Wendell Berry talking to a reporter after he was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
Last week, the Roosevelt Institute, as part of its annual Four Freedoms awards ceremony, presented its Freedom Medal to the Kentucky writer, farmer, environmentalist, humanist and activist Wendell Berry—a longtime Nation contributor.
“Whether Wendell Berry is writing poetry, fiction, or essays,” the Institute declared, “his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.”
In over two dozen poems, essays, and book reviews he has published in The Nation since 1961, Berry has connected America’s democratic health with its ecological health, the degradation of its discourse with the degradation of its soil, and has done so with a unique combination of elegance, clarity of language and purpose, and simple—though never simplistic—common sense. Berry is as adept detailing the mechanics of a mine-triggered landslide as he is at critiquing the dangerous combination of ideology and profit motive which caused it to occur.
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One of Berry’s earliest Nation contributions was the poem “November 26, 1963,” about the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy:
We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…
In 1966, Berry published a scathing essay, “Strip-Mine Morality: The Landscaping of Hell,” about the efforts in his native Kentucky to regulate and hopefully prohibit that most excessively and permanently damaging method of mining coal. Berry attended several meetings at which proposed regulations were presented and was aghast at the coal companies’ blatantly duplicitous and selfish arguments:
The testimony of the expert witnesses who appeared in behalf of the companies was peculiarly clouded and disordered by the assumptions and intentions of the company lawyers, and by the testimony of several coal operators who also appeared as witnesses. There was a very obvious intent to use scientific evidence to prove that the best method of mining is the one that is most profitable, and that the best method of reclamation is the one that is cheapest. There was much yielding to the temptation to present theory and opinion as fact, and to look upon the failure to discover a remedy as proof that there is no remedy…
There was in the statements and questions of the coal company attorneys, and in the testimony of the operators, the unmistakable implication that anything can be justified by profit; that a man may own the land in the same sense in which he would own a piece of furniture or a suit of clothes, it is his to exploit, misuse or destroy altogether should he decide that to do so would be economically feasible. The question of the morality of any practice, for these men, has been completely replaced by the question of its profitability: if it makes money it is good; if it makes money for them they are doomed and eager to defend it. Evident in the testimony of some was the assumption that the steep mountain sides, now being ruined on an almost unbelievable scale and at great speed, are good for nothing else.