At the annual Prairie Festival, near Salina, Kansas, Wendell Berry, 72, stands outside the big red barn where speeches are being given. With his white hair blowing in the wind, the author of more than 40 books of fiction, poems and essays signs autographs for fans who've lined up to meet him. They bring books, such as his novel, A Place on Earth, and his collection of essays, The Unsettling of America. As she hands over her book, one woman tells him, "It's been so good to read it. It makes me feel like I'm not crazy!" To which the author replies with a chuckle, "Well, you can't beat that for a feeling!"
Berry, considered by many to be America's most important agrarian thinker, chats with each person as if they're sitting on a porch in the kind of farm town where he'd like more Americans to live. Some fans tell him that's what they plan to do. "I'm a farm boy from Iowa, and I never really thought I'd ever have anything to do with farming," admits one man. "My dad's wish was to get out of it. And now, I've read some of your stuff. A lot of your stuff. And now I can't think there's anything I'd rather do than spend 10 or 15 years there."
At a time when rural America is losing topsoil, farmland and farm families, Berry is a champion of sustainable agriculture and healthy rural communities. He shares those priorities with Wes Jackson, director of The Land Institute that hosts this Prairie Festival.
Speaking to a crowd that packs the big red barn, Jackson shares how he first met Wendell Berry in 1980, through a letter. He says that Berry began the letter with a little praise. "But rather than wait for me to let the praise soak in," Jackson continues, "he argues that I reconsider the role of draft animals." And he reads from the letter: "As one who has farmed with both tractors and teams, how much numb metal can we put between ourselves and our land and still know where we are and what we're doing?" The last sentence draws a big laugh from the audience: "Working with a tractor is damned dulling and boring, and it's like making love [wearing] boxing gloves!"
Fans of Wendell Berry often recall their first encounter with his writings. Augustana College English professor Jason Peters says, "A friend of mine copied [Berry's] essay, 'Why I'm Not Going to Buy a Computer,'" adding that he's been reading everything by Berry he can get his hands on since. He admits it's had an effect on him. "[Berry] says we have to achieve the skills and acquire the character to live much poorer than we do. He's saying the things that no one else has the guts to say about the importance of local production and local consumption,the importance of moral vision." After reading Berry's works, Peters says he buys fewer things. He's the editor of a new book about Wendell Berry's writings and activism.
As for Wendell Berry himself, when his turn comes to speak in the big red barn, he gives a simple explanation for why he lives and farms in a small community: "In 1964, my wife Tanya and I bought a rough and neglected farm on which we hoped to grow as much food as we could." He recalls that he had purchased and read a book called Gardening with Nature. "Tanya and I wanted to raise our own food because we liked the idea of being independent to that extent and because we did not like the toxicity, expensiveness and wastefulness of modern food production. Gardening with Nature was written for people like us, and it helped us see that what we wanted to do was possible."
Some in the audience have driven for hours, mainly to hear this talk. Berry gives one of the day's shortest speeches so that he can take more questions. One man in the audience asks, with problems such as global warming and disappearing topsoil, does Berry still have a sense of hope? His response is immediate. "Of course I have a sense of hope! Hope is a virtue and it's not just a 'groovy feeling.'" As the audience chuckles, he continues in a more serious tone, "Hope is something you're obliged to have for the sake of yourself and other people, and that means you've got to work at it. You have to give yourself hope too, by showing that you can do something right, or give up something else that's wrong."
After his time on center stage, Berry steps back outside, where a line of autograph-seekers still waits, and continues spreading the gospel of rural life.Previous American Profiles