5 questions with Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, social critic, and farmer in Port Royal, Kentucky. Among the most respected American humanists of our day, Berry is notably distrustful of technology and a fierce advocate for agrarian values. Berry has won numerous awards including the National Humanities Medal, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Berry served as the Jefferson Lecturer in 2012 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Joe Waters: You write beautifully about the care that must be taken in cultivating a farm, keeping a home, associating with neighbors, and in raising a family. Why do we find it so difficult to do these things with care? How might we sustain our attention to these tasks?

Wendell Berry: Too much “social mobility” and “upward mobility.” The need for both parents to be employed all day away from home. The removal of status and respect from homemaking. See answer number 2.

Wendell Berry by Guy Mendes (Source: National Endowment for the Humanities)

JW: What advice would you give to young parents — the parents of young children just starting out — about how to help their children build lives of flourishing not just careers?

WB: Make a home, an actual household with an actual household economy, in which all family members do some work — housekeeping, gardening, cooking, etc. — in their own support.

JW: What do we need to allow nature to teach us about childhood, the experience of growing up, and families?

WB: In the natural world — “all outdoors” — Nature provides her own curriculum for children: whatever is interesting, whatever is beautiful, whatever offers adventure. It is human nature that has to be taught somewhat intentionally and deliberately: justice, prudence, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, love — all the qualities of heart and mind that place us above our animal nature.

JW: What is a memory from your own childhood that you are afraid children today may never experience?

WB: Free rambling, with other boys or alone, over several square miles of familiar countryside.

JW: What about the future gives you the most hope for our children and grandchildren?

WB: The future is unknown because it does not exist. Knowing the good of the past, recognizing the good that is present, knowing right from wrong will help the cause of hope. Just knowing some history will help.


Our thanks to Wendell Berry for his time and consideration. Visit the Poetry Foundation’s page on his life and work to learn more.