A Way of Life Being Lost: Wendell Berry and his daughter, Mary, fight for the survival of the family farm.

AuthorConniff, Ruth

Wendell Berry has spent a lifetime promoting an agrarian vision in which people and animals live in harmony with the land. As we drive around in his ancient pickup truck near his farm in Point Royal, Kentucky, he describes the way a farmer, plowing with a team of horses, understands when they need to rest.

"There's sympathy when he looks at his team and he knows he's asked enough of them," Berry tells me. "By the same sort of sympathy, a farmer farming on the right scale knows the needs of the land."

As we drive through Henry County, which includes Port Royal, Berry tells stories about the people who have lived here for generations. The winding country road rises and falls past small plots broken up by hollows and steep hillsides. Crumbling rock walls, more than a century old, line many of the fields. Nowadays, many of the people who live here are retirees or commute to jobs elsewhere.

Passing the writing house where he has written his many books, staring out at the Kentucky River, Berry stops by a farm established by friends of his family in 1944. The couple worked hard to drain the wetland, where crawfish built castles in the fields, and kept a small dairy herd, fed only by what they grew on their land. The farm is in disrepair now. Their grandchild has a job in town and goes in for expensive entertainment. "I'm defining a heartbreak," Berry says.

Another neighbor went broke farming, after the costs of production overtook his earnings. His land was sold off at auction and the auctioneer, a neighbor, saw to it that he kept a little segment where he has his house. "In the old days, people lived together in these little farms, small farms all farmed by the people that owned them," says Berry. A friend of his described how people used to sit around in the evenings playing cards or talking.

"They had everything but money," Berry says, quoting his friend, and he adds, "They were free."

The dominant story in our culture, he says, is about the success of the young person who leaves home to make something of himself: "Boy raised in log cabin gets to be a CEO or President of the United States." The untold story is the desertion of the old people back home.

"And the old folks compound the sorrow in it by being proud of their absent children," says Berry. People who grew up in rural America write him letters, nostalgic for a way of life they've lost. "My correspondence is full of grief--the grief of successful people," he says.

In Berry's view, contempt for farm work and rural people, and a culture that defines success as leaving those things behind...

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