Wendell Berry reflects on removal of papers



Wendell Berry studied at UK. He taught here.

Over the years, he gained acclaim for literature that advocated a return to the land. His work and the state’s flagship universty were intertwined.

So in December of 2009, after Berry quietly removed the body of work he had loaned to UK’s archives, he knew that what he was doing would reverberate beyond his seemingly simple action.

“To me it’s a matter of principle,  of what I consider the proper role for the University of Kentucky in fulfilling its obligation to its state and its people,” Berry said.

Making his case

The last indiginity for Berry came in the form of millions of dollars donated to UK.

Joe Craft, an owner of coal mines in Eastern Kentucky, and other donors said they would give the university $7 million for a new men’s basketball dorm, but only if it would be named the “Wildcat Coal Lodge.”

Berry, 76, has lived in Kentucky since birth, and he has opposed the land destruction by the mining industry for 45 years.

His home, named Lane’s Landing, in Henry County’s Port Royal, overlooks the Kentucky River.

He grew up playing in that river and his love for it was a big reason he came to oppose land abuse at the headwaters.

Runoff from coal mines and other industries pollutes the river, Berry said. His parents taught him to respect the land, and coal mining abuses it.

“I was taught that taking care of land was one of the primary human responsibilities,” Berry said. “In the long run, the top soil, the forests and the woodland of this state will be more valuable than the coal deposits.”

“I don’t see the point of destroying those permanent resources in order to receive a resource that is exhaustible by nature and only when being burned,” he said.

In October 2009, the UK Board of Trustees had to decide if it would accept the money from Craft and other donors. After protests, all but three of the 20 trustees voted in favor of accepting the money.

Berry thought the decision was disgraceful; it was then he knew he “wasn’t going to give those papers to the university.”

He wasn’t removing all of his papers. More than 20 years ago, Berry worked with an archivist to sell some of his papers to UK. His other papers were put on loan. He wanted to remove the papers on loan.

“When the university accepted the gift from coal industry in return for naming the basketball dormitory ‘Wildcat Coal Lodge,’ the university had sold an advertisement,” Berry said.

He said he felt the university had been moving away from interests that had mattered to him for some time.

Berry has two sons who are farmers and said it became increasingly clear to him that UK did not have the interests of small farmers in mind.

Papers on loan require the same caretaking as papers that have been donated, Berry said, and it seemed dishonest to keep his papers at UK if he had no intention of ever depositing them to the university.

“(My) first intention was to deal honestly with the people at the library,” Berry said.

“(My) second intention was to make a statement about what I thought of the university alliance with the coal industry, which I have a history of opposing.”

With a letter, Berry had made his point known.

A university’s loss

Deirdre Scaggs, associate dean of UK Libraries Special Collections, responded to Berry’s letter.

“As the University of Kentucky has worked its way through civil rights, war protests, research controversies and political struggles, UK Libraries’ policy has been to act in a scholarly and professional manner at all times,” Scaggs’ letter said.

In her letter, Scaggs said the libraries had been good stewards of Berry’s purchased material and those he had placed on deposit.

The letter said UK Libraries had been hopeful, and she supposed maybe “overly confident,” that UK Libraries would remain the home of his unique collection.

“By your recent decision, UK Libraries suffers an irreplaceable loss, but it is the students and researchers who will now pay the price,” the letter said.

Berry’s wish to remove his papers was disappointing, but it was not surprising, Scaggs said. She said she was glad Berry was keeping his papers in-state and was planning to house them at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.

Scaggs said she knew Berry’s decision to move his papers was not because of an issue with UK Libraries.

Berry said he chose the Historical Society because of Thomas D. Clark, one of his history teachers who he thought had “served Kentucky well.”

He said he also chose the Historical Society because, though it is a public agency, the society is not political.

“It is a place I feel the papers will be properly cared for,” Berry said.

Berry’s decision to move his papers also came from the belief that UK was not fulfilling its role as Kentucky’s land grant institution, a designation meant to encourage the teaching of agriculture, science and engineering.

“Throughout my years of teaching at the university, I had felt that research was being increasingly emphasized at the cost of teaching, and that troubled me very much,” Berry said. “A teacher, in my opinion, ought to be committed to teaching without limit.”

He could understand the university employing people with different viewpoints on coal, but he “couldn’t live with the university administration’s decision to form an open alliance for money with the coal industry.

“That seemed to me to be wrong.”

Still, Berry said he had no personal rancor against people at UK.

Coal: A two-sided issue

UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy said UK had found itself in the middle of the coal battle with the naming issue and had tried to acknowledge both sides of the issue.

“For any controversial issue, you have to have balance,” Subbaswamy said in an interview with the Kernel staff. “The university, we are all about exposing all sides of an issue and having people debate and then form their own opinions.”

He said UK tried to recognize coal’s importance and environmental impact.

“There’s no question but that coal has been an important source of energy in this country and continues to be an important source of energy in this country,” Subbaswamy said. “On the other hand, I think there’s also been no question that burning coal is one of the ways in which we significantly affect the environment.

“So the question is, ‘How do you transition from heavy usage on coal to a more responsible use and generation of energy?’” he said. “I think approached that way, there’s room for a lot of people to disagree.”

Subbaswamy said he admires Berry and his work.

“I have the greatest respect for Wendell Berry and his writings and his stands and what he has been able to do in the cause of rural Kentucky and the environment,” he said.

“Once an issue gets very politicized, people do things that have symbolic value,” Subbaswamy said. “And, yes, those hurt.

“Certainly nationally he is very well-known, and when he does something as visible and symbolic as that, it hurts.”

Continuing his mission

But Berry’s story does not end here.

When asked what his greatest book or moment is, Berry said he is not concerned with what he has already written.

“The only work that interests me is the work still to be done and what I’m doing.”

He continues to make political statements about coal, like a sleep-in in the governor’s reception room at the Capitol this past weekend protesting coal and coal mining.

He said the negative effects of coal will be a problem for the people of Kentucky for many years to come.

Berry said the leaders of Kentucky have been “irresponsible in allowing those dangers and damages to accumulate to the point of catastrophe.”

“People in Frankfort will not be thanked by the democracy for selling out to the coal industry.”

More coverage:

Sit-in, then sleep-in at Capitol

Protesters enter fourth day in the Capitol

Coal supporters ask for understanding