Wendell Berry Presses Coal Protest, Wins Honors
by Dylan Lovan
Published on Sunday, March 27, 2011 by the Associated Press
Distributed by Common Dreams
PORT ROYAL, Kentucky -- Wendell Berry is back in the
wooden rocker in the kitchen of his central Kentucky
farm house after a busy few weeks, and his mind is
slowly returning to writing.
Wendell Berry (portrait by Robert Shetterly -
http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/) "There's been
a good bit going on lately," he says with a chuckle.
The Amish-made chair near the window is softer and more
familiar than the floor of the Kentucky governor's
office, where last month he joined environmentalists at
a three-day sit-in to protest strip-mining in
Two weeks later, the 76-year-old author of 40 books was
being feted by the president at the White House as a
recipient of the National Humanities Medal for
"achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer, and
conservationist." Authors John Updike, Toni Morrison
and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel have been awarded
the medal in past years.
President Barack Obama draped the medal around Berry's
neck, and said he liked his poetry. Berry says he did
not raise his concerns about Appalachian surface mining
with the president during the encounter, saying it
would have been rude.
But environmental activism was not far from his mind.
"I did examine the rugs in the White House to see how
comfortable they'd be to sleep on," Berry said with a
The famed rural writer is tall and slender, and speaks
with a slow, deep drawl, measuring his words carefully.
He has lived in this home in Henry County since the
1960s, and is glad to point out to visitors that not
much has changed since then. No TV, no computer, no
answering machine, but plenty of farm work - and ewes
that will be lambing soon.
The farm's grounds have one recent addition: three
massive solar panel units, which Berry says help keep
him from drawing electricity in a state that gets more
than 90 percent of its electric power from burning
He views the state's booming coal industry through the
eyes of a farmer who's concerned about destruction of
the land - especially Appalachian forest.
"I was raised to think that the good care of the land
ought to be among a person's first thoughts," he said.
His first thoughts on surface mining were formed during
a visit to a mining site in eastern Kentucky in the
"When I first saw a bulldozer start around the mountain
side, pushing the trees and the topsoil and everything
that wasn't coal out of the way, I couldn't believe
He says Kentucky is destroying a renewable resource -
its mountain forests - to extract a resource that will
someday run out.
"When you destroy the topsoil, you're destroying the
possibility of life for human beings and all other
creatures. So you're working against your own long-term
Industry supporters argue that reclamation efforts
restore vegetation and wildlife to strip-mined sites,
while economic development occurs on some former
surface mined sites.
Berry says the reclamation efforts could never return
the land to the way it was before mining occurred.
"You can't do it if you destroy that topsoil by mixing
it up with sub-soils and rock debris. When you take the
topsoil off the top, you can't restore it in human
For decades, his pen has taken aim at the industry and
state government, which he calls a "wholly-owned
subsidiary of the coal corporations." But Berry
acknowledges that battling the state's most powerful
industry is often a losing fight.
"People who get into these conservation efforts aren't
permitted to get in on the assumption that they're
going to be successful by some deadline, and they
better think of the possibility that they might lose,"
he said. "The possibility of failure is being proven
He lent his considerable stature to the mid-February
protest in the office of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a
Democrat and coal industry supporter who is running for
re-election in the fall.
The protesters had planned to call attention to their
cause by getting arrested, but it didn't happen, said
Erik Reece, an author and mining activist who joined
"We realized the one smart thing the governor did was
tell his staff, 'I don't want any press pictures of
Wendell Berry in handcuffs,'" Reece said. "Our plan
kind of got foiled there."
The protest still made national headlines, and Reece
said that was due to Berry's presence. But it has had
little effect on Beshear's support for the industry and
a controversial strip-mining method known as
Berry made a less ballyhooed but more personally
agonizing stand against the coal industry last summer
when he severed a lifelong relationship with the
University of Kentucky over a corporate sponsorship
The writer was horrified by UK's decision to accept $7
million for a new basketball dormitory from a group of
donors organized by a coal company president. The dorm
will be called the Wildcat Coal Lodge.
He withdrew papers he had on loan to the university,
the same campus where he studied as a student, later
taught writing and met his wife, Tanya. He also vowed
to end any other associations with the state's flagship
"I have an immense debt to that university. I would
have liked very much to be at peace with it and to be
proud of it," he said. "I didn't have $7 million but I
did have those papers on loan up there, so I made the
most of what I had."
He continues to add to his long list of fiction,
non-fiction and poetry, still writing in longhand with
a pencil. His wife edits and transfers the words with a
Berry is perhaps best known for his 1982 collection of
essays on agriculture, "The Unsettling of America" and
his long-running Port William fiction series.
Along with an essay he's working on, Berry says he has
completed his latest Port William short story.
"That's up there by the typewriter," he said.
© 2011 Associated Press
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