September 21, 2016

Wendell Berry’s environmental victories spark inspiration

     Wendell Berry does more than look.  His blue eyes see, really see. In a quick glance, the wordsmithing farmer can pierce bureaucratic and corporate shields of nonsensical and self-serving rhetoric.  If I’ve ever met a man who knows why God put him on earth, it was last Sunday.  Wendell Berry has spent most of his 82 years writing, speaking and advocating for responsible stewardship of the globe’s natural resources.
     That’s why the Rev. Felix Haynes, after learning of Coastal Georgia’s toxic coal-ash crisis, said, “You have to meet Wendell Berry.”  Over the summer, Felix and I corresponded with Wendell and his wife, Tanya, to set up a Sept. 18 visit to their picturesque farm overlooking the Kentucky River.
     Felix got to know the Berrys 49 years ago when he served as their pastor at Port Royal Baptist Church.  Port Royal, population 64, sits just north of the state’s famed bluegrass region where horses dream of the Kentucky Derby, behind black-board fences on postcard-worthy farms.  As we rolled through the countryside, I could see Norman Rockwell scenes mile after mile. 
     We arrived an hour before the morning worship service.  Felix wanted to walk through the church’s 200-year-old cemetery.  He stopped every few feet to read aloud the names on granite and marble monuments, explaining how the dots of one family connected to the dots of other families.   Wendell’s roots run deep into that region’s soil, as evidenced by numerous weathered stones with “Berry” inscriptions.
     Port Royal Baptist Church rolled out the red carpet for its former pastor and his traveling companion.  Following the worship hour, we were led down the stairs to a home-cooking feast and fellowship with people who really wanted to know: “How are you doing?”  I had young children reach for my hand, smile and say, “Peace.” 
     The dessert spread included pies, cakes, cookies and pudding, but the real icing on the day was an afternoon with Wendell and Tanya in their two-story farmhouse latched to the side of a grassy slope.  In 1965, when Wendell was teaching at the University of Kentucky, the couple bought the place as a summer retreat. But after a few fixer-upper rounds, they elected to live there year-round.  Walking up the driveway, I spotted two solar panels in the backyard.  I thought:  “He practices what he preaches.”
     Once inside, I noticed every room had a wall with shelves of books from floor to ceiling.  I put another gold star by his name.  As Tanya escorted Felix and me to the kitchen and sitting area, she explained Wendell was “up the creek,” literally.  He’d be back soon.  Sure enough, the back door creaked, and inside stepped the environmental legend and author of 40-plus books.
     After unlacing and slipping off his boots, Wendell Berry shook our hands. Dressed in khakis and a blue oxford-cloth shirt beneath a pair of wide camouflaged suspenders, he had the look of a man of the land.  His handshake grip said, “I can still split my own firewood.” And it is obvious this genteel great-grandfather still has the starch in his spine to stand up against pollution-minded bullies.
     For the next few hours, we visited at a round oak table—swapping stories and laughing.  While Wendell knows the power of words, he employs the power of listening, too.  He’s been following our coal-ash plight.  His laser-like questions showed he’d been where we are countless times and won.
     As Felix and I drove back—521 miles—Sunday night, we tried to distill what we had just experienced—courtesy of Wendell and Tanya Berry.  I want to tell you more about it, and I will. Soon.  

Sunday, Sept. 18, was a trip down memory lane for the 
Rev. Dr. Felix Haynes as he visited Port Royal Baptist 
Church, which has a 200-year history.  During the 
morning service, he spoke of his time there between 1967 and 1969.

The Port Royal cemetery is filled with relatives of 
author/poet/environmentalist Wendell Berry.  One of the 
more notable family monuments includes a statue 
of his great-grandfather, John J. Berry, 1827-1916.

When I walked into the Berrys’ home, I immediately 
noticed that every room had floor-to-the-ceiling 
shelves loaded with books.  A member of the Kentucky’s 
Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry has authored more than 40 books.

Jesup First Baptist Church’s former pastor, the Rev. 
Dr. Felix Haynes, left, got his ministerial start in 
Kentucky at Port Royal Baptist Church.  That’s 
where he met Wendell and Tanya Berry.  Joining 
in the photo is the family dog, Maggie.

Wendell Berry’s farm overlooks the Kentucky River.  He has 
spent most of his 82 years writing, speaking and advocating for 
the globe’s natural resources.