’t own a computer and writes his books by hand, in pencil.

Ed Reinke/AP

Living by principle

That power is evident in Berry’s work in the modern food movement. Mark Bittman has called him the “soul” of the movement; Pollan calls him its “spiritual father.”

While Americans may now have come to some consensus about the dire consequences of our carbon footprint and the problems with eating beef, those ideas are rooted in Berry’s work.

“People who eat have a moral responsibility to the sources of their food,” Berry says now. “People from the city should do an honest, full accounting of the food that they eat. The first thing they’ll discover is that they can’t do it. They don’t know the ecological cost or the cost to the people who did the work of production, what it costs the rural communities.”

His daughter, Mary, agrees. Urban dwellers are “dependent on [farming] whether they know it or not,” she says. “We’ve got a land-based economy, whether we know it or not, whether we’re living like we are or not.” We’re getting to the point, she says, where “urban places prospering on the decline of rural places won’t work.”

It’s hard to know what the world would look like if everybody lived by Berry’s principles. But is his insistence on a grassroots approach enough to make the drastic reversals we need to save the planet?

This summer, a dozen students met not far from Port Royal, ready to farm. They were students of the tuition-free Wendell Berry Farming Program, a collaboration between Sterling College in Vermont and the Berry Center that was just awarded a five-year grant. They are our new generation of farmers.

August Lee Gramig, 22, was among them. Like McKibben, she was inspired by Home Economics; it’s what made her want to be a farmer. She finds Berry’s ideas about resisting technology hugely important, especially in our always-plugged-in world.

“Wendell Berry,” Gramig says, “embodies the idea of being human.”

And Gramig’s generation will be necessary to make change, Berry believes. “We’re all going to have to do something to help our land, our country itself,” he tells me. “We have to find a way to pay it what we owe it. And what we owe it, of course, is our love.

“We owe it our competent love.”

Hope Reese is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, and Vice.