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Column: Being versed in country things

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    Author and activist Wendell Berry, right, greets Teri Blanton during a "I Love Mountains" rally on the steps of the capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2013. Several hundred protesters trooped up the Capitol steps Thursday to protest the form of coal mining known as mountaintop removal. The rally has become an annual Valentine's Day rite in Frankfort to show support for perennial, but so far unsuccessful, legislation that would effectively end the controversial practice. (AP Photo/James Crisp) AP — James Crisp

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 10/12/2019 10:32:22 PM
Modified: 10/12/2019 10:32:07 PM

Wendell Berry is 84 years old, a Kentucky farmer. His many books of poetry, fiction and essays are grounded in his farm, his family and his community. He is generally reluctant to say much about national politics, but his take on how we have treated our land and our communities in rural America throws light on our political predicament.

Berry’s mid-summer interview in The New Yorker with Amanda Petrusich, “Going Home with Wendell Berry,” made clear his most urgent conviction: We are bound to mistreat each other if we mistreat our land.

Berry and his wife, Tanya, decided in 1964 to leave New York City, where he’d been teaching for two years. They returned to Kentucky, warned by city friends to beware of the “village virus.” Asked by Petrusich to define the virus, Berry says simply: “To be narrow-minded. To be what everybody’s saying now about rural America. Racist, sexist, backward. Stupid.”

Everybody’s not saying that — certainly not everybody in Vermont and New Hampshire. Not even everybody in the purple states that gave Donald Trump his Electoral College victory.

But Berry’s anger at how our country has treated rural America is suggested in his definition of “village virus.” And his anger goes way back. A preface to his most famous book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977), sums up the catastrophe visited on rural America, caused largely by federal policies, industrial agriculture and corporate power: “Farmers are losing their farms, some are killing themselves, some in the madness of despair are killing other people, and rural economy and rural life are gravely stricken.”

Visiting friends in the upper Midwest, I can see this catastrophe continues. And I think again of one of the most haunting parts of Berry’s book-length essay on race and the continuing influence of slavery, The Hidden Wound (1972). It tells of his inviting Nick Watkins, an old black man who worked for his grandfather, to his birthday party when he was 9 or 10 years old.

Nick understood the boy had made a social error, but he came anyway and sat on the cellar wall behind the house where the party was to take place. “By that time,” Berry writes, “even I had begun to feel the uneasiness. I had done a thing more powerful than I could have imagined at the time; I had scratched the wound of racism, and all of us, our heads beclouded in the social dream that all was well, were feeling the pain. It was suddenly evident to me that Nick neither would nor could come into the house and be a member of the party.”

Berry’s grandmother allowed him to join Nick outside to celebrate his birthday. He writes: “I didn’t think of it in moral terms at all. I did simply what I preferred to do. ... I was full of a sense of loyalty and love that clarified me to myself as nothing ever had before.”

One thing that probably makes it hard for Berry to judge Donald Trump’s political base as harshly as a lot of people do is his knowledge that many people with backgrounds like his have never had the chance to experience anything like his decision to skip the party and join Nick Watkins.

But while Berry points to the carelessness of white folks who settled — and, for the most part, continue to govern — our country, he would surely object to putting racism at the center of a campaign.

Berry’s agrarian commitment to sustainable farming that protects the Earth, as well as local economies, communities and families, suggests an alternative. We cannot ignore the deep wound racism has made in our culture, his work suggests, but if we focus on the task of healing the Earth that sustains us, we’re likely to see what we share.

When Petrusich asks about those who voted for Trump, Berry says this: “People who are hopeless will do irrational things. And these people wanted to make a disturbance in the hopes that the disturbance would bring forth something better. They were hoping for the wrong things, but also they were being ignored. I believe in the importance of conversation. I think our conversation is worth more right now than either one of us thinking separately.”

Berry tells Petrusich “the need of being versed in country things,” as Robert Frost put it almost a century ago, has been “reinforced” politically in our time. He proposes a kind of land-based knowledge and talk that I think might help Democrats win in 2020.

He’s encouraging firmly grounded conversation among people in danger of believing, wrongly, that we don’t share common ground at all.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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