Beginning October 4, PBS will air a special conversation between two of the people I admire most in the world – Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, and journalist Bill Moyers. Among many other topics, these two giants of American culture will discuss issues very close to my heart: coal, climate change, and the future of Appalachia and the planet. I can’t wait to tune in to Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet. I hope you will, too.
I’ve been a reader of Wendell Berry since I was a young woman, because he was a beloved author of two of my most important teachers and mentors – Jack Reese, a former chancellor who took me under his wing when I was an undergraduate in his Southern literature course at the University of Tennessee, and my high school English teacher Dale Gilmore, who was the kind of Dead-Poets-Society teacher that every smart kid in a small town wishes they had, and who helped set me on a path of living a life that matters, a path I still walk today.
Wendell Berry spoke to us, and so many others, because his essays, poems, and novels told a deep, clear truth about the place where we lived, about Appalachia and the South, with some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever encountered. That included telling the truth about coal, and the legacy of social, environmental, and economic unraveling it created across Appalachia, which stills plagues the region today. Wendell Berry brings this same lucidity and power to the topic of climate change, and the urgency to act now, before it’s too late.
Another amazing thing about Wendell Berry is that he matches his words with action. He has protested and risked arrest in opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining, and to call for action on climate change. For those of us who have been working for many years to end mountaintop removal coal mining, Wendell Berry has been a prophet, a sage, and an inspiration.
In 2011, he joined Kentuckians For The Commonwealth in occupying the office of Kentucky governor to call for an end to mountaintop removal. The protesters expected they would be arrested after a couple of hours, but Berry is a revered figure in Kentucky – awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2011 – and so instead of arresting him, they let him stay. Berry and his fellow protesters occupied the Governor’s office in what became a four-day sit in. Berry tells that story in this clip from the special.
Berry described mountaintop removal this way, in a 2005 essay: “Coal is undoubtedly something of value. And it is, at present, something we need – though we must hope we will not always need it, for we will not always have it. But coal, like the other fossil fuels, is a peculiar commodity. It is valuable to us only if we burn it. Once burned, it is no longer a commodity but only a problem, a source of energy that has become a source of pollution. And the source of the coal itself is not renewable. When the coal is gone, it will be gone forever, and the coal economy will be gone with it.”
In the PBS special, Berry tells Moyers, “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is ‘what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?'”
The combination of Wendell Berry and Bill Moyers, perhaps the wisest voice in American journalism today, is sure to yield profound insights about the fate of our planet and the obligation each of us has to help build a better world. I hope you’ll tune in – it’s sure to be moving, inspiring, and unforgettable.
Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet airs on “Moyers & Company” beginning October 4. For more information, go to billmoyers.com.