Environment
7:10 am
Mon April 1, 2013

Wendell Berry Conference Will Explore Challenges, Potential in Rural America

Writers, environmentalists and farmers will gather in Louisville next weekend for the first-ever conference organized by the Berry Center, which address land use, agriculture and food.

On a warm day last summer on his farm in Henry County, Wendell Berry sat on the front porch, and read what has become perhaps the quote he’s best known for.

“Eating is an agricultural act,” he read.

This is a quote that Berry doesn’t particularly like repeating.

“I suppose it’s the sentence I’ve written that’s been most quoted out of context, in isolation,” he said. “At first I was flattered by this, but now I’m dismayed by it. Because out of context, it strikes me as a rather stupid oversimplification, like all bumper stickers. And I have never been by intention, a composer of bumper stickers.”

Over the past five decades, Berry’s written countless books, essays and poems, and he's kept a farm. Two years ago, a center was founded in his name to continue his family’s work in agriculture, and next weekend the center will hold its first conference in his honor.

The conference will celebrate the 35th anniversary of Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America, and introduce the Berry Center’s work to the public.

Wendell Berry’s daughter Mary is the Center’s executive director.

“We wanted to get some great people together to talk about what it’s going to take to resettle an under-populated rural America,” she said.

Part of that hinges on the concept of “homecoming,” and the work of Wes Jackson, who will give a presentation at the conference. He’s the director of The Land Institute in Kansas, and a close friend of Wendell Berry’s.

Jackson says America has a deficit of people in rural areas who will grow food and resettle communities. He says colleges should offer students more skills that will let them return to their rural homes and improve the communities, rather than setting graduates on paths that take them, and their talents, out of rural America forever.

“Most of the people have died off during this interlude that could be training or educating,” Jackson said. “This is a cultural phenomenon that we’re talking about. We’ve lost so much culture. Agri-culture. The agrarian culture.”

Wendell Berry is best known for essays and agriculture, but he’s often labeled an activist. He’s protested the Vietnam War, the death penalty, nuclear power, coal-fired power plants and mountaintop removal, and he’s inspired the work of Bill McKibben, who will give a keynote address at the conference.

“For those of us who are thinking about the human relationship to the natural world and about what it might mean to have a community instead of a consumer society, [Berry is] the great thinker maybe that there’s been in modern America,” he said.

McKibben is an environmental writer and activist. He's best known for his work to raise awareness of climate change. He says Berry's influence is spreading, and helping the cause.

“One of the things that makes me happiest is that Wendell has lived long enough to see the things that he called into being start to take shape,” McKibben said. “You know, when he started writing about this in the 70s or early 80s, there basically were no farmer’s markets in the United States or anything like that. And I think he far more than anyone conjured all that into beginning and we see that beautiful beginning now of a kind of re-inhabiting of this country.”

Some of those re-inhabited areas are the small farms in and around Louisville that are bringing local food back to the city. Sarah Fritschner runs Louisville’s Farm to Table initiative, and is on the Berry Center’s board. She thinks a lot of people connect with Wendell Berry’s message through the local food movement, and they see buying locally as a way to exercise his philosophy.

“It is a Wendell Berry function in a way that the simplicity of buying the right thing and eating the right thing can translate into something so much more complexly wonderful,” she said.

Mary Berry says she wants the conference to help participants look beyond the short-term economics—like buying cheap food that ends up taking a much more expensive toll on the land and the farmer.

“Daddy calls it ‘Faustian economics. You make a short-term trade. You can have anything you want for a short time, and then it’s over,” Berry said. “And I think we’ve got much to be hopeful about and much good work to do, but we’ve got to be truthful too, and honest, and look straight at the problems that are facing us.”

The conference begins Thursday evening with a concert by Voces Novae, based on Berry’s work. It continues Friday in Louisville and Saturday in St. Catherine, Kentucky. For more information, visit the Berry Center’s website.