~ The following first appeared (with a larger spread of photos) in The Floyd Press on November 27, 2013
The line to meet award-winning author Wendell Berry snaked through two rooms at the Floyd EcoVillage on Friday afternoon. Berry, an environmental activist and Kentucky farmer whose writings focus on rural agriculture and community, was in town for the Biological Woodsmen Week (BWW), a week of horse-powered restorative forestry activities hosted by the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation (HHFF).
“I’ve followed this man all my life. I never thought I’d get to see him in Floyd,” said Niki Perillat, who was holding four new Berry books that she purchased at the book sale table, run by Floyd’s independent bookstore noteBooks in the EcoVillage lobby. About 30 titles of Berry’s poetry, fiction and non-fiction were represented.
Mother and daughter, Christy and Rachel Smith said they left home in Alexandria, Virginia, at 7:00 a.m. to attend the book signing at the EcoVillage and the panel discussion with Wendell Berry, which took place at the Floyd County High School at 7:00 p.m. Christy Smith said she became aware of Berry’s visit to Floyd through Jason Rutledge’s Facebook page. Rutledge, a Floyd forester and biological woodsman is co-founder of the HHFF and the BWW.
“I bought this book in 1968,” Anita Pukett told Berry as he was signing her book. Pukett, the director of Appalachian Studies at Virginia Tech, explained that she was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky when Berry taught there and couldn’t get into one of his classes because they were too popular. She spoke highly of Berry’s body of work and described him as one of the founding fathers of Appalachian Studies.
Berry, a 2011 recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Arts and Humanities, took time to speak personally with each person he met and answered some interview questions posed by Blue Mountain elementary school students for a school magazine project. “What’s the most important thing to protect?” Yeshe Cooley asked. “Today,” Berry answered. He also revealed that working with his horses was his favorite part of farming and that friendship with family members was his most treasured accomplishment.
Blue Mountain High School students were among those in line, waiting to have Berry sign Jayber Crow, a novel by Berry that the students are reading for a Humanities Class. Earlier in the day, students had time to talk and interact with Berry at the EcoVillage’s Timber Stand Improvement site where the biological woodsmen were working. “It wasn’t like talking to a famous person that won’t relate to you,” 11th grader Rachel Terrill said. She noted that Berry has a “poetic way of speaking.”
With a focus on restorative forestry using draft horse power, the evening event at the high school included introductions of the professional panelists, an opening statement by Berry and questions from the audience, which were written on cards and delivered to the stage by Floyd County High School Ag students. The panelists were Berry, Rutledge, Carl Russell of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Vermont, and Guy Dunkle, a forester and land manager for the Foundation for Sustainable Forest in Pennsylvania.
Event moderator Ethan Mannon introduced Berry to a full house crowd. “He is known across the country and the globe but his presence here tonight demonstrates his belief in the value of local culture and community,” said Mannon, a Floyd native who grew up on a farm and is currently a Pennsylvania State PHD candidate with a focus on environmental literature.
After receiving a standing ovation and humbly insisting that he was receiving too much credit, Berry spoke briefly about land use, saying, “We mustn’t make the mistake of talking about the land and the people as if they can be separated.” Berry, who in 2011 participated in a group protest at the Kentucky Governor’s office on mountain top removal, recalled how the War on Poverty came to the mountains in the early 60’s. “All these years later the people are still poor. How can you help the poverty of people when you’re allowing their land to be destroyed under their feet?”
“I don’t think that any land use will be successful if we continue this concept that land use has to be profitable. It’s hard to be respectful if that is our only goal,” said panelist Carl Russell. Farming and draft horse logging as it relates to family life was a theme that all the panelists touched on. Russell said his horse-powered farm has been informed by his family. He spoke of his two young sons at home making Christmas wreaths from trees off their property.
Panelist Guy Dunkle summed up the position of horse loggers and foresters practicing restorative forestry. “We’re following nature’s lead. We’re working within this natural community, trying to enhance it and counteract some of the other influences that past generations had on the forest. We’re so fortunate that while were doing it we’re able to produce a commodity. We’re able to sell that commodity. The community can use it, and we can create other jobs.
All four panelists spoke at length about the low impact that draft horses have on the environment, and the personal connections they have with their horses. Paying attention to their horses’ needs has developed a deeper awareness of the needs of the land, more than one panelist said. “Everybody here is living at the expense of some other creature. What we want to talk about is how to fulfill our needs and accomplish what we need to in the least cruel way,” Berry said.
Rutledge, who referred to “worst first” horse logging as a “proven heritage way,” said he was convinced that draft horse work was the superior way to manage the forest. He pointed out that horses are a renewable energy source that create fertilizer as a byproduct rather than pollution. “We didn’t have to go to Iraq to get oil to run them.”
Humor played a role in the evening on more than one occasion. Responding to an audience question about preaching to the choir, Rutledge said, “I’ve been called the evangelist of horse logging, so I’m going to admit to preaching to the choir every time I get the chance to because they are the ones that listen to me the longest.” More seriously, he added, “Each of you who becomes inspired in one little way about something you take away from this event tonight, will probably be a little more evangelist to those outside of the choir.
The panelists agreed that restorative forestry using draft horses is economically viable if we want a long term investment in the forest, but “it takes decades and that’s all there is to it,” Berry said. Rutledge spoke about the ecological services the forest provides to the public that the public does not pay for, such as the filtration of our most valuable resource, water. Trees absorb harmful carbon from the atmosphere and their shade curbs the use of air conditioners, which decreases the need to burn fossil fuel.
“The worth of a forest or a tree can exceed its price,” Berry said. Speaking about the value of good land stewardship and the importance of restorative forestry, he said, “The worth of the land is absolute. If we didn’t have it we couldn’t exist.” ~ Colleen Redman