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Wendell Berry urges 'affection' for the land

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

More than 2,000 people turned out at the Kennedy Center in Washington Monday evening to hear Wendell Berry, the noted poet, essayist, novelist and farmer and conservation, deliver the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 41st annual Jefferson Lecture.

In a lecture titled “It All Turns on Affection,” Berry presented a romantic portrait of rural America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when his family established a small tobacco farm in Kentucky.

He also portrayed James Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company, which bought the tobacco, as a villain and was generally critical of modern mobility and industrial farming.

He talked extensively about the difficulties of the farmer, but did not mention the current affluence in most of American agriculture. Calling for more affection for the land, Berry said, “Farmers are now too likely to be merely the land’s exploiters.”

He praised efforts to tie food production to local economies.

“Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighborhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection and all else that neighborhood implies.”

Berry did not mention the health aspects of tobacco in either his lecture or an interview published in Humanities magazine, but in the interview noted that his father and his brother, both lawyers, have served as presidents of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association.

The Jefferson lecturer is chosen in a lengthy process involving nominations, board discussion and recommendations and a final decision by the chairman of the NEH, currently Jim Leach, the former Iowa Republican congressman.

"Wendell Berry is an American treasure whose prose and poetry have — with subtlety, intelligence and conviction — helped open our eyes to the importance of respecting and living with nature,” Leach said in a news release. “Tilling the land of his Kentucky forebears, he is a 21st-century Henry David Thoreau.”

After the lecture, however, Leach noted that as a government official he wanted to note that the views expressed were Berry’s.

The NEH established the Jefferson Lecture in 1972 to honor the intellectual and civic virtues exemplified by Thomas Jefferson. The honor recognizes contributions to the humanities and according to the NEH website, "provides an occasion for the lecturer to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities before a broad general audience."