Today in Literary History – August 5, 1934 – poet, novelist, and environmentalist Wendell Berry is born

Wendell Berry, the prolific poet, novelist, essayist, and environmentalist, was born on August 5, 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky, where his family had lived for five previous generations.

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Berry taught at Stanford, New York University, and the University of Kentucky for 20 years. Since 1965 he and his wife Tanya have lived on and managed a farm near the tiny village of Port Royal, Kentucky, not far from where Berry was born.

They raised a family there and ran the farm as a sustainable operation, feeding their family and their animals from the land which Berry tilled with horse-drawn plows and as little mechanization as possible.

Even today, Berry doesn’t use a computer and his only concession to technology are the three solar panels on the roof of his house.

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Berry with a statue of his great-great grandfather in the local cemetery.

Berry’s poetry (25 volumes of books or chapbooks) is lyrical and celebratory of the natural world, often using religious or spiritual imagery, an important component of all of his writing.

Berry considers himself to be a “Christian pacifist,” and was close to the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton in the 1960s.

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Berry with poet Denise Levertov and Thomas Merton.

Berry has written eight novels and published three volumes of short stories. Most of them explore the history of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky and its inhabitants as they cope with the joys and tribulations of life.

Berry’s deeply textured evocation of Port William often draws critics to compare him to William Faulkner and his imagined Yoknapatawpha County.

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Berry receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Obama, 2011.

As a tireless champion of environmental activism and a defender of the traditional family farm and sustainable land use, Berry has many fans on both the political left as well as on the right.

In his prolific non-fiction Berry sets out an anti-corporatist vision of small-scale farming – such as he has practiced for 50 years – as a viable alternative to factory farming.

Some of his critics charge him with being an unrealistic utopian thinker. His blueprint for returning to an agrarian-based, non-technological way of life has also led to him often being described as a Luddite.

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For his part, Berry rejects these claims. He also rejects the description of himself as a conservative, since he doesn’t propose returning to an imagined golden era of pastoral innocence.

Instead, through the influence of Thomas Merton and the example of his Amish friends, Berry imagines a world where human interconnection and respect for the natural world will restore a sort of inner harmony.

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In a recent interview in the New Yorker, Berry talks about the unmoored state of so many people in the modern industrial world. He quotes one of his Amish friends as saying ruefully “The idea of finding yourself falls very strangely on Amish ears. After all, we Amish are not trying to find ourselves, we’re trying to lose ourselves!”

That seems to match Berry’s own core spiritual message. “The ‘environment,’ as we call it, is intimately with us,” he says. “We’re in it. It’s in us. But also we are it, and it is us.”

 

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