A place of his own
In the imagination of Wendell Berry, winner of the Tulsa City-County Library’s 2012 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, Port William lies equidistant from Cincinnati and Louisville in northeastern Kentucky.
Many of the much-awarded and respected author’s 50-plus works of fiction and short stories happen in Port William. Berry’s fictional setting often is compared to William Faulkner’s story-bound Yoknapatawpha County.
Berry’s delicate weaving of the intricate life tapestry in Port William creates a world more real than reality.
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their place in it,” Berry said in the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jeffersonian Lecture, the U.S. government’s highest honor for intellectual achievement.
Tulsans have the opportunity to hear from one of our generation’s greatest thinkers when Berry speaks at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Tulsa Central Library, 400 Civic Center. The presentation is free and open to the public.
Berry’s concerns for conservation, economic justice, political honesty and community stability ring clear in his essays, poems and fiction. But his sense of place reigns above all: “By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and non-human, with whom we share our place.”
These words from Berry’s Jeffersonian lecture are followed with his particular take on the word “boomer” — a word of which we Okies feel possessive, but that has other meanings.
“Boomers are those who pillage and run. Stickers are those who settle and love the life,” according to Berry.
With his wife, Tanya, Berry, who is a sticker, lives on 120 acres near Port Royal, Ky., where his family has been for 200 years.
I caught up with him there by phone just as the couple returned from a trip to Salina, Kan., where Berry attended the Land Institute Prairie Festival. The Institute is developing a perennial grain, kernza.
“Tanya bakes with kernza flour,” he said. “Think of the hours and manual labor saved if kernza succeeds.”
I turned the conversation away from grain by asking about his writing habits. He is the first writer I have asked who has answered, “None.”
“There are morning chores; they differ with the seasons,” Berry explained. “Sometimes I write in the afternoon when it gets too hot outside. (I) listen to the land.”
I have read that Berry writes longhand, which he confirmed. His wife types and edits his copy. Whatever his non-method, it works. Prolific is an understatement for his body of work.
At 78, Berry isn’t slowing down; he’s gaining momentum. He is working on another story about his favorite residents of Port William.
His first book, “Nathan Coulter,” was published in 1960. He didn’t know then that the book’s setting would consume the next 60 years. Berry said he is indebted to Thoreau, Hardy, Austin, Jewett and Faulkner, who share his love of place — their particular place on Earth.
No need to fly over the oceans or drive many miles to experience Berry’s place, Port William, for it and all who live there are but a book away.
Wendell Berry’s Fiction
- “Nathan Coulter,” 1960
- “A Place on Earth,” 1967
- “The Memory of Old Jack,” 1974
- “The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership,” 1986
- “Remembering,” 1988
- “Fidelity: Five Stories,” 1992
- “Watch With Me,” 1994
- “A World Lost,” 1996
- “Jayber Crow,” 2000
- “Hannah Coulter,” 2004
- “That Distant Land: The Collected Stories,” 2004
- “Andy Catlett: Early Travels,” 2006
- “Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World,” 2009
- “A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership,” 2012
December and January book events
12/6 Baratunde Thurston, “How to be Black,” 7 p.m., Philbrook Museum of Art, 2727 S. Rockford Road, BookSmart Tulsa with the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation
1/8 Rilla Askew, “Kind of Kin,” 7 p.m., Harwelden Mansion, 2210 S. Main St., BookSmart Tulsa