Author Wendell Berry, who promotes farm conservation through his poetry, novels and works of nonfiction, received the 2010 National Humanities Medal.
Promoting farm sustainability and conservation isn’t limited to the field, as poet and novelist Wendell Berry has proven. Berry has published more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, many of which demonstrate his commitment to farming and explore humans’ relationships to the land and the environment. Last week, he was recognized for his work as not only a poet and novelist but as a farmer and conservationist when President Barack Obama awarded him a 2010 National Humanities Medal.
The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities. The medal was presented at a White House ceremony honoring 10 National Medal of Arts and 10 National Humanities Medal awardees.
Berry and his wife, Tanya, began farming in Port Royal, Ky., in 1965. Berry has lived, worked and written at Lane’s Landing, on the banks of the Kentucky River, ever since. Many of his short stories and novels are set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William. He has woven agrarian themes throughout these stories, examining the history and fate of agriculture in America through his plots and characters.
Berry’s nonfiction, meanwhile, illustrates his agrarian values and his emphasis on farming sustainably, implementing traditional agricultural techniques, and building and supporting vibrant local economies.
In his remarks at the award ceremony, President Obama spoke of the ability of the arts and humanities to transform society. “Time and again, the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment—they’re not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they’ve also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars.”
Berry is also a longtime activist for environmental and rural causes. In February 2011, he made national headlines as one of 14 mountaintop removal mining protestors to participate in a weekend-long sit-in in the Kentucky governor’s office. In 2009, he removed his papers from the archives of the University of Kentucky, where he is an alumnus and former member of the faculty, to protest the school’s decision to name a dormitory after a coal-mine owner. In that same year, he spoke out against the USDA’s National Animal Identification System.
Berry was born in Henry County, Ky., in 1934. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Kentucky in 1956 and 1957, respectively, and received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University in 1958. He has taught at Stanford, Georgetown College, New York University, the University of Cincinnati and Bucknell University. He also taught at the University of Kentucky from 1964 to 1977 and again from 1987 to 1993.