Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

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Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

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Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen