By DAN SEWELL
In this March 10, 2011 photo, author Wendell Berry talks with a reporter at his home in Port Royal, Ky. For his career of writings about the need to live in harmony with the Earth, the 79-year-old Kentucky author has been awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
CINCINNATI (AP) — Kentucky-based author, essayist and poet Wendell Berry has been named winner 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.
The 79-year-old writer doesn’t just pen works that highlight the benefits of a simpler life at ease with nature. He backs up his words with his actions, speaking out against strip-mining and other development he says damages the land, while keeping a garden, raising sheep and living largely technology-free on a hilly central Kentucky farm.
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 an announcement provided to The Associated Press.
Berry, who in 2011 took part in a sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to protest strip-mining of coal in his home region, said American society is generally violent, a tendency that shows up in the way forests, mountains and farmland are exploited for economic development.
“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.”
He said his aim hasn’t been to be political in his writings, but to focus on land use and the problems he sees.
“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,” he 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 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.