Why Wendell Berry's pulling his personal papers from UK

By Charlie Pearl Published:

Internationally known author Wendell Berry created a controversy when he pulled many of his personal papers from the University of Kentucky archives because he objected to the naming of Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Berry’s decision saddened him and generated a mix of disappointment and support from his friends in the academic and writing community.

One of Kentucky’s most prolific writers on conservation, sustainable farming and environmental issues, Berry, 75, is consistently a best-selling author at the November Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort.

He has authored 50 books of essays, poetry and fiction, and has received numerous awards for his work.

Berry and his wife, Tanya, sat down June 24 with State Journal Staff Writer Charlie Pearl for a rare two-hour interview at their 117-acre hillside farm, Lanes Landing on the Kentucky River in northeastern Henry County, about 40 miles from Frankfort.

He talked at length about the UK issue and much more.

His papers – which measure 60 cubic feet in volume and would fill about 100 boxes – will probably be transferred to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. The papers include letters he has received over the years, drafts of various books and corrected proofs.

He says he has no timeframe for the transfer.

“I’m going to take as much time as I need,” Berry says. “There’s no hurry.”

UK purchased some of Berry’s papers and those will stay in the UK libraries archives’ permanent collection.

Berry received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UK. Later he taught at his alma mater from 1964 until 1977 and from 1987 through 1993.

In the recent State Journal interview, Berry said the state “desperately needs good teachers who can prepare people to be responsible Kentuckians, who can teach the structure of local eco systems, economic history of the state, and the political and social history.

“Rather than trying to be nationally or globally prominent as a great research institution, if the University of Kentucky would meet it’s local responsibilities and really meet the needs of the land and the people of this state, it would be a city on a hill.

“Everybody would come here to find out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and what the results are.”

Berry says he’s given up public speaking and traveling for the most part but will continue to help promote a “50-Year Farm Bill” proposed by friend Wes Jackson at The Land Institute in Kansas.

“And I’m going to continue to work against mountaintop removal,” he says.

“Being here on our farm is increasingly satisfactory to me. This is a beautiful place and I know the country. I’ve got memories everywhere.” 

Here’s an edited version of the June 24 interview.

Talk about what has happened regarding the decision to pull many of your personal papers from the University of Kentucky’s archives.

I’m sad about it. The ideal thing would have been for my papers to be there. William Marshall was the archivist when the university made that purchase of my papers before I began to deposit these on loan and he asked at that time if I would donate them. I said I have two children farming and these papers have a value, and if I come to feel that the university is really serving the interest of people like my children who hope to prosper on small farms, then I may consider donating them.

But until they’re secure and I’m assured of the university’s interest in people like them, I’m not going to do it. And I’m not naïve. I was not at all inclined to make an issue of the university’s manifest lack of concern about surface mining in Eastern Kentucky and it’s ecological implications, it’s implications for the forests, for the survival of the wild creatures and maybe preeminently for the rural people there that a land grant university is mandated to look after and help. This form of mining is literally hell for the people who live near those mine sites. I know some of them and I’ve heard the testimony of many others and I’ve seen with my own eyes what they’re going through.

I understood that it was probably too much to expect, even a land grant university, to take an interest in those things. But when the university accepted that ($7 million) gift and agreed to name their basketball dormitory after the coal industry, that meant they had passed over from indifference to a manifest alliance with the coal industry. I don’t think a university ought to make an alliance with any industry. I know that’s going on at other universities, and I think it’s always a breach of intellectual integrity and reputability and a breach of public obligation. That is a public university. It ought not to be allying itself with a private interest of any kind. When that happened, that made it impossible for me to tacitly accept that in terms of my own relationship with the university. So the question I had to answer was whether I wanted to be associated with the university on its terms, and the answer I had to give is that I don’t.

What has to happen before your papers can go to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort?

The Historical Society people and (wife) Tanya and I have now sat down together and talked, and they understand my conditions, I believe. They’ve written me a letter that I am now going to think about and probably show to my attorney just to make sure that everything that ought to be talked about and understood has been taken care of.

Do you think there’s a good chance that’s where they’ll go?

I think there’s a very good chance that’s where they will go.

Do you have any hope that mountaintop removal mining will stop before all the mountains are gone?

Of course I hope it will stop. I hope it can be stopped and I have publicly stated my willingness to do what’s necessary to stop it (including) doing nonviolent resistance. I don’t think there’s any room yet to be optimistic about mountaintop removal. But I don’t think a person has a right to protest or work for change on the assumption that the effort will be effective. The issue is whether or not it’s right. 

But all the causes I’ve served have mostly gotten worse. The same ruin is being inflicted on farmland all over the country. It’s just slower. It’s more toxic. There’s more soil loss. We’re losing 130 acres a day in Kentucky to development. More advanced states are using it up faster. I wrote a book called ‘The Unsettling of America,’ published in 1977, and it includes a criticism of the land grant system. The tragedy of that book is it’s more pertinent today than it ever was. But you put your shoulder against this. You push and if you don’t move anything, so what, you tried.

Do you rely on coal at all for anything here at your home?

None of us is without sin. This is original sin round two. Every time we turn on the light switch, we’re subsidizing the coal industry.

Have you tried to look at wind and solar energy?

Wind out here in this river valley is not much of an option. But we have thought of installing solar panels. And I say when I get time I’ll get around to that. But I’m leading an incredibly busy life. There are two or three candidates for every minute I have. We’re guilty. I am glad to say there are a number of electronic things I don’t have.

Do you have a TV?

No. We don’t have a computer. We don’t have an electric typewriter. We don’t have an answering machine. We don’t have a fax machine. I don’t have a cell phone. I will say I take a certain pride in that all my first drafts are produced on solar or wood heat.

Tanya: He doesn’t have any electricity in his writing place.

I go up there and I may build a fire in the winter, and I drink the air on these humid summer afternoons.

Did you grow up in this house?

No, this is not a family place. This is an old river landing. 

Tanya: It’s more or less surrounded by family land from his mother’s side of the family.

There are actually a few acres that have been in my family but they’re peripheral to the main holding. This is my native community. My mother’s family has been in Port Royal as far as we’ve been able to document it since 1803. My father grew up at a place where my brother (John) lives, about four miles south of Port Royal. They’ve been here a long time too. So this is where I belong.

Do you still use a team of horses on the farm?


You don’t have a tractor?

No. But I’m not a fanatic. My son has a tractor and he’s nearby and if we need a tractor he comes with his. But my grandson and I are clipping pastures now. He’s 15 and he’s a good hand with a team of horses. I can put him to work and go off and leave him now. We are to some extent employing our own bodily power and our horses and so on and doing a little bit to save oil.

Did you like ‘Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry,’ shown at Actors Theatre in Louisville?

Yes, I was surprised to be moved by it. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about it. My family liked it, I think. It was a generosity to me on the part of Actors Theater and I appreciated it. They could hardly have been more kind and accommodating. I am of course a book person and value that moment in the quiet when a person sits down with a book. That’s what I’m writing for – that moment. I’m not a theater person. What they managed to do as theater people was far beyond anything I would be capable of. So I have to hand them a lot of credit and admiration for what they were able to do.

Do you frequently go to Smith-Berry Winery (owned by his daughter and son-in-law)?

Tanya works there when they have a concert. I have gone, but I don’t enjoy crowds very much.

Has it always been that way?

It’s getting more pronounced as I get older.


Both my grandfathers got that way.

When you were younger, did you have a desire to be a famous writer?

I had a great desire to be a writer. I didn’t desire to be a famous one. I wanted to be a good one. Ken Kesey, a very good friend of mine who was a famous writer, said fame is a wart, and he meant it. It’s a disfigurement. You’re not famous as yourself; you’re famous for what people think you are. It’s a caricature.

What is the teaching from the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

The teaching is that all this elegant science and technology can get us into things that it can’t get us out of. Secondly, we’re clearly working on too big of a scale. We all know that at the scale of our daily lives, the laws of probability give us a certain number of errors, sometimes pretty bad mistakes. But in the scale of our daily lives we can recover and go on. But the same laws apply to large-scale operations. So I’m always anxious to raise this issue of scale. I think it’s paramount in agriculture, in the arts, and in industry. And it’s been totally ignored as has the issue of local adaptation. For instance, the contemporary sciences of agriculture all come to rest on evolutionary biology. They’re accepted. And one of the rules of evolution is you adapt locally or you die. You adapt to your local circumstances, your place. And that’s been completely ignored. We don’t have a locally adapted agriculture. We had a pretty good one when I was growing up … the chicken and egg, and milk cow, meat, hog and garden economy.

What are your thoughts on climate change?

I think it’s a strategical mistake to give this movement the name of climate change. Climate change is an effect and the causes are greed, pollution, waste and this insatiable appetite we have for convenience, comfort and the rest of it. What we need to be talking about is a change that ultimately is going to be a cultural change, that’s going to be a change in the way we live. For instance, nobody can deny that pollution is a big problem. You can hardly find a political fool who will deny that pollution is a big problem. Down there in the Gulf of Mexico before the oil spill was the dead zone. I think there are around 400 of them around the world now. So that can’t be denied. That’s a cause of climate change. But climate change is vulnerable. It’s still not fool proof because every time it frosts in Florida some political fool will point out that it’s going the other way. The preponderance of scientific opinion is that it’s happening and we’re causing it and you can’t live here and be outdoors and not notice that the weather is getting extreme – more storms.

Do you write poetry every day?

No. I write poems when they come to me. I may have a notebook and look at it every day if I have any new work in it to see if it can be improved.

Do you write every day?

I try to.

On a typewriter?

Longhand. I get a longhand draft, and Tanya types it on this old Royal standard typewriter I got when I graduated from college. Then I have a friend who does my computer work at a price per page.

Why haven’t you gone to a computer?

I just don’t want to. I just don’t want to be a part of that crowd that rushes out and buys every damn gadget that comes on the market. I’m just not going to do it. I don’t need it. I like to work in the quiet. I have a system of writing that is very satisfactory. I use a spiral notebook, and I write on the right-hand page. Anything I want to add I put on the left-hand page. If I don’t like what I’ve done, I rip pages out and start all over again. It’s pretty good technology. I have a pencil and eraser. It’s wonderful new technology, that eraser is.

Are you going to get a hybrid vehicle someday?

I don’t know. I’m going to be 76 years old in August, so talking to me about someday is kind of a provisional exercise.

Do you feel old?

When I’m tired, yes. It’s possible for me now to get tired and feel old. But being young is very habit forming and as I go about my work I don’t think a lot about being old. I’ve got pains. My back hurts. I don’t have the elasticity I used to have and I don’t have the endurance. But I’m still fairly capable physically.

Everything’s harder on a hill farm. But this is the kind of land that will teach you something in a hurry, about water and erosion control. And there’s all this woodland around. It’s been a great place to be.



Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.