Wendell Berry

b. 1934
Wendell BerryDan Carraco

Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which analyzes the many failures of modern, mechanized life, is one of the key texts of the environmental movement, but Berry, a political maverick, has criticized environmentalists as well as those involved with big businesses and land development. In his opinion, many environmentalists place too much emphasis on wild lands without acknowledging the importance of agriculture to our society. Berry strongly believes that small-scale farming is essential to healthy local economies, and that strong local economies are essential to the survival of the species and the well-being of the planet. In an interview with New Perspectives Quarterly editor Marilyn Berlin Snell, Berry explained: "Today, local economies are being destroyed by the 'pluralistic,' displaced, global economy, which has no respect for what works in a locality. The global economy is built on the principle that one place can be exploited, even destroyed, for the sake of another place."

Berry further believes that traditional values, such as marital fidelity and strong community ties, are essential for the survival of humankind. In his view, the disintegration of communities can be traced to the rise of agribusiness: large-scale farming under the control of giant corporations. Besides relying on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, promoting soil erosion, and causing depletion of ancient aquifers, agribusiness has driven countless small farms out of existence and destroyed local communities in the process. In his New Perspectives Quarterly interview Berry commented that such large-scale agriculture is morally as well as environmentally unacceptable: "We must support what supports local life, which means community, family, household life—the moral capital our larger institutions have to come to rest upon. If the larger institutions undermine the local life, they destroy that moral capital just exactly as the industrial economy has destroyed the natural capital of localities—soil fertility and so on. Essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the soil."

Berry's themes are reflected in his life. As a young man, he spent time in California, Europe, and New York City. Eventually, however, he returned to the Kentucky land that had been settled by his forebears in the early nineteenth century. He taught for many years at the University of Kentucky, but eventually resigned in favor of full-time farming. He uses horses to work his land and employs organic methods of fertilization and pest control; he also worked as a contributing editor to New Farm Magazine and Organic Gardening and Farming, which have published his poetry as well as his agricultural treatises.

It was as a poet that Berry first gained literary recognition. In volumes such as The Broken Ground, Openings: Poems, Farming: A Handbook, and The Country of Marriage, he wrote of the countryside, the turning of the seasons, the routines of the farm, the life of the family, and the spiritual aspects of the natural world. Reviewing Collected Poems, 1957-1982, New York Times Book Review contributor David Ray called Berry's style "resonant" and "authentic," and claimed that the poet "can be said to have returned American poetry to a Wordsworthian clarity of purpose. ... There are times when we might think he is returning us to the simplicities of John Clare or the crustiness of Robert Frost. ... But, as with every major poet, passages in which style threatens to become a voice of its own suddenly give way, like the sound of chopping in a murmurous forest, to lines of power and memorable resonance. Many of Mr. Berry's short poems are as fine as any written in our time."

It is perhaps Berry's essays that have brought him the greatest broad readership. In one of his most popular early collections, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, he argues that agriculture is the foundation of America's greater culture. He makes a strong case against the U.S. government's agricultural policy, which promotes practices leading to overproduction, pollution, and soil erosion. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Leon V. Driskell termed The Unsettling of America "an apocalyptic book that places in bold relief the ecological and environmental problems of the American nation."

Another essay collection, Recollected Essays, 1965-1980, has been compared by several critics to Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Charles Hudson, writing in the Georgia Review, noted that, "like Thoreau, one of Berry's fundamental concerns is working out a basis for living a principled life. And like Thoreau, in his quest for principles Berry has chosen to simplify his life, and much of what he writes about is what has attended this simplification, as well as a criticism of modern society from the standpoint of this simplicity."

In Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays, Berry continues to berate those who carelessly exploit the natural environment and damage the underlying moral fabric of communities. David Rains Wallace observed in the San Francisco Review of Books: "There's no living essayist better than Wendell Berry. His prose is exemplary of the craftsmanship he advocates. It's like master cabinetry or Shaker furniture, drawing elegance from precision and grace from simplicity." Wallace allowed that at times, "Berry may overestimate agriculture's ability to assure order and stability," yet he maintained that the author's "attempts to integrate ecological and agricultural thinking remain of the first importance."

Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition addresses the assumption, held by many, that science will provide solutions to all the world's problems and mysteries. Berry conceived this book as a rebuttal to prominent Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson's Consilience, which put forth as a thesis the overarching power of science. Wilson Quarterly contributor Gregg Easterbrook called Berry's book "a nuanced and thought-provoking critique," while Washington Monthly reviewer Bill McKibben observed that "Berry offers a rich variety of responses, never intimidated by the scientific prowess of his rival." Jonathan Z. Larsen suggested in the Amicus Journal, though, that perhaps "Wilson has made too convenient a whipping boy," and noted that Wilson and Berry have taken some similar stands, with both voicing great concern about the environment. Larsen also maintained that Berry needs to provide more detailed prescriptions for achieving his ideal society, one filled with reverence for one's land and community. Larsen had praise for the book as well, especially for Berry's writing style, which works at "winning the reader over almost as much through poetry as through logic."

Berry's Citizenship Papers characteristically focuses on agrarian concerns, but also turns its attention to the post-9/11 world in several of its nineteen essays. "A Citizen's Response to the New National Security Strategy" focuses on the U.S. government's response to terrorist threats via the Patriotism Act; originally published in the New York Times, the four-part statement "probes the definitions of terrorism and security; the role of a government in combating evil; national security based on charity, civility, independence, true patriotism, and rule of law; and the failure of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to reject war as a vehicle to peace," explained Sojourners contributor Rose Marie Berger. In Booklist Ray Olson dubbed the author "one of English's finest stylists, as perspicuous as T. H. Huxley at his best and as perspicacious as John Ruskin at his." While Olson maintained that Berry adopts an approach to America's ills "embracing life and community," a Kirkus contributor wrote that in the "clangor of worries" echoing in Citizenship Papers Berry presents readers with "the antidotes of civility, responsibility, curiosity, skill, kindness, and an awareness of the homeplace."

Farming and community are central to Berry's fiction as well as his poetry and essays. Most of his novels and short stories are set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William. Like his real-life home town, Port Royal, Port William is a long-established farming community situated near the confluence of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. In books such as Nathan Coulter: A Novel, A Place on Earth: A Novel, The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership, and Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, Berry presents the lives of seven generations of farm families. Although Fidelity: Five Stories examines Port William in the early 1990s, most of Berry's narratives about the community take place in the first half of the twentieth century; as Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Gary Tolliver explained, "This represents the final days of America's traditional farm communities just prior to the historically critical period when they began to break apart under the influence of technological and economic forces at the end of World War II." Connecting all the stories is the theme of stewardship of the land, which Tolliver said is "often symbolized as interlocking marriages between a man and his family, his community, and the land." What emerges, Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Noel Perrin commented, "is a wounded but still powerful culture."

Jayber Crow, dealing in part with the title character's unrequited love for a married woman, also "strives for something greater, becoming nothing less than a sad and sweeping elegy for the idea of community, a horrifying signal of what we lost in the twentieth century in the name of economic and social progress," related Dean Bakopoulos in the Progressive. World and I reviewer Donald Secreast observed that this novel's "basic building block is the recurring metaphor of place as character, a concern that also dominates Berry's nonfiction and poetry. ... The relationship between landscape and personality is the core concern of Berry's campaign to make people more responsible, more accountable for the effects their lifestyles have on local environments." A flaw Secreast saw in Jayber Crow is the sketchy characterization of women and the lack of importance attached to their role in the community. While rural societies have traditionally been male-dominated, Secreast noted, Berry's Port William seems to be less a reflection of rural life as it once existed than a portrayal of rural life as it should be, or should have been. "So if he's not being nostalgic, why should he be bound by the actual dynamics of a real rural community?" Secreast wrote. "Why must Jayber Crow, despite his sensitivity, insist upon his marginalization from the womanhood of Port William?"

On the other hand, Hannah Coulter: A Novel centers fully on Port William life from a female perspective. In the style of a memoir, Hannah muses on her life in a countryside that she never expected to change. Hannah's first marriage in 1940 leaves her a widow of World War II and a single mother. Her subsequent marriage to farmer Nathan Coulter ensues, enriching her life with additional children, none of whom remain on the land to work the family farm. Will Nathan's death mark the end of life as Hannah knew it and as she presumed it would remain? A Publishers Weekly contributor complimented Berry for his "delicate, shimmering prose" and recommended the novel as "an impassioned, literary vision of American rural life and values." In similar fashion, a Kirkus Reviews writer called Hannah Coulter "a kind of elegy for the starkly beautiful country life that ... faded into history, victim of economic and social change."

For a more general overview of life in Port William, readers can immerse themselves in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry. The stories, which include four not previously published, span a century in the life of the fictional farming community. The locale connects its diverse inhabitants—man, woman, farmer, teacher, lawyer, each struggling in his or her own way to maintain the simple lifestyle of times almost gone by. "Berry is an American treasure," wrote Ann H. Fisher in Library Journal review of the collection. A contributor to Publishers Weekly observed that the author's "feel for the inner lives of his quirky rural characters makes for many memorable portraits."

Berry's writing style varies greatly from one book to the next. Nathan Coulter, for example, is an example of the highly stylized, formal, spare prose that dominated the late 1950s, while A Place on Earth was described by Tolliver as "long, brooding, episodic" and "more a document of consciousness than a conventional novel." Several critics have praised Berry's fiction, both for the quality of his prose and for the way he brings his concerns for farming and community to life in his narratives. As Gregory L. Morris stated in Prairie Schooner, "Berry places his emphasis upon the rightness of relationships—relationships that are elemental, inherent, inviolable. ... Berry's stories are constructed of humor, of elegy, of prose that carries within it the cadences of the hymn. The narrative voice most successful in Berry's novels ... is the voice of the elegist, praising and mourning a way of life and the people who have traced that way in their private and very significant histories."

Considering Berry's body of work, Charles Hudson pointed out the author's versatility and commended him for his appreciation of the plain things in life. "In an age when many writers have committed themselves to their 'specialty'—even though doing so can lead to commercialism, preciousness, self-indulgence, social irresponsibility, or even nihilism—Berry has refused to specialize," Hudson wrote in the Georgia Review. "He is a novelist, a poet, an essayist, a naturalist, and a small farmer. He has embraced the commonplace and has ennobled it."

Career

Writer and farmer. Stanford University, Stanford, CA, Wallace Stegner writing fellow, 1958-59, lecturer, 1959-60, visiting professor, 1968-69; New York University, New York, NY, lecturer, 1962-64; University of Kentucky, Lexington, member of faculty, 1964-70, distinguished professor of English, 1971-72, professor of English, 1973-77, 1987-93; farmer, 1993—.

Bibliography

FICTION

  • Nathan Coulter: A Novel, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1960, revised edition, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1985.
  • A Place on Earth: A Novel, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1967, revised edition, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1983, reprinted, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2001.
  • The Memory of Old Jack, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1974.
  • The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1986.
  • Remembering: A Novel, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1988.
  • Fidelity: Five Stories, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Watch with Me: And Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, neé Quinch, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Two More Stories of the Port William Membership, Gnomon Press (Frankfort, KY), 1997.
  • Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership as Written by Himself, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2000.
  • That Distant Land: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2002.
  • Three Short Novels (contains Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost), Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2002.
  • Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2004.

POETRY

  • November Twenty-six Nineteen Hundred Sixty-three, Braziller (New York, NY), 1964.
  • The Broken Ground, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1964.
  • Openings: Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1968.
  • Findings, Prairie Press (Iowa City, IA), 1969.
  • Farming: A Handbook, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970.
  • The Country of Marriage, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973.
  • An Eastward Look (also see below), Sand Dollar Books (Berkeley, CA), 1974.
  • Reverdure: A Poem, Press at Colorado College (Colorado Springs, CO), 1974.
  • Horses, Larkspur Press (Monterey, KY), 1975.
  • To What Listens, Best Cellar Press (Crete, NE), 1975.
  • Sayings and Doings (also see below), Gnomon Press (Frankfort, KY), 1975.
  • The Kentucky River: Two Poems, Larkspur Press (Monterey, KY), 1976.
  • There Is Singing around Me, Cold Mountain Press (Austin, TX), 1976.
  • Clearing, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1977.
  • Three Memorial Poems, Sand Dollar Books (Berkeley, CA), 1977.
  • The Gift of Gravity, illustrated by Timothy Engelland, Deerfield Press (Old Deerfield, MA), 1979.
  • A Part, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980.
  • The Salad, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980.
  • Wendell Berry Reading His Poems (sound recording), Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1980.
  • The Wheel, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1982.
  • Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1985.
  • Sabbaths, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1987.
  • Sayings and Doings [and] An Eastward Look, Gnomon Press (Frankfort, KY), 1990.
  • Entries: Poems, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
  • The Farm, Larkspur Press (Monterey, KY), 1995.
  • The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 1998.
  • A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 1998.
  • Given: New Poems, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2005.

NONFICTION

  • The Rise, University of Kentucky Library Press (Lexington, KY), 1968.
  • The Long-Legged House, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1969, portions reprinted as A Native Hill, introduction by Raymond D. Peterson, Santa Rosa Junior College (Santa Rosa, CA), 1976, original version reprinted, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2004.
  • The Hidden Wound, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1970, reprinted with new afterword, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1989.
  • (With Ralph Eugene Meatyard and A. Gassan) Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Gnomon Press (Frankfort, KY), 1970.
  • The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge, photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1971, revised and expanded edition published as The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1991.
  • A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972, reprinted, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2003.
  • Civilizing the Cumberland: A Commentary (bound with Mountain Passes of the Cumberland by James Lane Allen), King Library Press (Lexington, KY), 1972.
  • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books (San Francisco, CA), 1977.
  • Recollected Essays, 1965-1980, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1981.
  • The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1981.
  • Standing by Words: Essays, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1983, reprinted, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2005.
  • (Editor, with Wes Jackson and Bruce Colman) Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1984.
  • Home Economics: Fourteen Essays, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1987.
  • The Landscape of Harmony, Five Seasons (Madley, Hereford, England), 1987.
  • Traveling at Home, wood engravings by John DePol, Bucknell University (Lewisberg, PA), 1988.
  • Harland Hubbard: Life and Work, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.
  • What Are People For? Essays, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1990.
  • Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 1995.
  • A World Lost, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 1996.
  • (With William Kittredge, Susan Griffin, Montague, and Mark Dowie) Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape, photographs by David T. Hanson, Aperture (New York, NY), 1997.
  • Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2000.
  • The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2002.
  • Citizenship Papers, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2003.
  • Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2004.
  • The Way of Ignorance, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2005.
  • (Editor and author of introduction) Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness, Shoemaker & Hoard (Emeryville, CA), 2005.

Also author of Standing on Earth, 1991. Contributor to books, including The Blue Grass Region of Kentucky, and Other Kentucky Articles, edited by James Lane Allen, Books for Libraries, 1972. Contributor to periodicals, including Nation, New World Writing, New Directions Annual, Prairie Schooner, Contact, Chelsea Review, Hudson Review, and Quarterly Review of Literature. Contributing editor, New Farm and Organic Gardening and Farming.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Angyal, Andrew J., Wendell Berry, Twayne (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 27, 1984, Volume 46, 1988.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, 1980.
  • Merchant, Paul, editor, Wendell Berry, Confluence (Lewiston, ID), 1991.

PERIODICALS

  • American Spectator, December, 1990, pp. 51-52.
  • Amicus Journal, fall, 2000, Jonathan Z. Larsen, review of Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition, p. 34.
  • Best Sellers, December 1, 1970, pp. 374-375.
  • Booklist, September 1, 2003, Ray Olson, review of Citizenship Papers, p. 28; January 1, 2004, review of Citizenship Papers, p. 775.
  • Boston University Journal, Volume 25, number 3, 1978, pp. 69-72.
  • Choice, October, 2002, L. S. Cline, review ofThe Art of the Commonplace, p. 298.
  • Christian Century, June 19, 1996, p. 663.
  • Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 1984, p. B4; July 3, 1987, pp. B1, B8.
  • Commonweal, June 6, 1986, pp. 345-346; October 12, 1990, pp. 582-584.
  • Critique, spring, 2000, Rufus Cook, "The Art of Uncertainty," p. 227.
  • Georgia Review, winter, 1977-78, pp. 579-581; spring, 1982, pp. 220-223; summer, 1982, pp. 341-347.
  • Hudson Review, winter, 1986, pp. 681-694; summer, 1993, pp. 395-402.
  • Iowa Review, winter, 1979, pp. 99-104.
  • Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2003, review of Citizenship Papers, p. 890; September 15, 2004, review of Hannah Coulter: A Novel, p. 880.
  • Library Journal, April 15, 2004, Ann H. Fisher, review of That Distant Land: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry, p. 128; August 1, 2005, review of Given: New Poems, p. 89.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 27, 1986, p. 6; November 6, 1988, p. 4; January 10, 1993, p. 8.
  • Nation, November 9, 1970, pp. 472-474.
  • National Review, November 14, 1967.
  • New Perspectives Quarterly, spring, 1992, pp. 29-34.
  • New York, May 3, 1986, pp. 626-627.
  • New York Review of Books, June 14, 1990, pp. 30-34.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1977; December 20, 1981; December 18, 1983, pp. 8, 16; November 24, 1985, pp. 28-29; April 13, 1986, p. 22; September 27, 1987, p. 30; January 1, 1989, p. 14; November 15, 1992, p. 20; October 17, 1993.
  • Parabola, fall, 1993.
  • Parnassus, spring-summer, 1974; fall, 1981, pp. 131-154; January, 1989, pp. 317-330.
  • Partisan Review, Volume 44, number 2, 1977, p. 317.
  • Poetry, May, 1974; October, 1985, pp. 40-42; April, 1988, pp. 37-38; April, 1995, p. 38; May, 2000, Henry Taylor, review of The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, p. 96.
  • Prairie Schooner, fall, 1971, pp. 273-274; winter, 1986, pp. 102-104.
  • Progressive, December, 2000, Dean Bakopoulos, review of Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership As Written by Himself, p. 41.
  • Publishers Weekly, April 5, 2004, review of That Distant Land, p. 41; October 4, 2004, review of Hannah Coulter, p. 66.
  • Renascence, summer, 1983, pp. 258-268; winter, 2000, Laird Christensen, "Spirit Astir in the World: Wendell Berry's Sacramental Poetry," p. 163.
  • San Francisco Review of Books, winter, 1988-89, pp. 49-50.
  • Sewanee Review, summer, 1974.
  • Shenandoah, autumn, 1969.
  • Sojourners, May-June, 2003, Rose Marie Berger, "One Citizen's Shining Light," p. 57.
  • Southern Review, October, 1974, pp. 865-877; October, 1976, pp. 879-890; autumn, 1984, pp. 958-968.
  • Stand, autumn, 1993, p. 81.
  • Studies in Short Fiction, winter, 1994, pp. 117-118.
  • Times Literary Supplement, April 10, 1981, p. 416; June 26, 1987, p. 698.
  • Village Voice, December 23-29, 1981, p. 47.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1983, p. 62; spring, 1989, p. 56; summer, 1991, pp. 88-89.
  • Washington Monthly, June, 2000, Bill McKibben, review of Life Is a Miracle, p. 52.
  • Washington Post Book World, January 1, 1982, p. 5; March 13, 1983, p. 10; November 24, 1993, p. C2.
  • Whole Earth Review, spring, 1996, p. 75.
  • Wilson Quarterly, summer, 2000, Gregg Easterbrook, review of Life Is a Miracle, p. 131.
  • World and I, November, 2000, Donald Secreast, "Lessons from a Bootleg Community," p. 249.

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Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1934–

Wendell Berry

Biography

Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which analyzes the many failures of modern, mechanized life, is one of the key texts of the environmental . . .

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