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Sitting In with Wendell Berry

“We had no other alternative.” An interview with poet Wendell Berry midway through his four-day sit-in in the Kentucky governor’s office.

Wendell Berry video still

Wendell Berry speaks to Jeff Biggers about the heartbreak in mountaintop removal mining.

Video still from BEcreativeVIDS on YouTube.

Last week, with a toothbrush in his pocket, author and poet Wendell Berry joined 13 other Kentucky residents for a meeting with Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. They announced their intent “to remain in his office until the governor agrees to stop the poisoning of Kentucky's land, water, and people by mountaintop removal; or until he chooses to have the citizens physically removed."

The governor did neither, instead inviting the activists to stay in his office as long as they liked. They stayed four days, emerging on Monday—following the governor’s promise to visit residents of Kentucky’s coalfields—to a cheering crowd of more than a thousand.

Midway through the historic sit-in, author Jeff Biggers—the grandson of a coal miner and a vocal critic of mountaintop removal—spoke to Wendell Berry about his goals for the sit-in and the importance of civil disobedience.


Jeff Biggers: Can you summarize what you’ve been doing here for the last several days?

Wendell Berry: What we’ve done is follow up on a visit we made to the governor’s office last May. On that visit, we talked to the governor and, in effect, it was to no effect. We didn’t cause any thought to happen. It was an unsatisfactory conversation. We didn’t really speak to each other; we didn’t really hear each other. We didn’t talk back and forth on the same question—as you have to do in a real conversation.

The real, authentic motive for doing what we’re doing is because it’s right. And that has to be enough.

The conversation yesterday was much more satisfactory. The governor agreed to visit the coalfields and visit some of our people in their homes and see the problems that they are suffering there everyday. He also agreed, emphatically, to oppose violent speech, the threatening speech that has been directed against people on our side—so-called tree huggers who need to be removed from the scene.

KY protest - Judy Bonds sign

This protester's sign commemorates the life of activist Judy Bonds, who died of cancer in early 2011. Learn more about Judy and her dedication to the fight against mountaintop removal mining.

Photo by Chad Berry.

But beyond that, he made our differences absolutely clear. He made it clear that he believes that our opposition to surface mining is based merely on personal opinion and personal feeling. And he said, flat out, that he thinks surface mining can be carried out without damage to the land, the water, and the people. We are here, of course, because we disagree. But what he doesn’t understand, apparently, is that we disagree on the basis of authentic evidence. The damage is being done, it’s measurable damage, and there’s no way to argue against it. In other words, our position has standing in fact and in principle. 

And I might add that one principle that’s been violated by these coal companies over and over again is the principle of neighborliness. One of the deepest, most urgent instructions that we receive from our cultural tradition is the imperative to be a good neighbor, and this is ignored as an official policy by the coal companies—and therefore, by their government allies. 

Jeff Biggers: So why are you here, personally? What’s the sense of urgency?

Wendell Berry: Well, the sense of urgency probably is that we ought to have done this 50 years ago. This has been going on that long—half a century. The damage from the beginning has been excessive. It’s now grown from excessive to extreme. The mining of coal is in conflict with the forest—for the sake of a perishable resource, we’re ruining a potentially permanent one. With good use, the forest could last forever; the coal is of value only while it’s burning.

Over these years, there’s been one protest after another—one march on Frankfort after another, one visit to a legislator after another. Last year we visited the governor. But all of this has been without any perceptible political effect—no acknowledgment even that the problems exist. And so we’re doing this simply as the next logical step. We’d exhausted all other possibilities, and we had to do something that would put these issues into the public conversation—in a way that, we hope, it will not be dropped again. That’s why we’re here, because it seemed to us we had no other alternative.

One of the deepest, most urgent instructions that we receive from our cultural tradition is the imperative to be a good neighbor, and this is ignored as an official policy by the coal companies.

You can go to a little stream that’s coming down off the mountain, and you know that one day that stream ran clear and you could have knelt down and drunk from it without any hesitation—it would have been clean. And now it’s running orange or black. And what people have to understand is that there’s heartbreak in that. Harry Caudill said “tears beyond understanding” have been shed over this by people who love their land and have had to sit there and see it destroyed. I live right on the Kentucky River, and that river’s running from those headwater streams. My part of the river is under the influence of this destruction that’s going on up above.

Jeff Biggers: We just celebrated the anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in in 1960. That was a historical example that showed us that a long-term, sustained sit-in is needed to get the nation’s attention. Do you think that something similar will have to happen here—long-term, sustained acts of civil disobedience?

Wendell Berry: We don’t know anything about the future. I assume, and I don’t think I’m unique in this, that this event will have consequences. I think it already is having consequences. People around the state are getting in touch with us and there’s activity going on in support of this effort. What will happen tomorrow, what will happen after tomorrow, we don’t know. But I think that all of us who are interested in stopping this terrible damage and this terrible oppression of people and the terrible effects that will go on and on because water flows—all of us understand that we are not approaching the time to quit. I’ve been interested in this problem ever since 1965, and I’m still in it. I don’t think I’ll last another 45 years, but I intend to stay interested and involved as long as the Lord spares me.

Wendell Berry addressing protesters

Wendell Berry emerges after his four-day sit-in at the governor's office to give protesters good news: the governor has agreed to visit the residents of Kentucky's coalfields.

Photo by Chad Berry.

Jeff Biggers: What else do you want to say?

Wendell Berry: I don’t think that people on our side have any right to assume a good outcome. I think that the real, authentic motive for doing what we’re doing is because it’s right. And that has to be enough. If we have to have some guarantee that it’s going to be effective, sooner or later, we’ll become discouraged and quit.

Jeff Biggers: Do you feel as if there is a tipping point in history, in these types of movement, where people just can’t take it anymore?

Wendell Berry: I hope so. I suppose that’s part of my belief and motive, that ultimately people would be attracted to the right thing. But it’s been slow to happen here, that’s one thing we have to remember. It takes a long time to make these changes, sometimes, and we have to be prepared to keep it up for a long time.

More from Wendell Berry:

"The Wild Geese"
Poetry by Wendell Berry

Poster:
Wendell Berry's 17 Rules for a Sustainable Community

Jeff Biggers: What would you like people who want to be part of this movement to stop mountaintop removal to do?

Wendell Berry: I hope that when these politicians look out their window and see the crowd, that they think again about the course that they’re on. If you didn’t think that it’s possible for even public servants to change their minds, you might be hopeless. But people have changed their minds. And minds are, by definition, changeable; they can be appealed to on rational grounds. They can change. I know that’s true.


Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the David Brower Award/American Book Award-winning author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, The United States of Appalachia, and In the Sierra Madre. His website is: www.jeffbiggers.com. Ben Evans of YERT filmed the interview.

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