A Progressive Interview with Wendell Berry

The Progressive, December 2010 | Go to article overview

A Progressive Interview with Wendell Berry


Wendell Berry is a farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, and environmentalist.

Q: You took to the streets in Washington, D.C., in March 2009 with every intention of getting arrested. Why?

Wendell Berry: I went to Washington as a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide citizens' organization that works on challenging and changing unjust political, economic, and social systems. We were there to represent ourselves and our local communities. We were there to engage in the democratic process. We were there to speak against the destruction and wastefulness of mountaintop removal. We were asking the people in power to do something about the misconduct of the coal industry. Nothing that anyone has done has been able to put a rein on the coal companies in this region. They do whatever they want to do. The Kentucky general assembly won't even bring the issue of mountaintop removal to the floor for debate. That's why we went to Washington. When the government refuses to act responsibly, it's up to the citizens. And nonviolent civil disobedience, as far as I'm concerned, is the next step.

Q: What happened with the police that day?

Berry: They refused to arrest us, and I have to confess, I was damn glad not to be arrested. I'm grateful for every hour I'm not in prison. I think the number of us who were willing to be arrested was finally intimidating to the police, and they decided not to cooperate in our little ritualized demonstration of civil disobedience. The police relinquished the opportunity to know us better.

Q: How has the interest in the issues you care about changed over the years?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Berry: I first wrote against surface mining in the mountains of Kentucky in 1965, so that means that I've been publicly opposed to that way of mining for forty-four years. In those forty-four years, the situation has gotten worse. I don't know how many meetings I've attended, but I've left many of them with the feeling that nothing at all had been accomplished. But when you look around at what's going on, there is a big difference in the movement against the coal companies. That march in Washington was an improvement. My goodness, there was an enormous number of people there, two or three thousand, I think. And a lot of them, maybe the majority of them, maybe all of them, were there to be arrested if they could be accommodated. That hasn't happened before.

I've also been an advocate for local food economies, and there's a big difference also on that front. When I started talking about these agricultural issues in the early '70s, most people didn't know what I was talking about and most didn't care. But nowadays, there is considerable public dialogue about these issues.

Q: Do you see yourself becoming more radical over time?

Berry: The terra "radical" has the same meaning in politics as it does in mathematics or in the word "radish. …

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