Living close to the earth informs honoree’s writing

The Wisest Man in America BY BRADLEY MORRIS

Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer. No, really. And this month, he’s being honored for his work as the former. Not the farmer.

The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, given by the Tulsa Library Trust, serves to recognize authors of renown who have produced a distinguished body of literary work.

Berry is this year’s recipient, and by becoming so, he joins a very elite set of fantastic writers, among them Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Simon, Ray Bradbury, and a great many more. That’s pretty heady company, and Berry knows it.

“You don’t write in order to get an award,” he said. “But an award like this does raise the question of whether you deserve it or not. Of course, you’re not the one who decided, so you’re better to decide it’s something to live up to, rather than worry about whether you deserve it.”

Having made his mark as an advocate and occasional activist for environmental issues, Berry has certainly already lived up to the award. In addition to his award-winning work as an author and poet, he works every single day on his 125-acre Kentucky farm — though his humility about the award extends to his farm as well. This daily work continues to inform his literary work.

“You need to understand that this is a very marginal place,” he said about his home. “It’s steep land, so nearly all of it is in trees or grass. When the kids were younger, we had a very elaborate subsistence system here. We had a couple of milk cows; we had pigs for meat. We had things like that.”

Once his nest became empty of kids (and one would assume of free labor), 78-year-old Berry and wife Tanya have scaled back somewhat.

“We still have a garden and a flock of sheep. We have a couple of draft horses to help with things,” he said. “So this is not a large, commercial farm.”

And here’s where this setup, regardless of its size over the years, has affected his work.

So we all know that old write-what-you-know adage, and while it might be cliché, that doesn’t make it any less valid as advice.”Every day, I go outdoors because I have to, which is a good thing. Some days, I’d just as soon stay inside and read or write, but I have to go out,” he said. “And always, within minutes of getting out, I’m delighted to be out. That’s been one of the great advantages of this place is that it’s required me to live my life outside.”

“I write about agriculture, which is a relationship with nature, which is neither a bad or a good one,” he said. “And the human economy is a relationship with nature, and neither a bad or a good one.”

Seeing these relationships firsthand, and seeing them from the perspective of someone who is acutely aware of our absolute and total dependence on the environment we seem hellbent on destroying has led Berry to worry.

“I live in a place where my family has lived for a couple of hundred years,” he said. “I have certain ways of understanding the deterioration that’s happening here, both cultural and ecological.”

By way of example, he mentioned Port Royal, the place he called “my little town here.” For many years, the place was a farming community, but time has passed, and things have changed — and in Berry’s estimation not for the better.

“It’s now a bedroom community, housing mostly commuters. And pollution is an ever-present problem here as it is virtually everywhere,” he said. “One sees those things — the marks of soil erosion, land use — happen firsthand.”

When your livelihood is as closely tied to the environment as Berry’s is, it’s easier to see the damage that global warming and man’s presence in general are doing to the planet. He is a man who is not removed from it as are most of us city folk, who tend to take the environment for granted.

“We live from nature, from the soil, from the rain, from the sun. If it weren’t for those things, we wouldn’t live,” he said. “We don’t have control over any of those things — except maybe the sun if we obscure it with polluted air.”

The idea of our economy being a relationship with nature came up again in conversation after the specter of pollution was raised.

“Your economy ultimately exploits or destroys those things, or learns to live with it,” he said. “The present economy thrives on the exploitation and destruction of that world.”

As a result, his writing faces off against these issues.

“I have, at times, been what they call an activist. As a writer, I have been an advocate of, among other things, better forms of land use, but also, better ways of treating our fellow humans and our fellow creatures,” Berry said.

His career has spanned five decades, producing novels, collections of poetry, and essays. His initial novel, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960. Since then, his work has garnered more and more praise as time has gone by.

Though he could only estimate the number of novels he had published (“I’m not sure. About eight or nine, I think.”), he acknowledged that he’s not just a novelist or a poet.

“I think of myself a writer,” he said. “I have tools that I use for certain purposes. A carpenter, for instance, doesn’t try to drive a nail with a saw. There are certain things you can do with poetry or a short story.”

And any decision regarding whether he sits down to write a poem or a short story escapes him completely.

“It’s something of a mystery to me, because when you’re writing, you’re not thinking about writing,” Berry said. “You don’t think, ‘Let me stop and think about what I’m doing.'”

Whatever it is, it works for him. In addition to his first novel (and others, including Hannah Coulter in 2004 and Andy Catlett: Early Travels in 2006), he’s published poetry volumes in nearly every decade since 1964, beginning with that year’s The Broken Ground, and most recently, Leavings: Poems in 2010.

The Helmerich award will join a host of others he’s accrued over the years, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Ingersoll Foundation’s T.S. Eliot Award, the O. Henry Prize for short story, and numerous others.

The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award consists of a $40,000 cash prize and an engraved crystal book, and will be presented to Berry on Dec. 7 and 8.

The black-tie dinner on Friday will be at 7pm at Tulsa’s Central Library at West Fourth Street and South Denver Avenue, and a free public presentation of the same award will be held the next morning at 10:30am.

The whole affair has characteristically humbled Berry.

“There wasn’t any question that this was an honor,” he said. “They gave me the list of past recipients and so on. It’s a very generous, gracious thing that they’re doing for me.”

Send all comments and feedback regarding Arts Experienced to bmorris@urbantulsa.com.