Not many farmers today use horses instead of tractors, fewer still are also college professors, and hardly any can claim to be accomplished writers into the bargain. Wendell Berry, Kentucky poet and farmer, belongs to this rare breed. In an age of specialization, he combines three vocations at once and succeeds in making a life that is as fruitful as his farming.
Berry's belief in an integrated life of responsibility and commitment is displayed in the 25 books of poems, essays, and fiction he has published. He is a philosophical writer, in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, whose work affirms the interdependence of all things and emphasizes the importance of land and nature, the family and community.
Berry left New York 30 years ago to return to the family farm in Henry County, Kentucky, which was begun by his mother's father's great-grandfather. He is a marginal farmer, not a commercial farmer, tending 125 acres of land of which 15 acres are tillable, and the rest is hillside pasture. With the help of his son and a neighbor, Berry grows the bulk of his own food as well as a small tobacco crop, raises milk cows and a flock of sheep, and slaughters his own meat. "I'm contributing directly to my own economy," Berry says. "I grow things to eat, gather my own wood."
Berry says he is not the only person practicing horse farming today. "There are still some people who do it. People in my county. They like to do it, it's cheaper, the farm is running on its own energy. Of course, some people don't have any business using horses because they don't understand them and they're not temperamentally suited to them. But more farmers are using them than did 10 to 20 years ago. Horses are slower and more suitable to the human nervous system." There are practical reasons as well as personal ones for farming with horses. Fuel bills, repair costs, and outlays for new equipment go down. Another consideration, Berry says drily, is "the reproductive ability of horses, which is better than that of a tractor by about one hundred percent."
Berry believes in an agrarian economy and has devoted many of his essays to discussions of the problems brought on by the industrialization of farming. One of the biggest problems Berry sees resulting from modern farming methods is the pollution of ground water and soil, damage that requires many years to repair. "It takes a long time to decontaminate anything. We're not talking about our lifetimes. We've made problems in the last few years that no one living will see corrected." In the essay "Discipline and Hope" he writes, "We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth. So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way. But I will not get over. My reason is that I am a man, and have a better right to the ground than the economy. The economy is no god for me, for I have had too close a look at its wheels."
According to Berry, problems in rural areas are exaggerated in urban centers because of the great concentrations of people there. "Cities are mirror images of what's wrong with the country. Urban communities are breaking down just like rural communities." He blames this breakdown on the depersonalized society of the city. "New York City used to be a conglomerate of neighborhoods, and these were scaled to the ability of people to walk. People walked down to do their shopping. They knew shopkeepers and the shopkeepers knew them." One of the positive effects of living within these small communities is quality control. "Shopkeepers want to deal honestly with people they know. How would you find the person to complain to at Kroger?"
Farming and the natural world are such integral parts of Berry's writing that it's hard to imagine what kind of poet he'd be if he had remained in New York. "Heaven knows," Berry says. "I've wondered sometimes what would have happened if I'd stayed there. I came back because my subject matter was going to be my own place, and if I wasn't going to falsify it or exploit it I had to be there."
Berry gives simple but eloquent expression to this attitude in the poem "Stay Home" from his 1980 collection A Part:
I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man's life
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.
I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.
Berry believes he is a better writer because his life doesn't center solely on writing and the teaching of writing. "I never felt like I had to write in order to be happy," he says. "It has given me great freedom as a writer." Although he did teach creative writing years ago, he doesn't plan to do it again. At present he teaches a class in composition for teachers and a second class devoted to readings in agriculture. He likes teaching a course "with more content and more public purpose. It is an interesting and urgent type of work to teach teachers who teach in the Kentucky public schools."
Berry's regular writing schedule has helped him to be such a prolific author. "My ideal day is to write in the morning [from 6 to noon] and work outdoors in the afternoon. If I have writing to do I'd better be a daily writer," he says. "The less regular you are the harder it is." Referring to the variety of his writing pursuits--poetry, fiction, essays--Berry says, "I just have different things to do. They serve various functions but they're all part of the same general effort to make as responsible a use of my abilities as I can."
Responsibility is a key word for Berry, and he feels that "of course writers should be political. We're citizens. Everyone who is a citizen should take an interest in these things." Berry's poem "February 2, 1968" demonstrates both his sensitivity to the crises in the world around him and the solace he has found through his intimate connection with the land:
In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.
It's easy to idealize Berry's life in Kentucky because it seems so balanced and rooted in essentials. According to him, however, it's no idyll. "Life's a struggle for everybody. Living in the country is no more idyllic in these times than anywhere else. There are serious problems that have to be dealt with. There's no place you can go to get out of the problems."
Berry will get a dose of urban life soon when he comes to Chicago to read at Guild Books Saturday at 3 PM. He will read from his new book of poems, Sabbaths, and his recently published book of essays, Home Economics. Admission is free; call 525-3667 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra Cook.