Celebrated writer Wendell Berry, also known as a philosopher, farmer, environmentalist and social activist, shared thoughts on those and other topics with a rapt Samford University audience Monday, Feb. 27.
The author of more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Berry read one of his most recent stories, “Sold,” which appeared in The Atlantic magazine last year. The poignant story tells of a woman’s simple but good life in the fictional town of Port William, and eventual transitions of land, family and friends.
Berry spoke as this year’s lecturer in the Thomas and Marla Corts Distinguished Author series. He did so, he said, partly because of his longtime admiration of former Samford provost William Hull, who he first knew when Dr. Hull was a minister near Berry’s rural Kentucky home in 1952.
“I’ve been learning from him for a long time,” Berry said of Hull, who was in the audience. Proceeds from the lecture benefitted Samford’s Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies.
For the crowd of almost 1,000 in Wright Center, Berry shared thoughts on agriculture, religion, writing and humanity during a question and answer time.
Regarding challenges of feeding a world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, Berry advised against overreaction that could lead to improper profits for some companies and still not solve the problem.
“It’s a burden to ask people to be patient in an emergency, but that’s what sensible people need to do,” he said. While toxic agriculture and a polluted water supply make the U.S. less capable of feeding people now than it was 50 years ago, the answer is not to crank up technological enterprise. But rather, he suggested, identify the real requirements for food production and address the amount of food that is wasted.
“We must do things that can be learned and done now rather than putting faith in the hands of a few technological corporations,” he advised.
On the writing process, Berry said he waits for the muse, adding that sometimes he may know a story for 50 years or more before he writes it. “Somehow, it comes to mind. I don’t try to drum up trade,” said Berry who no longer lists favorite writers or books, although many writers and non-writers have been necessary to him at different times.
In his development as a writer, for example, he needed writers who had written about a place other than his native Kentucky, such as Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, England, William Faulkner’s Mississippi and Robert Frost’s New England. That throughout his life he has always found the right friend or book just when he needed them, he said, “speaks to me of some deeply planted generosity in this world.”
He first began to understand the Bible when he carried it into the woods on Sunday mornings, said Berry, who has worshiped with his grandchildren in the same church pews that he once did with his own grandfather. His favorite place to worship, however, is outdoors, surrounded by miracles. “Miracles in the woods look different than miracles in a building.”
Calling immigration a complex issue that brings much talk about religion and politics, Berry said he would like those talking about religion to have more discomfort and anxiety, and also to see a complete assessment of what is owed to migrant workers. “If we pulled them out now, we would starve to death. We need to face some hard truths,” he said, lamenting that society too often denigrates physical work, but makes a living on people who labor.
In order to have serious conversation on this serious subject, people must learn the art of discourse, believes Berry, who sees “precious little” of it going on now.
“In the meantime, we don’t have to be mean to people,” said Berry, who has been chosen to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on April 23. The honor by the National Endowment for the Humanities is considered the highest honor awarded by the federal government for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Samford president Dr. Andrew Westmoreland thanked Berry for his ability to “tie the past and the future together and to tie a knot in it where we are at the present time.”
The audience included students, area residents, and Berry devotees who traveled from Mobile in south Alabama and from other states.
Dianne Ford and her husband, Neal Jones, drove nine hours from their home in North Carolina for the talk and a pre-lecture reception with the guest of honor. “I have been reading and collecting Berry’s works all of my adult life,” said Ford, a college librarian whose personal collection includes 17 books by the author.
Picking special ones to bring for a possible autograph by the writer posed a problem for Ford, who had never heard Berry speak before. “When I went to the shelf to pick one, I couldn’t decide,” she recalled, “so I brought all of them.”
Peter Smith, a master of divinity student at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School, is a newer fan who had expected a traditional lecture, but found Berry’s reading of “Sold” entertaining and the question and answer session thought-provoking.
“You can tell he has a humble spirit and that he’s someone who loves people. He is less about self promotion and more about promotion of thought and compassion,” said Smith, who has read many of Berry’s stories and fiction. The story, “The Boundary,” was required reading in his spiritual formation class at Beeson, said Smith.
Earlier in the day, undergraduate students in environmental science, nutrition and freshman biology classes came together for a special time with Berry. Topics ranged from his writing career to life on the farm and sustainable agriculture.
Junior biology major Grace Kimrey said Berry’s wisdom and genuine concern for the environment left her with a keener sense of duty in that regard.
“Our generation, and culture in general, isn’t taking care of the environment,” said Kimrey. “And we have a moral obligation to change that.”