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October  01, 2008

Wendell Berry, 'prophet of rural America,' to visit Oct. 6

Wendell Berry speaking at the Frankfort, Indiana, Community Public Library in November 2005. (Courtesy David Marshall/Creative Commons)
On Oct. 6 the Quad-Cities community will have a rare opportunity to hear a reading by Wendell Berry, writer, philosopher and farmer. The program will begin at 7 p.m. in Centennial Hall. The public is welcome.

Called the "prophet of rural America" by the New York Times, Berry has visited the Quad-Cities only once before when he was a guest of the Augustana College department of English in the mid-70s. His upcoming visit is again through the department and professor Jason Peters, a personal friend, and is being underwritten by Augustana's Institute for Leadership and Service.

"Wendell Berry is the sort of writer you avoid reading at your own peril. Few can write sentences as clear, as immediate, and as faithful to intent as Berry can. You don't often see that these days," Peters said. "To those observing the gathering clouds of ecological and economic catastrophe, writers who luxuriate in flippancy and irony appear now to have a pretty clear and fast-approaching expiration date. Berry will outlast them all."

At a commencement address last year at Bellarmine University, a college of 2,600 students in Kentucky, Berry spoke about education in a way that may resonate with Augustana students. "Actual education seems now to be far more probable in the smaller schools," he said. "A school the size of this one still can function as a community of teachers and students, with responsible community life as its unifying aim." (See complete address)

Wendell Berry was born Aug. 5, 1934, in Henry County, Ky., where he still lives on his family's farm. For most of his life, he has combined writing and scholarship with farming, exploring the themes of place, sustainable agriculture, healthy communities and the interconnectedness of life. He has written more than 40 books of poetry, essays and novels.

Berry also will meet with students from 10 a.m.-noon in Olin Auditorium on Oct. 6, and Peters urged students to attend as their schedules allow.

Meeting Wendell Berry

(Jason Peters talks about his first meeting with the famous writer.)

 Wendell Berry (center) poses with Augustana students and Jason Peters (far right) at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Wendell Berry and I corresponded a little for a few years before we met one Sunday afternoon
at his house in February of 2004. He told me that he would be coming from his grandson's
birthday party and that if he were late I should let myself in. At this time I had no thought of
putting together a collection of essays on his life and work, though later I would begin a three-year project to do just that. Like many people I simply wanted
to meet him. For his part, I'm pretty sure he was just hoping I wouldn't turn out to be a fawning
nutcase in person.

We hit it off pretty well. We sat in his living room by the wood-burning stove and talked
casually. We talked about books, about people we happened mutually to know, and about
ourselves. I remember at one point he pulled down a book, The Dying Gaul, by David Jones and
read to me a passage from "Art in Relation to War" that had been much on his mind. We also
exchanged several jokes until it was time to do the chores.

He took me to his barns, and we fed his sheep. Then we went up the lane to his horse barn and
pasture, and from there up a steep slope. He showed me a few places on the wooded hillside
that were prone to wash-outs and explained his attempts to secure the soil there. He showed me
a hillside field and said, "one of my great pleasures in life is to mow this field with a team of
horses."

I asked him about the galvanized bucket made famous in his essay, "The Work of Local
Culture." Was it still hanging on the fence? "No," he said. "But it's still up there by the
fencepost. Some day I'll take you to see it."

He gave me more time than I deserved that day, and since then we have had a few occasions to
meet, either at his house or elsewhere, for a drink or a meal and always for several jokes. He tells
a joke as well as anyone I know.

Wendell Berry is the sort of writer you avoid reading at your own peril. Few can write sentences
as clear, as immediate, and as faithful to intent as Berry can. You don't often see that these
days. To those observing the gathering clouds of ecological and economic catastrophe, writers
who luxuriate in flippancy and irony appear now to have a pretty clear and fast-approaching
expiration date. Berry will outlast them all.

His great concern is the life and health of the world, which he believes we can secure only by
dismantling the extractive economy that has given us this standard of living that is neither
practically sustainable nor morally defensible. He says, "we must achieve the character and
acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do." That's a sentence worthy of contemplation.