Wendell Berry, a luminary of agrarian literature who’s spun out more than 50 books since the ’60s, has left an indelible mark on our understanding of ecology, ethics, and the human place in nature. Born to a multi-generational farming family in 1934, his writings – spanning poetry, essays, novels, and non-fiction – are deeply rooted in his Kentucky heritage and a keen appreciation for rural life.
Back in 1977, Berry released his seminal The Unsettling of America, a cornerstone of modern environmental literature that critiques industrial agricultural and advocates for a return to sustainable practices. His 2000 novel Jayber Crow offers a poignant narrative of rural Kentucky, reflecting on modernization’s impact, while 2002’s essay collection The Art of the Commonplace compiles his essential agrarian philosophy.
Beyond his literary pursuits, Berry’s been a staunch proponent of local economies, rural revitalization efforts, and environmental preservation. His eloquent discourse and life-long commitment to living in harmony with the land has resonated globally, inspiring a generation to reevaluate the human-nature connection and embrace more mindful lifestyles.
In a reading list for The Week, the prolific poet, farmer and advocate named six of his favorite books on ecological conservation and community. From Asian peasant farming practices to the perils of modern agriculture, explore his reading list below. Complement with the bookshelves of David Attenborough, Michael Pollan, Rebecca Solnit and Yvon Chouinard.
Wendell Berry’s Reading List
“This book, first published in 1911, is an account of King’s studies of the enduring small peasant farms of three Asian countries. How did the people keep their land productive for 4,000 years? By returning all ‘wastes’ to the soil, leaving the fertility cycle intact.” -WB
Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith
“Published in 1929, Tree Crops confronts the error we made when we ‘carried to the hills the agriculture of the flat plain.’ This is another ‘travel book’: Smith, a Columbia University geographer, seeks and finds better ways to interact with the land.” -WB
An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard
“Published in 1943, this is one of the major books written by Howard, a British scientist who worked in India for decades. It argues, rightly, that farming can be made to last only by obeying the laws and incorporating the systems of nature. ‘Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock,’ Howard wrote. ‘There is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another.'” -WB
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
“Leopold’s masterwork, posthumously published in 1949, begins with close observation of the plant and animal life on the author’s Wisconsin farm and then expands across North America. The book ultimately proposes a ‘land ethic’ by which a human society might live in harmony with the biotic community.” -WB
Home Place: Essays on Ecology by Stan Rowe
“This book insists upon the importance of the ecosphere (not the biosphere, a term that refers only to the living environment) as the inescapable context of our life. Rowe wrote that we should ‘live on the annual interest and leave the land’s capital alone.'” -WB
Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays by Wes Jackson
“A scientist and advocate, Wes Jackson is fully and honorably the heir of the foregoing five writers. This 2011 book addresses ‘the problem of agriculture’ and the prospects for practical solutions.” -WB
(via The Week; photo by Guy Mendes)
Looking for an Amazon alternative? Support local, independent booksellers by shopping Wendell Berry’s reading list – and hundreds of other celebrity book recommendations – through Radical Reads’ Bookshop page.