Poet Wendell Berry
Photo: Peter Nelson

Wendell Berry

Writer and Farmer

Wendell Berry is considered a master of many literary genres, renowned by critics and scholars alike for his poetry, fiction and essays.  A key theme in his writing is the importance of living in harmony with nature and protecting the Earth.  For Berry, small-scale farming is critical for the survival of local communities, which in turn are essential for the survival of mankind and the health of the planet.

His landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, in which he criticizes many failures of modern life, including the dominance of agribusiness in American society, is considered a key text of the environmental movement. Environmental activist Bill McKibben calls Berry “a prophet of responsibility.”

Berry learned about farming first hand while growing up in rural Kentucky. After spending time in California, Europe and New York City, Berry returned to his home state and taught for many years at the University of Kentucky.  Eventually he returned to farm life, using horses to work his land and employing local farming methods while creating strong community ties. Many of his stories are set in Port William, an imaginary town modeled after Port Royal, the Kentucky town in which he lives and farms.

Long before organic produce became the mainstay of local farmers markets, Berry was farming with the purity of food in mind. His writings on healthy farming and our relationship to food have found acoytes in the slow food movement. Quoting Berry’s “eating is an agricultural act,” Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, said there was little in his own work that could not be found decades earlier in Berry’s writings.

The author of more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Wendell Berry has received numerous awards and honors, including the National Humanities Medal, which he received from President Obama in 2010.

In 2012, he delivered the Jefferson Lecture, the government’s highest honor for “distinguished intellectual achievement” in the humanities. This year, he was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Freedom Medal from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards.

His books include the novel Hannah Coulter (2004), the essay collections Imagination in Place (2010) and What Matters? (2010), and Leavings: Poems (2010). Berry’s latest works include This Day (2013) and A Place in Time (2012), the newest volume in his Port William series.

He lives and works with his wife, Tanya Berry, on their farm in Port Royal, Kentucky.