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Berry, Wendell Erdman (1934 – ) American Writer, Poet, and Conservationist

Wendell Erdman Berry (1934 )
American writer, poet, and conservationist

A Kentucky farmer, poet, novelist, essayist and conservationist, Berry has been a persistent critic of large-scale industrial agriculturewhich he believes to be a contradiction in termsand a champion of environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture . Wendell Erdman Berry was born on August 5, 1934, in Henry County, Kentucky, where his family had farmed for four generations. Although he learned the farmer's skills, he did not wish to make his living as a farmer but as a writer and teacher. He earned his B.A. in English at the University of Kentucky in 1956 and an M.A. in 1957. He was awarded a Wallace Stegner writing fellow at Stanford University (19581959), where he remained to teach in the English Department (19591960). He spent the following year in Italy on a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1962 Berry joined the English faculty at New York University.

Dissatisfied with urban life and feeling disconnected from his roots, in 1965 Berry resigned his professorship of English at New York University to return to his native Kentucky to farm, to write, and to teach at the University of Kentucky. His recurring themeslove of the land, of place or region, and the responsibility to care for themappear in his poems and novels and in his essays. Many modern farming practices, as he argues in The Unsettling of America (1977) and The Gift of Good Land (1981) and elsewhere, deplete the soil , despoil the environment , and deny the value of careful husbandry. In relying on industrial scales, techniques and technologies, they fail to appreciate that agriculture is agri-culturethat is, a coherent way of life that is concerned with the care and cultivation of the landrather than agri-business concerned solely with maximizing yields, efficiency, and short-term profits to the long-term detriment of the land, of family farms, and of local communities. A truly sustainable agriculture, as Berry defines it, "would deplete neither soil, nor people, nor communities."

Berry believes that too few people now live on and farm the land, leaving it to the less-than-tender mercies of corporate "managers" who know more about accounting than about agricultural stewardship. The so-called miracle of modern agriculture has been purchased by selling our birthright, the God-given gift of good land that Americans have heedlessly traded for the ease, convenience and affluence of urban and suburban living. As a consequence we have become disconnected from our cultural roots and have lost a sense of place and purpose and pleasure in work well done. We have also lost a sense of connection with the land and the lore of those who work on and care for it. Instead of food from our own fields, water from rainfall and wells , and stories from family and friends, most Americans now get food from the grocery store, water from the faucet, and endless entertainment from television. A wasteful throwaway society produces not only material but cultural junkthrowaway farms, throwaway marriages and children, disposable communities, and a wanton disregard for the natural environment. The transition to a culture of consumption and convenience, Berry believes, does not represent progress so much as it marks a deep and lasting loss.

Although Berry does not believe it possible (or desirable) that all Americans become farmers, he holds that we need think about what we do daily as consumers and citizens and how our choices and activities affect the land. He suggests that the act of planting and tending a garden is a "complete act" in that it enables one to connect consumption with production, and both to a sense of reverence for the fertility and abundance of a world well cared for.

[Terence Ball ]



Berry, Wendell. A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

. A Place on Earth. rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.

. Another Turn of the Crank. Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 1995.

. Collected Poems, 19571982. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985.

. The Gift of Good Land. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.

. Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.

. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

. The Unsettling of America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.

. What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.

Merchant, Paul, ed. Wendell Berry. American Authors Series. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1991.

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