After 2012 Jefferson Lecturer Wendell Berry, of Port Royal, Kentucky, received a standing ovation, the chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities Jim Leach rose to remind the audience that Mr. Berry’s words did not reflect the official policy of the U.S. government.
Like we needed to be reminded.
After all, Berry’s is one of the wisest and sanest voices in America today. His more than 50 books of poetry, fiction, and essays are full of bitter medicine for what ails American society, and the only sweetener is his earthy prose. I challenge you to find one kind word about Washington in any of his works.
As the drawling spokesman for everything local and regional, Berry’s affection thins as it widens. He cherishes first and foremost his family and family farm. The town of Port Royal and Henry County figure somewhere a little further down the list. But the entity known as the USA is about as significant to Berry as Timbuktu. As for our nation’s capital: “[I]n my best moments I am not aware of the existence of the government.”
Berry did, however, accept an invitation last month to go to Washington to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, if only to chide the bureaucrats and plutocrats. The honor is long overdue, for no one has carried the torch for Jefferson’s agrarian vision like Berry. His lecture, “It All Turns On Affection,” touches on the usual Berry themes: the importance of limits, of putting down roots, a healthy distrust of Big Corporations and Big Government (including that part of Big Government that keeps shipping Henry County, Kentucky boys overseas to die in undeclared wars), the cult of development, nostalgia for the Southern agrarian life, and the joys of family, of place and of community.
From his mentor and teacher Wallace Stegner, Berry learned early on that Americans can be divided into two types: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street.” Whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” If you know anything about Berry you know he is sticky as molasses. “Stickers … are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it,” says Berry. Sadly, we consumer-citizens are all boomers now.
BERRY, HOWEVER, IS TOO CONTENTED with his life to be all doom and gloom. At times he is even hopeful that things may change for the better, though that hope is predicated on the axe of progress first striking rock bottom. “The diminishment of the goods of nature will, sooner or later, enforce change,” he predicted. Also holding out promise is the now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food . “An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment,” he said.
With Berry it inevitably comes back to place and one’s affection for it. “The primary motive for good care and good use of the land-community is always going to be affection, which is too often lacking,” he says. In the end people will sustain the land-community not because it’s morally right but because they want to; affection is going to be the determining motive. Without affection one looks upon the world and its creatures as “exploitable without limit.”
The lack of charm in our modern-built environments is also a result of our restless mobility and withdrawal of affection from places. When we gaze upon beautiful old architecture it is because the builders and owners of these institutions lived nearby, and had true affection for their neighbors and communities, while today’s CEOs and absent stockholders reside hundreds of miles away in gated communities. Why should they care what their buildings look like? They never have to look at them or live next door to them. Just build it as cheaply as possible.
Nearing 80, Berry remains happily secluded in his picturesque if remote corner of Kentucky, shunning the spotlight, reveling in his family and farm and, on occasion, trying to make the rest of us nomadic boomers see the practicality of what he calls “the life of the soul.” Such a task must make crop farming look easy.