The Pencil and the Plough

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Wendell Berry is a man who refuses to be categorized, because every label attached to him is a distortion of his views. Or so he feels. This lean and lanky, six-foot-something Kentucky farmer is every English city dweller’s idea of what a Kentucky farmer should look like. He has a long face, large hands, close-set eyes, a patient manner and an easy drawl. Yet he is not quite what he seems.

Born the son of a tobacco grower who was also a lawyer, a Baptist and hereditary Democrat, Wendell Berry was university-educated and began life as a university lecturer, when he started to write fiction and poetry. In 1965, having turned 30, he went back to the place where his family had farmed for five generations and bought himself a homestead called Lane’s Landing near Port Royal on the banks of the Kentucky River.

When I met him fourteen years ago, I suggested he was what in England we call a gentleman farmer. He denied it flatly. ‘No. Because I don’t hire my work,’ he said. ‘I do it myself – I and my wife. Or we swap work with our neighbours.’ What is not in doubt is that Berry is a prolific writer. He writes mainly about farming – or rather, about the rural communities which 12,000 years of farming has sustained – and his novels are populated with characters like him and his neighbours.

He himself lives by a strict code of ‘natural’ or Nature-friendly rules which he thinks we must all adopt if we are not to destroy ourselves in the long run. He writes with a pencil (he won’t have a computer), ploughs his acres with horses, and burns his own timber for fuel. But he cuts his logs with a chainsaw, flies on aeroplanes and drives a car.

In some respects, it’s the philosophy of those religious dissenters the Amish – whom Berry admires – who use paraffin lamps at home but drive around in Cadillacs so long as they are painted black and have the chrome taken off. ‘It’s not that I would rule out any particular piece of equipment,

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About the contributor

Wendell Berry was one of nearly 300 eccentrics, radicals and pioneering intellectuals in the arts and sciences whom Christian Tyler interviewed for a weekly column in the Financial Times during the 1990s.

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