Front Porch Blog

In Defense of the Earth: An Appalachian Poet’s Presence

Stream “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet” below or watch it on Moyers & Company by clicking here.

Widely celebrated as a caretaker of the culture and myth of rural America, Wendell Berry has a distinct drawl and speaks like he writes, eloquently but with simple words and equal parts conviction and compassion. Beyond being a renowned poet and author, Berry is an abiding presence in the environmental movement — especially among those of us who live in or love Appalachia.

A new presentation by Moyers & Company, “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet,” provides a portrait of the literary icon’s growth and influence, his relationship with the land and his hopes for humanity.

Among the topics covered — industrialization, wealth inequality, the indifference of elected leaders to environmental degradation — is Berry’s anti-mountaintop removal activism, and his participation in a four-day sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to protest mountaintop removal.

When Moyers asks Berry what prompted him, at his age, to participate in the sit-in, he quickly replies “good company.” But he goes on to describe the inherent ill-effects of mountaintop removal on Kentucky communities as a problem “which state government is utterly indifferent to” and on which committed citizens have “taken every obvious and legitimate recourse … and nothing had worked.”

Over footage of detonations on mountaintop removal sites, bulldozers and dump trucks pushing piles of waste into valleys, and draglines carving out coal seams, Berry describes why the challenges facing parts Appalachia are so persistent.

“The state government of Kentucky is not set up for dialogue or discourse on difficult problems,” Berry says. “The issue of clean water in Eastern Kentucky has so far not been possible to raise in the halls of the government.”

A lot has been done to stop coal pollution in Kentucky, but the state’s streams are still considered acceptable as collateral damage for coal industry profits, he says.

“That’s tragic, and that’s to be suffered. The world and our life in it are conditional gifts. We have the world to live in and the use of it to live from on the condition that we will take good care of it, and we’ve ignored all that all these years.”

Moyers asks Berry “what are the precious things that you think are endangered now?” Berry answered:

It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered. But maybe that’s an advantage. The poet William Butler Yeats said somewhere, “Things reveal themselves passing away.” And it may be that the danger that we’ve now inflicted upon every precious thing reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty.

Aware of Appalachia’s preciousness and of our duty, many of us at Appalachian Voices have a special kinship with Berry’s writing and message. He has inspired pieces in The Appalachian Voice and his entire canon supports our mission to end mountaintop removal and protect clean water while promoting a sustainable future for the region.

There is plenty more left to do, and at least for our part, it all starts with Appalachia. Thankfully, in Berry’s words, “The world is full of people who see something that needs to be done and start doing it.”

Watch the entire presentation of “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet” online.

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4 Comments

  1. Monette Wynne on August 13, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    I stumbled across this…I feel very lucky to have seen him speak, this piece has introduced me to his life and poetry. I will defiantly be getting a few of his books. He has “spoken” to me more than any other in my 45 years on this planet. I am forever changed. Thank you Mr. Berry for your lifelong commitment to a sustainable planet. Namaste’ Monette Wynne



  2. Kathleen Geagan on November 1, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I heard it while on my way to Wellfleet to preside over a Country of Marriage wedding ceremony.

    Memories of my years in Kentucky came flooding back to me. Swimming in the muddy Kentucky, listening to Wendell recite his poetry then square dancing together in big barn in Monterey. My sister’s freshman year at UK he was her English professor.

    My commitment from the words of Wendell is to re-settle my attentions on what is right with this world. “To give thanks for precious things.”

    Thanks again,
    Rev. Kathleen Geagan



  3. Connie on October 26, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks so much for making this available. I plan to share widely with my children and grandchildren as well as others. I was privileged to share a meal with Wendell and Tanya in their home about 1972. We walked some of the farm with Wendell and used the composting toilet. Sustainable living was a way of life to tune into and I love seeing the solar panels in the current photographs. To now witness this interview is humbling. What a wonderful, hopeful, and loving author, farmer, and advocate.



  4. milton on October 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    happy to see that you are sharing the wendell berry piece with our audience..all the best… bunk



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