Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

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In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

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Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

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Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”

 


Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

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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


April events look at environmental challenges in different ways

March 16, 2013

You can feel it in the air: Winter’s last gasp is starting to give way to warm sunshine. The Bluegrass countryside is returning to life, raising spirits after months of cold and gray.

Spring reminds us how closely we are tied to nature, despite all of our technology and hubris. Earth doesn’t care about our political ideologies, and it has become less forgiving of our greed and foolishness.

If you are interested in what is happening to the planet, and what can be done about it, mark your calendar for the first week of April. That is when Kentucky hosts a series of lectures and conferences that look at our environmental challenges from different perspectives.

Charles Mann, an award-winning science writer for Atlantic Monthly, Science and Wired magazines, will speak at 7 p.m. on April 2. Mann is author of two best-selling books, 1491 and 1493, which look at what North America was like before Columbus landed and how European settlement began to change it.

1491-by-Charles-MannThe lecture, in Worsham Theatre at the University of Kentucky Student Center, is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. They can be picked up at the Student Center ticket office, room 253, and room 200B of the Kentucky Tobacco Research Development Center, 1401 University Drive.

Mann’s lecture sets the stage for an academic conference April 3-4 about the growing problem of invasive species and how climate change is affecting their spread. Kentucky is increasingly plagued by invasive species, such as bush honeysuckle and Asian carp, that do costly ecological damage.

UK’s Climate Change Group presents a public forum at 7 p.m. on April 4, with three guest speakers discussing global warming from different perspectives. The forum in the UK Student Center ballroom is free and open to the public.

The first speaker is Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, evangelical Christian and author of the book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She will talk about the faith-based imperative for addressing climate change.

“The reality is that climate change is about thermometers and trend lines, not Republicans or Democrats,” she wrote in a 2010 essay for The Washington Post. “It’s about what has been happening on our planet since the Industrial Revolution, not whether the earth is 6,000 or 4 billion years old. It’s about fundamental science that’s been around for hundreds of years, not specious theories that haven’t a prayer of being proven.”

The second speaker is retired Brig. Gen. Steve M. Anderson, a self-described conservative who will talk about the national security implications of climate change and his belief that the military must develop renewable sources of energy.

The program’s final speaker is Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and president of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His talk is called, “Free Enterprise Approaches to Energy Security and Climate Change.”

Inglis served six terms in the U.S. House and had a 93 percent rating from the American Conservative Union until Tea Partiers challenged him in the 2010 primary. The main issues were that he believes the scientific consensus that man’s actions are contributing to climate change, and he backed a market-based plan to reduce carbon emissions.

After being defeated, Inglis had this to say about the GOP and its Tea Party faction: “It’s a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible.”

The three presentations will be live-streamed at Ustream.tv/kyclimateforum.

WendellBerryA final conference, which has attracted the most well-known national figures, is sponsored by The Berry Center in New Castle, revisiting Kentucky writer Wendell Berry’s influential 1975 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.

Tickets are sold out for this conference, which is April 5 at Louisville’s Brown Hotel and April 6 at St. Catharine College near Springfield, but there is a waiting list in case of cancellations. More information: Berrycenter.org.

The Unsetting of America was a collection of essays in which Berry criticized modern industrial agriculture’s damage to land and water, as well as rural communities and economies. This conference will discuss possible remedies. Participants include Berry, journalist Bill Moyers and environmental writers Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan.

As rites of spring go, these discussions could be a good start.


Wendell Berry talks gay marriage with Baptist ministers

January 18, 2013

Wendell Berry, at his home near Port Royal, Ky., December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As an elder statesman of American letters, Wendell Berry is being given some good platforms to speak his mind. He isn’t letting these opportunities go to waste.

Chosen last year by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, the Kentucky author gave a thoughtful indictment of corporate domination and the industrial economy, saying it has abused the land and people and threatens our very survival.

On Jan. 11, Berry spoke at Georgetown College to a gathering of Baptist ministers. The lifelong Baptist used the forum to sharply criticize his denomination’s opposition to the legalization of gay marriage.

Berry’s writing doesn’t lend itself well to sound bites. So here are some extended excerpts from his remarks, which created an Internet stir after Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press News reported them:

“My argument … was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples.”

“The Bible … has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality. If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”

“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals. If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

And those are only the highlights. Read APB’s full story here.

 

 

 


New photo book focuses on Kentucky originals

December 5, 2010

Guy Mendes is a photographer, a writer, a producer of TV documentaries and a collector of interesting friends. Many of the latter, including some of Kentucky’s most interesting artists and characters, are the subjects of his new book, 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits.

“All of the people in the book were friends, family, mentors and teachers,” Mendes said. “In their own way, they showed me the way.”

An exhibit of 25 of Mendes’ striking portraits opens Dec. 9 at the tiny North Limestone gallery of Institute 193, which published the book. The entire collection will be displayed next year at a new gallery in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, and then go on a two-year tour of galleries around the South.

The book includes writers Wendell Berry, James Still and Ed McClanahan; artists Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Tharsing, Edgar Tolson and Ann Tower; performers Ashley Judd and Ben Sollee; and characters Carlos “Little Enis” Toadvine and Bradley Picklesimer. Mendes wrote a short essay with each portrait, telling something about the subject and the circumstances of the photograph.

“Taken together, these photos give lie to the notion that Kentucky is a backward place without much culture,” Mendes said. “Kentucky has been home to some very creative thinkers and talented artists and musicians.”

The cover image isn’t of anyone famous — or even from Kentucky. It is a 1977 picture of Robert Bass, Mendes’ childhood friend and “adventurous alter ego,” standing on a beach wearing a scuba mask, flippers and his underwear, and holding a lobster. It was chosen, Mendes said, “because it lets you know fun is involved.”

In many ways, the book represents Mendes’ personal journey. Born and raised in New Orleans, where his grandmother had been the Queen of Mardi Gras in 1904, he came to the University of Kentucky in 1966 to study journalism. Except for a summer in Houston, where he was an intern for Newsweek, and a year in Connecticut, Mendes, 62, has lived in Central Kentucky ever since.

After studying under Berry, Mendes changed his major from journalism to English. He also quit UK’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to help publish one of the era’s best underground papers, The Blue-Tail Fly.

As a boy, Mendes had a Polaroid camera, “and I made some experimental pictures of my cat and my feet,” he said. Then, in college, he met Meatyard, a Lexington optician who, after his death from cancer a week before his 47th birthday in 1972, became an icon of 20th-century art photography.

Meatyard and Robert May — whose bequest to The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky launched its photography collection and lecture series — took Mendes along on weekend picture-taking excursions. With old houses and the Bluegrass landscape as backdrops, they used people, props and special effects to create art. The trips had a profound effect on Mendes.

“I began to see that photography could be a means of expression and not just a recording tool,” he said. “Wendell Berry and Gene Meatyard changed the way I thought about words and pictures.”

Another influence was the poet and photographer James Baker Hall. The longtime UK professor took Mendes into his Connecticut studio as an apprentice in 1971, when Hall was teaching photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and literature at the University of Connecticut.

“Jim always said that a good portrait is not taken, but given; it is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer,” Mendes said. “The people in this book all had an energy I admired, and I wanted to get a little of that energy in the picture.”

Mendes joined Kentucky Educational Television in 1973 and became a writer and producer of award-winning documentaries before his retirement in 2008. “I was lucky to have a job where I could put words and pictures together,” he said.

But his passion was always black-and-white still photography, which he taught at UK for 14 years. “It was always the work I did for myself,” he said. “I’m still excited about the next picture and what it might look like.”

Mendes lived in a rented farmhouse in rural Woodford County from 1974 until 1990, soon after he married Page, a painter and Web designer. They and their two sons — Wilson, 16, and Jess, 14 — now live in Ashland Park, where Mendes works from a backyard studio designed by the pioneer solar architect Richard Levine.

Digital technology has revolutionized photography, but Mendes still prefers to shoot film and use an enlarger and chemicals to make high-quality prints, which he sells through Ann Tower Gallery.

Mendes published a book of his photographs in 1986, Light at Hand, an assortment of landscapes, portraits and figure studies. The idea for the new book came from Phillip March Jones, a young Lexington artist who started the non-profit organization Institute 193 last year to promote the region’s less-celebrated artists.

Jones said he was sitting in Mendes’ studio one day last year looking at portraits and listening to him tell stories about their subjects. He was struck both by the quality of Mendes’ work and the fact that nobody else had made such a visual record of this slice of Kentucky life.

Jones edited the book, which was designed by Carly Schnur. To raise money for printing, they turned to Kickstarter.com, a Web site that organizes backers for creative projects. Within two months, 150 backers had pledged $9,235. Most signed up to buy the book for $25. (Since the printing, nearly 400 more copies have sold at the $35 retail price, Jones said.) Some also pledged more money in return for special benefits.

“Now I must sing for my supper,” Mendes said with a smile. He will give private tours of his studio to 15 backers, take portraits of four others and teach two-hour photography workshops for three more. He also will make two special-edition books with hand-printed photographs.

“This book would not have happened without a little help from my friends,” Mendes said. Both the friends who helped produce the book and those who, over the past four decades, have given their portraits to his camera.

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IF YOU GO

Guy Mendes: ’40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits’

Exhibit: Dec. 9-Jan. 29 at Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and by appointment. For more information, visit Institute193.org.

Gallery show opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 9 at Institute 193.

Book signing: Noon Dec. 11 at The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr. Call (859) 276-0494 or visit Morrisbookshop.com.

HOW TO GET THE BOOK

The book 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits is available in Lexington at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop, Black Swan Books, Institute 193 and online at Institute193.org.


Larkspur Press makes artful books for artful words

November 22, 2010

MONTEREY — Gray Zeitz thinks the best way to experience poetry is to hear it read aloud.

The second-best way is the way Zeitz has presented it for 36 years: in hand-set type with woodcut illustrations, printed by letterpress on thick, creamy paper, hand-stitched and beautifully bound.

“Everything else,” he said, “is downhill from there.”

In an age when books themselves seem threatened with extinction by virtual type on digital screens, Zeitz’s Larkspur Press uses antique methods to publish elegant volumes of poetry and short fiction by Kentucky authors.

Larkspur Press will have its annual open house Nov. 27 and 28, unless too much rain falls on this corner of Owen County. The business is in a timber-frame shop on Gray and Jean Zeitz’s 60-acre farm. A downpour can send Cedar Creek out of its banks and across their precarious gravel driveway.

If the creek doesn’t rise, visitors will see trays of metal type and the table where Zeitz, 61, can hand-set three pages of prose a day when he is on a roll. The table stands near a 1915 Chandler & Price press, into which Zeitz feeds single sheets of paper, adding a dab of ink every 33 sheets.

“They’ve never made a better press,” he said. “They’ve just made them faster.”

Upstairs in the small shop, Carolyn Whitesel designs books, incorporating her illustrations and those of other artists. Leslie Shane sits at a nearby bench, stitching pages together with needle and thread and gluing handmade covers.

Zeitz is as particular about what he publishes as how. He has produced books by some of Kentucky’s best-known authors, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason and Guy Davenport. He published the first books of several Kentucky poets, including Richard Taylor, James Baker Hall and Frederick Smock.

Larkspur Press produced three books this year: Andy Catlett: Early Education, the latest story in Berry’s series about fictional Port William; and two books of poetry, Maureen Morehead’s The Melancholy Teacher and Smock’s The Blue Hour.

“Last year, we did five books, and it about killed us,” Zeitz said. As time allows, the shop also produces wedding invitations and other job printing to help with cash flow.

The process for deciding which books to publish is simple: “It’s mainly what I like,” Zeitz said. Poetry dominates, perhaps because Zeitz and Shane are occasional poets.

Zeitz wanted to become a poet when he studied under Berry at the University of Kentucky. Then he discovered the University of Kentucky’s King Library Press, where he spent two years as an apprentice to Carolyn Hammer. She and her husband, Victor, became mentors to dozens of fine-art printers.

“I was addicted,” Zeitz said. “When I decided to move up here, she gave me a press and a drawer of type and sent me on my way.”

Larkspur Press opened in Monterey in 1974, but a flood four years later left the shop chest-deep in water. The Zeitzes dried their equipment and moved it to their farm, building their present shop in 1991.

Over time, Zeitz has added equipment, most of which is hard to find because it hasn’t been made in nearly a century. “Buying a new type is like buying a good used car,” he said.

Larkspur Press has been a good life — if not always a good living — for the Zeitzes, whose bright purple house stands up the hill from their shop. In the early years, they raised tobacco and calves to supplement their income.

Zeitz has expensive tastes in materials. Still, he tries to keep prices low because he is more interested in selling books to readers than to collectors.

“Gray’s goal is to make a book that’s beautiful to hold in your hand, but one that a person who loves poetry but isn’t rich can afford,” said Jean Zeitz, a retired teacher.

Many Larkspur Press books are published in three editions. For example, Berry’s poetry book Sabbaths 2006 has a $120 collector’s edition, a $28 hardcover and an $18 paperback.

Larkspur Press books are sold at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop and Black Swan Books in Lexington and several other shops around the state, and at Larkspurpress.com.

The Web site was built and is maintained by a friend, because the Zeitzes don’t own a computer.

“Every now and then, Gray will send me to the library to look at it to see if a new book got on,” his wife said.

John Lackey, a Lexington artist whose woodcut illustrates A Short History of the Present, a poetry book by Erik Reece that Larkspur published last year, thinks Zeitz’s craftsmanship pays unique tribute to Kentucky’s writers — and readers.

“Writing like Wendell Berry’s deserves to be treated like a work of art,” Lackey said. “I have a huge amount of respect for Gray. Those little books he makes are wonderful pieces of magic.”

If you go

Larkspur Press open house

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 27, noon to 5 p.m. Nov. 28

Where: U.S. 127, 15 miles north of Frankfort and 1 mile south of Monterey. Turn off U.S. 127 onto Sawdridge Creek Road, beside the Monterey Fire Department. After crossing Cedar Creek bridge, take the first driveway on the left.

Learn more: Larkspurpress.com or (502) 484-5390

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Book review: Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place

February 7, 2010

Reading Wendell Berry is like having a conversation with a friend — an old friend whose wisdom makes you want to do nothing more than hush and listen.

That’s how I felt, snowbound last weekend, reading Berry’s new collection of essays, Imagination in Place. Berry reflects on writers he has known or admired and the role that a sense of place played in their lives and work.

Place has special significance to Berry, as he explains in the book. After sojourns on each coast, Berry and his wife, Tanya, and their two children returned to his native Henry County in 1964. They bought a farm along the Kentucky River near Port Royal, which became the Port William of his fiction.

“I believe I can say properly that my fiction originates in part in actual experience of an actual place: its topography, weather, plants, and animals; its language, voice and stories,” Berry writes.

He has farmed and written in that place for 45 years. Along the way, he has become perhaps the nation’s most eloquent advocate for time-honored agrarian values that are attracting new appreciation in the 21st century after being dismissed during much of the 20th.

These 15 essays, written from 1993 to 2009, have been published previously, most in The Sewanee Review. Berry fans might appreciate them most for the insights they offer into his own development as a writer.

Berry writes about being a graduate student at Stanford under Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 30 books, most of which were set in the American West.

“The fact is that at the time I did not understand him as an influence, and the reason was that at the time I did not know what kind of influence I was going to need,” he writes. “At the time I wanted only to be a writer; beyond that, I had little self- knowledge, and not an inkling of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to do it.”

In other essays, Berry writes of Donald Hall and his New England; of James Still and Gurney Norman and their Eastern Kentucky; and of Hayden Carruth, whose poetry was rooted in Vermont, where he lived for many years.

There are essays of literary criticism, and remembrances of departed literary friends, including James Baker Hall, a classmate of Berry at the University of Kentucky and later a colleague when they both taught English there.

These pieces include the flashes of wisdom that Berry’s fans cherish, such as this description of his first visit to an Eastern Kentucky strip mine in 1964 with Norman, who was then a newspaper reporter in Hazard: “It had never occurred to me that people could destroy land with an indifference that perfectly matched the capability of their technology.”

And then there is this wonderful critique of literary “realism” that focuses only on the dark side of life: “Why should one read a book that is programmatically more depressing than the news?”

Although much in these essays celebrates the warmth and humanness of life, Berry also does some of what he does best: hold up a mirror to modern society and make observations of blinding moral clarity.

“We have pretty much made a virtue of selfishness as the mainstay of our economy, and we have provided an abundance of good excuses for dishonesty,” he writes. “Most of us give no thought to the state of nature as the context of our lives, because we conventionally disbelieve in natural limits.”

Imagination in Place is the latest example of why Wendell Berry is not only a Kentucky treasure, but an American treasure.