Heroes of Sustainability: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry. Photo by Jim Fothergill.

“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.” — Wendell Berry

Prolific writer and farmer Wendell Berry has spent his life sticking close to his roots. That doesn’t mean the Kentucky-based scholar has never gone out and experienced anything new — he studied at Stanford University in California, taught at New York University, and traveled to Italy and France as part of a fellowship.

“In high school, my teachers were telling me you can’t amount to anything and stay where you’re from,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “So when I left here, I assumed I would be an academic wanderer perhaps, that I’d be going with my ‘talent’ from one university to another so I could amount to something. When I decided to come back here, a lot of people I respected thought I was deliberately achieving my ruin.”

A Sense of Place
Instead, the Kentucky native was returning to the place where his “imagination took root,” taking up the tradition of farming that had been in his family for at least five generations.

Doing so was anything but the achievement of his ruin. A staunch advocate for the land, Berry practices what he preaches, living on a 125-acre homestead that produces most of the things he needs to eat. A team of horses plows the land instead of a modern tractor.

In addition to producing sustenance for his family, he’s produced an incredible number of written works — more than 50 novels, short story collections, poetry chapbooks, and volumes of essays in all. Much of his writing has focused on issues of sustainability and agrarian values, weaving in ideas of connection to place, local economies, and the miracle and interconnectedness of life.

Championing Causes
Although Berry is well into his 70s now, that hasn’t slowed down his activism. Earlier this year, he spent a weekend locked in the Kentucky governor’s office with others from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in an effort to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. In late 2009, he protested the construction of a coal-burning power plant in Clark County, Kentucky, a project that was successfully canceled earlier this year. Also in 2009, he teamed up with The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson (another Hero of Sustainability) to write an op-ed for The New York Times calling for a farm bill that addresses “the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”

While he’s a champion for the environment, he has criticism for that movement, too, given how some separate wilderness from farmland. “My experience over the last 25 years has been that not many people speak, or can think, from the point of view of the land,” he told Smithsonian. “As soon as the conversation shifts from issues actually affecting the land to ‘the environment,’ then you’re done for. People think of it as something different from themselves, and of course it isn’t.”

With simple yet beautiful prose and commonsense ideas, Berry has ideas worth taking heed of — and yet he’s still working to be heard. As writer Rod Dreher said in The American Conservative, Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”

To learn more about Berry’s works, visit www.wendellberrybooks.com.

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