In a 2017 letter he wrote to the New York Review of Books, Wendell Berry called an article’s characterization of the “southernization” of rural Americans — presumably making them sexist, racist, and increasingly uneducated — as “provincial, uninformed, and irresponsible.” Instead of continuing to ignore their plight, Berry suggests, we ought to acknowledge the plundering of these rural regions by their urban neighbors. “Rural America is a colony,” Berry wrote, “and its economy is a colonial economy.”
The writer and activist Michael Pollan — who was greatly influenced by Berry — suggests that Berry remains a singular sort of truth-teller.
The 85-year-old writer doesn’t own a TV, computer, or cellphone. If you call the landline at his country home in Port Royal, you won’t reach an answering machine. When he reads this profile, it will be because someone else printed it out. And, if his general approach to life is any indication, he will probably take his time.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine life in the modern world without our technological accessories, but Berry has consistently presented this spartan circumstance as a compelling proposition: An unplugged life, rooted in nature, he has argued, is the key to fulfillment.
He has insisted on individual responsibility: Indeed, Berry contends climate change advocates don’t go far enough and that “the origin of climate change is human laziness” — a view now widely adopted by those who would ban straws and limit their air travel.
If you ask the average person in Kentucky what he or she knows about Berry, those who have heard of him will tell you he’s a poet, or novelist, activist, environmentalist, or farmer. The truth is that Berry is a Renaissance man, skilled at all of it.
Bill McKibben’s environmental activism was spurred after his wife gave him a copy of Berry’s 1979 essay collection Home Economics, which offered ideas on how we can live a simple and grounded life at home. “There’s no writer working in the English language I admire as much,” McKibben says.
For the author Barbara Kingsolver, he’s something more: A fellow Kentuckian whose writings she turned to, she wrote in an email, “after I left home and learned with a shock that the outside world looks down on us.
“Decade after decade, I keep running up against the bigotry of American mainstream culture against Appalachians, farmers, and rural life, and I always come back to Wendell for solace,” she wrote. “Quietly and without bitterness he brings me home to myself, reminding me that all the ‘hillbilly elegies’ in the world can’t touch the strength of our souls or the poetry of our language.”