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WASHINGTON -- In recent years, at least, those delivering the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities have tended to shy away from topics that might be perceived as especially political, let alone controversial.

But surely the National Endowment for the Humanities must have known that to choose Wendell Berry – “noted poet, essayist, novelist, farmer, and conservationist,” as well as erstwhile professor of English – to deliver the 41st Jefferson Lecture was to make for a rather more fiery evening Monday at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

For Berry is not just a "conservationist"; his history of vocal, public activism includes essays, statements, and even nonviolent protest against the Vietnam War, the Bush administration's post-9/11 national security strategy, the death penalty, and industrial agriculture, among other causes.  In 2009, he withdrew his personal papers from the University of Kentucky -- where he earned his B.A. and M.A., and where he spent two separate stints as a faculty member -- in protest of a number of university policies, particularly Kentucky's relationship with the coal industry. (At the beginning of his talk, Berry thanked the NEH for their "courage" in selecting him -- and doing so without insisting on reading his remarks ahead of time. He also made a point of noting that he spoke for himself -- and his "predecessors and allies" -- and not for the NEH.)

Berry is 77 years old, white of hair and measured of speech, as well as warm, friendly, and unfailingly polite. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed last week, he was generous with his time and advice, laughed often, and in every way embodied old-fashioned charm.

But Berry’s avuncular demeanor – and even the title of his lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” which is taken from E.M. Forster's novel Howards End – belies the strength of his words and the force of his message. 

In his talk, Berry – in keeping with the themes of his oeuvre and the causes of his personal activism – argued that “there is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people,” and that the “pillage and indifference” that characterize America's treatment of its natural resources have caused incalculable, perhaps irreparable damage not only to our land, water, and air, but also to “the health and stability of human society.”

The vehemence and emotion of Berry's argument were particularly striking in comparison with the speeches given by previous Jefferson lecturers. Last year, Harvard University president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust discussed – in the context of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War – the ways that we formulate and interpret war narratives. In 2010, Yale University professor emeritus Jonathan Spence, the author of 14 books on Chinese history, told, with deliberate narrowness, of the meeting between two English scholars and one exceptionally learned Chinese traveler in the 17th century. (If the prior year’s lecture, given by Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, provoked more debate, it was perhaps less because of the lecture’s argument for studying the humanities “in search of the good, the true, and the beautiful,” and more because of Kass’s own background – particularly his tenure as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics under President George W. Bush.)

Taking a Stand

Berry, by contrast, came to Washington with the express purpose of taking a stand – “Not a popular one,” as he told Inside Higher Ed. 

He expected, he said, that many people would disagree with the thrust of his argument – or would simply discount it without feeling the need to articulate any rebuttal. But where he lives in Kentucky, he said, it has become impossible to close one’s eyes to the consequences of systematic land abuse, because the impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining are everywhere felt and seen.

“Corn and bean monocultures destroy the land more slowly,” he added, “but down the way, down the line, the destruction will be as complete.”  

The culprits, Berry argues, are “corporate industrialism” and the capitalism that views “market price” as the ultimate authority. However we may feel about this system, Berry noted in his speech, we all participate in it, and in so doing, give tacit consent. We are all responsible for its outcomes. 

The only solution, Berry believes, is affection -- “informed, practical, and practiced affection” -- without which “the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.” (Asked by Inside Higher Ed whether rectifying the damage would require a shift away from capitalism, Berry answered that “it would certainly require a shift away from capitalism as we know it.”)

“Affection,” in this context, might seem like something of a non sequitur. What could affection possibly have to do with industrial agriculture?

Nothing whatsoever, as Berry maintained in his lecture: “We should … give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful.… A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.”

Our proper relationship to the environment, by contrast, is, in Berry’s view, defined by affection. We cannot and will not begin to take appropriate care of the planet and its resources because the government mandates that we do so, or even because our moral or religious beliefs would seem to require it. "The primary motive for good care and good use," Berry said, "is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely."  (Berry himself eschews the term “the environment” because, he said in the interview, “the word ‘environment’ means ‘surroundings,’ and our actual relationship with the world is intimate.”)

Back to the Future

Berry’s view of the world may seem in some ways dated, even anachronistic. He grew up on a small farm in rural Kentucky, and he has lived in Kentucky for most of his adult life. His lecture argued specifically against “our forlorn modern progress,” and against the idea that we can look to advances in science and technology to save us from the consequences of our environmental exploitation.

But Berry took care to make the case that his stance is less behind the times than timely. For one thing, he said, the “scarcity and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land-community” are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. And for another, he noted, there is a growing movement among people who do not ignore those problems, whose work is the “by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food” – an enterprise Berry described as “both attractive and necessary.”

Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, Berry also cited the increasing visibility of activist food writers such as Mark Bittman, who penned an essay on Berry that appears in the May/June issue of the NEH’s magazine Humanities, and Michael Pollan, of whom Berry described himself, with palpable pride, as “an ancestor."

“I know [Pollan has] read me, we’re friends, I’m older than he is. …My concerns lead directly to his. There’s no gap.”

The movement to create and support farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture farms, and other local food economies, Berry said, is driven by “ordinary people who have seen what needed to be done and have started doing it.”

“That’s happening,” Berry said to Inside Higher Ed, “and it’s not happening with any official permission or because they have grants or because the universities approve or have given them instructions. It’s happening because people… are using good sense in response to their legitimate worries about what they’re eating and what they’re doing to the world.”

The Jefferson Lecture being a government-sponsored event in Washington, D.C., it is likely that many of those in attendance were not locavores or small-farm advocates. And, several days before the lecture, Berry seemed almost bemused by the idea of trying to make a lasting impact on an audience composed (at least partly) of Washington elites. “I can’t – from one person to another – imagine what [listeners] will take away from it,” he said. 

Whatever they may have gotten from the evening, his audience seemed more than satisfied. The concluding applause was long and loud, punctuated by shouts and whistles, and accompanied by a standing ovation that made up nearly every person in the very packed house. At a reception following the lecture, Berry was mobbed by fans and well-wishers -- most of them youthful, and many clutching their own copies of his books -- who waited and waited for their chance to get his autograph or simply shake his hand. 

"His writing has had a pretty profound influence on how I live my life," explained one earnest, bearded young man, who'd been waiting his turn for at least 15 minutes. The young man said that he had read all of Berry's work, and added that he especially admires Berry because "he's actually done what he's writing about."

Reporter's note: The speech Berry delivered Monday night was, for practical reasons, a shorter version of the full essay that he had written for the occasion. This article quotes only from those spoken remarks. At Berry's request, the essay that appears on the NEH's website and that was distributed in printed form to lecture attendees is the full version; Berry expressed to Inside Higher Ed his hope that all attendees would take the time to read it.

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