Every now and then the people in D.C. get something right, and last week was one of those times. Wendell Berry, perhaps the greatest living agrarian writer, was awarded the National Humanities Medal “for his achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer, and conservationist.”
Berry’s writings are wonderful on several levels. Perhaps what makes them stand out the most in our rootless culture is the “sense of place” they convey. His novels, which chronicle the doings in a small Kentucky town called Port William, explore the loss of this sense in modern America.
Berry’s views defy easy classification in the terms on which 21st-century cultural debates are usually conducted. As a conservationist, Berry is concerned with the land, not with an abstraction called “the environment.” He protests Kentucky’s lack of controls on coal ash, but is also a leading voice in the (so far) successful opposition to the National Animal Identification System. He’s a Baptist, but also a Democrat.
If you have never read any of Berry’s writings, I’d recommend that you give him a try. His Art of the Commonplace is a collection of agrarian essays that provides a good introduction to what he’s all about. If you prefer fiction, try The Memory of Old Jack, one of his early Port William stories.