Few men of letters speak in as many voices as Wendell Berry; none has more successfully escaped categorization. To poets, Berry is a colleague who has written more than twenty-five books of poetry, while novelists cite his series of novels chronicling life in the fictional rural community of Port William, Kentucky (widely held to be a stand in for Berry’s own longtime home, Port Royal).
Environmentalists claim him for his essays written in criticism of policies and cultural trends that have poisoned the American landscape and hollowed out rural life—though Berry, typically, is often critical of environmentalists and their lack of support for farmers as integral elements of country life and ecology.
Berry himself is likely to describe himself first as a farmer. Having grown up on a tobacco farm in Henry County, a region of northern Kentucky that his family helped settle in the early nineteenth century and has inhabited ever since, Berry completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English at the University of Kentucky before accepting a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to study writing under Stegner himself at Stanford University. There Berry joined a remarkable writing workshop that also included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey. In 1960, Berry made his mark with the novel Nathan Coulter, the first of his Port William narratives. The following year, with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled to Italy and France, returning to the United States to teach at New York University.
But then, in 1964, the budding literary star went home. Berry joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky and, more crucially, purchased what he at first believed would be a weekend retreat near Port Royal and the birthplaces of his parents. Berry recalls that it was his wife who recognized first, as they were rebuilding the derelict farmhouse, that this was to be their full-time home. More than forty-five years later they are still in residence, and though Berry has continued to write and teach, he has also, throughout, farmed the 125-acre property, working the land for the most part with horses, much as his ancestors did.
A sense of rootedness became the touchstone of Berry’s life and work. “Every day,” he explains, “I cross the tracks of people I love and people I have only heard of, who are gone. So I’m reminded of them all the time. The people who are gone from this world are always here in my mind.”
Berry’s attachment to his community includes not only his human neighbors and their lives but also every aspect of the local terrain, animals, and vegetation. This connection came naturally to him—Berry walked and hunted these fields as a boy—but he recognizes that he is an oddity in contemporary America. “It is a rare experience [these days]; I didn’t realize for a long time how rare it is. But that experience is what I think I have been entrusted with as a writer, to understand and write about.”
Life in Henry County pervades Berry’s fiction and poetry, even his scholarship. Responding to a critique of the Georgics, Roman poet Virgil’s celebration of rural life, Berry points out the soundness of Virgil’s advice to find out where you are, to know a place and its weather before you plow—a directive “generally disregarded [today] by industrialized agriculture, but it’s excellent advice.”
His essays (collected in volumes such as The Long-Legged House and The Unsettling of America) arose, Berry says, from his concern about ways in which modern economic policy and culture were destroying communities such as his. Even the Kentucky River, which gave Port Royal its name, was suffering from the effects of destructive coal-mining techniques. “So I had to become an advocate of good land use, good agriculture, and I had to become an opponent of land abuse. In short,” he adds with a laugh, “I became a patriot.”
When asked if he is an optimist, Berry responds with an emphatic “No.” Optimism and pessimism are both programs, and he won’t live according to a program. Besides, he adds in a characteristically wry touch, “optimists never get good surprises.”
By Thomas Christopher
Thomas Christopher writes about horticulture and environmental issues from Connecticut. His work has appeared in Garden Design, House and Garden, and the New York Times.