Elvin died a youthful 62 in 1977, a year easily remembered because of the pleasure he derived as cancer chewed him up from events of the Bicentennial year preceding, especially that parade of tall ships up the Hudson on July 4. We had many things left to talk about at the time.
It was he who introduced me to Berry --- agrarian philosopher, Christian pacifist, a father of sustainable agriculture, environmental activist, eloquent novelist, poet and writer of non-fiction, farmer. Elvin's letters, some of which I still have, often contained Berry quotes; he sent along a favorite Berry book one year for my birthday.
Berry, who turns 80 this year, still lives on his Henry County, Kentucky, homeplace, and still knows how to stir things up. The clip at the top today, in lieu of a Sunday sermon, is the unabashedly heterosexual Berry's coming out as a supporter of same-sex marriage during early 2103.
In typical Berry fashion, it was done in a roomful of Baptist preachers on the campus of Georgetown College, affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention --- Daniel in the lions' den.
Berry minced few words about his views concerning gay marriage and a variety of other topics, nor did he spare the Christian church, skewering it with a variety of quotable paragraphs, including this:
“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”
It was quite a performance, characterized as an "epic slanderfest" by one appalled conservative (previously an admirer of Berry).
Conservatives were shocked in part because they had concluded that Berry was, to a degree at least, one of "us." And he is, in terms of Kentucky culture and its traditions, love of its land and its people. His family has lived there for 200 years.
Berry also describes himself as "pro life," although without --- as he puts it --- the capital "p" and captial "l" --- uncomfortable with abortion as a means of birth control but not a backer of constitutional amendments or restrictive legislation. He expresses admiration for, and practices, traditional family values (minus hot-button issues rolled into that category in recent years); and has celebrated with considerable eloquence the heterosexual reproductive process because, he says, it mirrors and emphasizes the unity of creation.
"On days of bad weather," Berry attends the Baptist church where his wife plays piano, although "on days of good weather, I ramble off into the woods somewhere," he says.
When asked if he identifies as a Christian, Berry generally replies, "I am a person who takes the Gospel seriously." Close enough, perhaps.
His steadfast concern and advocacy for the environment and his wholehearted support for sustainable, traditional agriculture had caught the attention of Evangelical Christians who had begun to wonder if perhaps they shouldn't be concerned about the environment, too.
What those surprised by his apparently newly minted pro-gay stance had overlooked was Berry's inherent radical nature, including his consistent condemnation of unbridled capitalism and its rape of the land; his unrestrained mind; and his unwillingness to be unnecessarily categorized.
Although he had rarely commented publicly on the topic, Berry spoke out briefly in favor of domestic partnerships for gay people in 2005 and in favor of same-sex marriage during 2012. It was the latter brief comment that brought the invitation to speak at Georgetown, perhaps in hope of reassurance. And he is a lifelong, although often critical, Democrat.
But, as Berry points out in opening remarks at Georgetown, he had never really taken the time to think the topic of same-sex marriage through thoroughly before. By the time he reached the Georgetown stage, he had.
It sometimes comes as a surprise to people on both side of the gay rights and same-sex marriage debate that there actually are a good number of people out there who haven't given the issues too much thought, often preoccupied with other concerns; in Berry's case, saving the planet.
The aftermath was interesting, although predictable. Some conservatives simply rejected Berry and his body of work entirely, despite earlier admiration.
Others adopted the "grandfather-with-dementia" approach --- contending that much of what he had written previously was sound, and still to be valued, but now something awful was happening and anything further from his pen could not be trusted.
It's easy to poke fun at this response.
On the other had, I've been wondering how I'd have reacted if Berry --- a man I've admired for 40 years --- had after thinking the matter through come out against same-sex marriage and skewered the LGBT community instead.
From Berry's "The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer" ---
... "Dance," they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
"Pray," they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth's brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, "I know my Redeemer liveth,"
I told them, "He's dead." And when they told me
"God is dead," I answered, "He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often."