Wendell Berry, one of America’s brightest and most gifted authors, recently sat down for an interview with broadcast legend Bill Moyers. They spoke about Berry’s 2011 sit-in in the Kentucky Governors’ office, his poetry, and what the answer might be to the environmental crisis facing our nation.
Wendell Berry has been masterfully writing in defense of the environment for going on forty years now. Remarkably, at 79, and perhaps a testament to farming via sustainable methods, Berry and his brother still work the land their family has owned for about 200 years.
Berry grew up in Kentucky and studied at the University of Kentucky, where he earned a master’s degree. From there, he studied creative writing under a Wallace Steigner Fellowship from Stanford University. Berry eventually taught at Stanford, as well as Georgetown College, New York University, the University of Cincinnati, Bucknell University, and the University of Kentucky.
Influenced by a childhood of economic hardship – his father and grandfather subject to the perpetual downward pressure on crop prices at the hands of the reigning monopolies – Berry frequently takes aim at the intersection of capitalism and the environment (or the farmer) which rarely ends well. Watching his beloved state exploited by Big Coal, and the Kentucky River poisoned by effluents from mining operations, things appear to weigh heavily on him these days. Yet in his poems and essays, always the contrarian, he mostly always finds his way back to hopefulness. And that’s his magic.
“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered. But maybe that’s an advantage. The poet, William Butler Yeats said somewhere, “things reveal themselves passing away.” And it may be that the danger that we’ve now inflicted upon every precious thing reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty.” – Wendell Berry.
Berry has been a prolific writer, releasing more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, and essays in his career thus far. His first novel, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960, and his latest, Whitefoot, published in 2009. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, he wrote for Rodale Press’ Organic Gardening and The New Farm, and his work has appeared regularly in The Nation . Collections of his essays are repackaged and released on a regular basis.
His ever-growing collection of awards and accolades reads like a writer’s dream: a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the Vachel Lindsay Prize in Poetry in 1962; a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1965; a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for writing in 1971; the American Academy of Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award in 1987; a Lannan Foundation Award for Non-Fiction in 1989; the Ingersoll Foundation’s T. S. Eliot Award in 1994; and many others. In 2012 Berry was invited to deliver The Jefferson Lecture, our nation’s highest honor for distinguished intellectual achievement (read a transcript of the lecture here), and was awarded a Freedom Medal from the Roosevelt Institute.
Recently, the poet laureate of the environmental movement consented to a rare interview with Bill Moyers. Age has not cooled his passion for addressing the pillaging of the environment in the name of capitalism. Wendell Berry is, as always, eloquent in the interview and offers a piece of startling advice for young environmentalists:
“When you ask the question what is the big answer, then you’re implying that we can impose the answer. But that’s the problem we’re in to start with – we’ve tried to impose the answers. The answers will come not from walking up to your farm and saying this is what I want and this is what I expect from you. You walk up and you say what do you need? And you commit yourself to say all right, I’m not going to do any extensive damage here until I know what it is that you are asking of me. And this can’t be hurried. This is the dreadful situation that young people are in. I think of them and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”