CINCINNATI (AP) — The war Wendell Berry often writes about is what he sees as man’s violence against his surroundings.
The Kentucky-based author, essayist and poet was named winner Monday of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s lifetime achievement award for his steadfast promotion of the need for people to live at peace with their environment.
“We are violent in our use of land,” he said. “… The most direct way, which is invariably the most violent way, to get what we want is the accepted way.”
In his writings, he has pointed to strip-mining of mountaintops for coal, clearing forests for timber and putting chemicals into the soil for agriculture. He took part in a 2011 sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office in protest of strip-mining.
“As a poet and fiction writer, my goal was to write a good poem and tell a good story. That’s complex enough. A lot of knowledge, a lot of study, a lot of work goes into that,” Berry said by phone from his Port Royal, Ky., home. “I have as a storyteller, and somewhat as a poet, been stuck with the story of the decline of rural life in all its aspects during my lifetime. And so I’ve told that story, and I suppose it has a potential instructiveness.”
The Dayton honor is called the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement award, for the late U.S. diplomat who brokered the 1995 Dayton peace accords on Bosnia. It’s meant to recognize literature’s ability to promote peace and understanding.
“My first thought, I suppose, is surprise … the prize puts me in very distinguished company,” Berry said. “So I suppose my second thought is a question: whether or not I am worthy of such a distinction? And my third thought is, if I’m not presently worthy of it, I’ll have to try to be worthy afterwards.”
Previous winners have included Studs Terkel, Elie Wiesel and Taylor Branch.
Among Berry’s writings are a collection of essays called “The Unsettling of America” and novels set in a small community called Port William telling the stories of people such as barber Jayber Crow and farm widow Hannah Coulter.
President Barack Obama presented Berry in 2011 with the National Humanities Medal for achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer and conservationist.
“In a career spanning more than half a century, Wendell Berry has used poetry, fiction and essays to offer a consistent, timely and timeless reminder that we must live in harmony with the Earth in order to live in harmony with each other,” Sharon Rab, founder and co-chairwoman of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation, said in a statement.
The award carries a $10,000 stipend. Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien, last year’s winner, is scheduled to present the award to Berry at a Nov. 3 dinner in Dayton. Winners to be named later of other awards for fiction and nonfiction will also be honored.
The 79-year-old writer doesn’t just pen works that highlight the benefits of a simpler life at ease with nature. He and his wife keep a garden, raise sheep and live largely technology-free on a hilly central Kentucky farm.
“It’s kept me in touch with the problems I’ve written about,” he said.
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