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Published Date : September 16, 2012
When he accepted the invitation to deliver The Jefferson Lecture—our nation’s highest honor for distinguished intellectual achievement—Wendell Berry decided to take on the obligation of thinking again about the problems that have engaged him throughout his long career. He wanted a fresh start, not only in looking at the groundwork of the problems facing our nation and the earth itself, but in gaining hope from some examples of repair and healing even in these times of Late Capitalism and its destructive contagions. As a poet and writer he understood already that much can be gleaned from looking at the vocabulary of these problems themselves and how we describe them. And he settled on “affection” as a method of engagement and solution. The result is the greatest speech he has delivered in his six decades of public life. It All Turns on Affection will take its place alongside The Unsettling of America and The Gift of Good Land as major testaments to the power and clarity of his contribution to American thought.
We have taken this opportunity to include a small handful of other recent essays and a wonderful conversation between Mr. Berry, his wife Tanya Berry, and the head of the National Endowment of the Humanities Jim Leech, which took place just after the award was announced. The result offers a wonderful continuation of the long conversation Berry has had with his readers over many years and as well as a fine introduction to his life and work.
WENDELL BERRY was born in Henry County, Kentucky, in 1934. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1956 and continued on to complete a master’s degree in 1957. In 1958, he received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.
Berry has taught at Stanford University, Georgetown College, New York University, the University of Cincinnati, and Bucknell University. He taught at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky from 1964-77, and again from 1987-93.
His books include the novel Hannah Coulter (2004), the essay collections Imagination in Place (2010) and What Matters? (2010), and Leavings: Poems (2010), all available from Counterpoint Press. Berry’s latest works include New Collected Poems (2012) and A Place in Time (2012), Wendell Berry’s newest volume in his Port William series.
He lives and works with his wife, Tanya Berry, on their farm in Port Royal, Kentucky.
Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources in what Aldo Leopold called “the land-community”: the land, all its features and “resources,” and all its members, human and nonhuman, including of course the humans who do, for better or worse, the work of land use. Industrialists and industrial economists have assumed, with permission from the rest of us, that land and people can be divorced without harm. If farmers come under adversity from high costs and low prices, then they must either increase their demands upon the land and decrease their care for it, or they must sell out and move to town, and this is supposed to involve no ecological or economic or social cost. Or if there are such costs, then they are rated as “the price of progress” or “creative destruction.”
But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect. There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours.