New Documentary on Environmentalist Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is an 83-year-old American novelist, poet, and environmental activist and despite the fact that he is not a fan of screens he is going to be in a documentary about himself this week on PBS.  

Berry with son Den Berry, 1970s. James Baker Hall
Berry with son Den Berry, 1970s. James Baker Hall

He believes that TV and technological devices are degrading the imagination and threaten literature, and his distaste has led to the reason why he’s turned down several other requests to be featured in documentary projects.  

However, earlier this week PBS released Look & See: Wendell Berry’s Kentucky which portrays the changing landscapes, and the values that he sees are shifting rural America. The film is going to be done through the eyes of the proclaimed prophet of rural America.  

Berry does appear on film even though he’s not seen often, but the director Laura Dunn makes sure that the audience is immersed inside of Berry’s world. The film heavily uses his poetic words, and it features testimonies from neighbors, family members, and fellow farmers in his native Henry County Kentucky.  

This is not the first time that Director Dunn has worked with Berry; they worked on a documentary in 2004 called The Unforeseen which was a film about water and development issues in her hometown of Austin, Texas. The film which was produced by Robert Redford became critically acclaimed and including an audio recording of one of Berry’s poems.  

Laura Dunn is very positive about the effects of this project, and the relationship between Berry and his wife stating, “The film ended up playing at a lot of festivals, and I was just so surprised about how few people knew of Wendell Berry, I just couldn’t get Wendell out of my head.” She ended up visiting the author and his wife after the showing.  

The reason for Wendell Berry’s popularity is because he talks the talk, and he is not considered a radical in any way, his views are listened to by everyone on the political spectrum. He’s not the environmentalist who is positive about capitalism and human nature who believes that we can fix environmental problems with just installing more panels, and he’s also not the climate catastrophist who believes that no matter what the world is doomed.  

He takes this approach in his 1998 essay collection The World Ending Fire, from his point of view on how to fix the environment. He claims that everyone believes that the best way to fix the environment is a top-down approach, and he believes this to be wrong, and in his own words we need to, “not to start with a political idea or theory and think downward to the land and the people, but instead to start with the land and the people, the necessity for harmony between local ecosystems and local economies and think upward to conserving policies such as those of the 50-year farm bill.” 

His broad appeal also exists, because of his political ambivalence, and his promotion of housekeeping, agriculture, humility, and devotion to the community. This has lead to a largely conservative and Christian readership. He is admired for his farm to table eating belief, and he and his wife Tanya run a farm in Port Royal.  

In The Unsettling of America which Berry wrote in 1977, he presented an argument that agribusiness was threatening the culture of family farms, and was continuing to pull all humans from the land. After that, she asked Berry to star in her next project film.  

According to Dunn, it was difficult in trying to get Dunn to be a part of her project, “It started a lot of letter writing back and forth-he’s kind of say yes, and then say no. He’d reason, ‘Our culture idolizes people. I’m nothing but the place I’m in, the people who made me.”  

This documentary reminds everyone the thing Berry continues to espouse today, and that’s to live your life off of the land, and no matter what goes on at the macro level to make sure that your kind to your family, neighbors, and the land.  

The documentary premiered this week, and this probably won’t be the last film Berry will be in, even though Berry is not a fan of the film, because Dunn seems to bring the best out of someone who doesn’t want to focus on television.  





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