Appalachian Thursday — Meeting Wendell Berry

Wendell BerryI’ve never been what you’d call on the cutting edge when it comes to famous people and pop culture.

My first concert was the WV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henry Mancini when I was in high school. My second was Glenn Yarborough when I was in college. That time I asked to go backstage and meet the man. He seemed confused as to why I was there.

And when it comes to wanting to meet celebrities my top choices have been Gregory Peck (who is gone–sigh), Jan Karon (met her twice–she’s delightful!), John Hagen (the cello player in Lyle Lovett’s band), Francine Rivers (still hoping!), and Wendell Berry.

So, when I saw that Mr. Berry would be speaking at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky as part of their Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, I signed up for a ticket (which was FREE!!).

I sat in the front row and when Wendell Berry came in and sat just down the way from me, I couldn’t stop grinning. There he was. My literary hero. I first discovered him when I realized Dad’s copy of Farming a Handbook was NOT an instruction manual but rather poetry. Really amazing poetry about, of all things: putting up hay, sowing clover, wild geese, trees, rivers, the land and very being of Appalachia.

I had no idea such poetry existed. And then I discovered his stories and his essays and I was hooked. I even wrote him a letter 20 years or so ago, which he very politely answered.

Honestly, it’s largely Wendell Berry’s fault that I’m a writer. Reading his work gave me permission to write about what I know best–the people in and the place where I grew up.

He was a delight to listen to and meet. Humble, thoughtful, and patient with the long line of fans waiting for his signature. I brought him a new copy of Farming a Handbook for his signature and explained that it had been a sort of handbook for me–teaching me, encouraging me to write.

And then I gave him one of my books and said it was the fruit of the seed his book planted. He thanked me. And while it’s possible he was just being polite, I got the feeling he really did mean, “thank you.”

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