Wendell Berry is a contemporary essayist who discourses current national issues to persuade the reader on moral concerns and environmental preservation, frequently exemplifying his home state, Kentucky. By working with the specific region of Kentucky, his writing reveals and uncovers the area, similar to the regional and nature writers before him.
Berry’s works spans equally across poetry, essays, and fiction. However, the essay proves to be the best avenue for his style of two personas and his unique content of mixing activist and nature writing. His essay, “An Entrance to the Woods,” gives the reader a great example of his perfected style and distinctive content.
On August 5th, 1934, Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky. In the early 1960’s, he lived in New York and taught at New York University. However, in 1964, he returned to the Kentucky River Valley and he and his wife, Tanya, have lived there since on a hillside above the river in a 100-year-old farmhouse where they raised two children (Schneider).
Berry’s love of farming and need for a close community deeply affected his writings. After returning to his farming lifestyle, he became an activist against big business farming, the destruction of land for profit, and moral unrest.
Berry has been an activist in the Kentucky area, as well as nationally, since he returned. He has received widespread recognition and numerous awards for his efforts, such as Kentuckian of the Year (2006) and The National Humanities Medal (2010). His efforts include rejecting war and technologically advanced weapons, respecting national lands, supporting small farms and sustainable agriculture, and opposition to the death penalty.
“An Entrance to the Woods” is about a man who goes camping in the wilderness one weekend to take a vacation from his urban lifestyle. On the trip, the narrator realizes his metaphorical place in the woods, as well as the place that mankind has made in the world. He struggles with the negative effects that come from to urbanizing and the relentless progress for mankind and nature.
Berry’s genius lies in his use of diction to seamlessly use both the natural and activism personas to create a stance and an image to lead the reader to their own thoughts that have been manipulated by his perspective. While settling into the woods, his pace gets slower and he becomes aware of his surroundings. The natural world around him helps him realizes that man must slow down and pay attention to the harmful affects of quick actions, like rushing into a war or tearing up land for harmful coal mining. As he is able to fully stop and look around, he’s able to think clearly.
Berry’s style combines two personas: one is a careful wanderer, observing his surroundings in the countryside of Kentucky; the other, an activist, asking the reader to consider the reality of human and moral frailty. The result of the combination of personas is unique for contemporary literature.
Written during the Vietnam War, “An Entrance to the Woods” (1971) incorporates similar ideas and phrases as
his previous speech-turned-essay: “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam.” Berry was an activist against the Vietnam War and remains unsupportive of war. “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam” was delivered to the Kentucky Conference on the Vietnam War and the Draft at the University of Kentucky, February 10, 1968.
“An Entrance to the Woods” was published in a collection of creative non-fiction nature essays titled “The Unforeseen Wilderness” in 1970. It was reprinted in Berry’s non-fiction “Recollected Essays: 1965-1980” in 1981.
Berry, Wendell. “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam.” The Long-Legged House. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. 64-75. Print.
Berry, Wendell. “The Unforeseen Wilderness.” The Hudson Review, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1970-1971), pp. 633-647. JSTOR. Web. 01 Apr. 2012.
Berry, Wendell. “Wendell Berry’s ‘An Entrance to the Woods’.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology From the Classical Era to the Present. By Phillip Lopate. New York: Anchor, 1994. 669-679. Print.
Schneider, Keith. “Lyrical Plea to Preserve Fabric of Small Farms.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Feb. 1988. Web. 01 Apr. 2012.
Text and images: Kathleen Engle.