Celebrating Earth Day with the unofficial poet laureate of the environmental movement during National Poetry Month observations has become a tradition I’m pleased to continue
Wendell Berry was born with deep roots in the soil of Henry County, Kentucky in 1934. His father was a lawyer and tobacco farmer. Both sides of his family had tilled the local soil for five generations. After graduating from a local military academy, he attended the University of Kentucky where he decided to become a writer. He completed his Masters degree there in 1957 and married. The following year he was named a Wallace Stenger Fellow at Stanford University where he studied under Stenger with Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, and other emerging writers. He continued academic pursuits with studies in Europe on a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship before taking up teaching at New York University’s University College in the Bronx.
While in New York, he completed his first book of poetry, November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three, a single long poem in ten stanzas as an elegy to John F. Kennedy and national loss. Later in 1964 he published his first collection, The Broken Ground which explored the themes that would dominate his work, “the cycle of life and death, responsiveness to place, pastoral subject matter, and recurring images of the Kentucky River and the hill farms of north-central Kentucky.”
Berry returned to the University of Kentucky in 1965 to teach creative writing. He moved in a circle of writers that included Thomas Merton. He also began farming his property, Lanes Landing in north central Kentucky on the western bank of the Kentucky River, not far from where it flows into the Ohio. He grows corn, grain, and maintains a kitchen garden on the land where he still lives, works, and writes. Much of Berry’s writing—poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has been rooted in his experience on the land and in the surrounding community.
Berry left teaching in 1977 to devote himself to farming, writing and activism. By then he had a major body of work already completed and was being recognized as voice of the emerging environmental movement. In addition to a regular output of poetry including 26 volumes including chapbooks, short fiction, and essay memoirs of his farming experiences, Berry wrote practical guides to subsistence and small farmers for Rodale Press including Organic Gardening and Farming and The New Farm. He has also written eight novels that together are a chronicle of a fictionalized Kentucky River town, Port William. This long series has allowed him to trace the complex relationships between the land, the people, and the economic and technological changes that impact them.
Berry has also been a front-line activist not only for environmental causes, but against the Vietnam War, nuclear energy, land raping mountain top removal coal mining, and against government regulatory inclusion that threaten to make small scale farming impossible. Not content with just writing or speaking, Berry has frequently led or participated in demonstrations, including civil disobedience.
At age 75 Berry is still active both as a writer and activist. He has been honored with many prizes and awards including the National Humanities Medal in 1965.
A Timbered Choir
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies;
I sawthe poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten.
Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective,
which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles,
which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory,
which was to clear the way to promotion,
to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale,
to the signature on the contract,
which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation,
from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced;
the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.