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Wendell Berry Presses Coal Protest, Wins Honors
PORT ROYAL, Kentucky -- Wendell Berry is back in the wooden rocker in the kitchen of his central Kentucky farm house after a busy few weeks, and his mind is slowly returning to writing.
"There's been a good bit going on lately," he says with a chuckle.
The Amish-made chair near the window is softer and more familiar than the floor of the Kentucky governor's office, where last month he joined environmentalists at a three-day sit-in to protest strip-mining in Appalachia.
Two weeks later, the 76-year-old author of 40 books was being feted by the president at the White House as a recipient of the National Humanities Medal for "achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer, and conservationist." Authors John Updike, Toni Morrison and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel have been awarded the medal in past years.
President Barack Obama draped the medal around Berry's neck, and said he liked his poetry. Berry says he did not raise his concerns about Appalachian surface mining with the president during the encounter, saying it would have been rude.
But environmental activism was not far from his mind.
"I did examine the rugs in the White House to see how comfortable they'd be to sleep on," Berry said with a laugh.
The famed rural writer is tall and slender, and speaks with a slow, deep drawl, measuring his words carefully. He has lived in this home in Henry County since the 1960s, and is glad to point out to visitors that not much has changed since then. No TV, no computer, no answering machine, but plenty of farm work - and ewes that will be lambing soon.
The farm's grounds have one recent addition: three massive solar panel units, which Berry says help keep him from drawing electricity in a state that gets more than 90 percent of its electric power from burning coal.
He views the state's booming coal industry through the eyes of a farmer who's concerned about destruction of the land - especially Appalachian forest.
"I was raised to think that the good care of the land ought to be among a person's first thoughts," he said.
His first thoughts on surface mining were formed during a visit to a mining site in eastern Kentucky in the 1960s.
"When I first saw a bulldozer start around the mountain side, pushing the trees and the topsoil and everything that wasn't coal out of the way, I couldn't believe it."
He says Kentucky is destroying a renewable resource - its mountain forests - to extract a resource that will someday run out.
"When you destroy the topsoil, you're destroying the possibility of life for human beings and all other creatures. So you're working against your own long-term interests."
Industry supporters argue that reclamation efforts restore vegetation and wildlife to strip-mined sites, while economic development occurs on some former surface mined sites.
Berry says the reclamation efforts could never return the land to the way it was before mining occurred.
"You can't do it if you destroy that topsoil by mixing it up with sub-soils and rock debris. When you take the topsoil off the top, you can't restore it in human time."
For decades, his pen has taken aim at the industry and state government, which he calls a "wholly-owned subsidiary of the coal corporations." But Berry acknowledges that battling the state's most powerful industry is often a losing fight.
"People who get into these conservation efforts aren't permitted to get in on the assumption that they're going to be successful by some deadline, and they better think of the possibility that they might lose," he said. "The possibility of failure is being proven every day."
He lent his considerable stature to the mid-February protest in the office of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat and coal industry supporter who is running for re-election in the fall.
The protesters had planned to call attention to their cause by getting arrested, but it didn't happen, said Erik Reece, an author and mining activist who joined the protest.
"We realized the one smart thing the governor did was tell his staff, 'I don't want any press pictures of Wendell Berry in handcuffs,'" Reece said. "Our plan kind of got foiled there."
The protest still made national headlines, and Reece said that was due to Berry's presence. But it has had little effect on Beshear's support for the industry and a controversial strip-mining method known as mountaintop removal.
Berry made a less ballyhooed but more personally agonizing stand against the coal industry last summer when he severed a lifelong relationship with the University of Kentucky over a corporate sponsorship deal.
The writer was horrified by UK's decision to accept $7 million for a new basketball dormitory from a group of donors organized by a coal company president. The dorm will be called the Wildcat Coal Lodge.
He withdrew papers he had on loan to the university, the same campus where he studied as a student, later taught writing and met his wife, Tanya. He also vowed to end any other associations with the state's flagship school.
"I have an immense debt to that university. I would have liked very much to be at peace with it and to be proud of it," he said. "I didn't have $7 million but I did have those papers on loan up there, so I made the most of what I had."
He continues to add to his long list of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, still writing in longhand with a pencil. His wife edits and transfers the words with a typewriter.
Berry is perhaps best known for his 1982 collection of essays on agriculture, "The Unsettling of America" and his long-running Port William fiction series.
Along with an essay he's working on, Berry says he has completed his latest Port William short story.
"That's up there by the typewriter," he said.