Social Upheaval and War in the 1960s
It is not difficult to understand why someone writing in the late 1960s might express despair about the state of the world. For Americans, this period was fraught with social upheaval and the horror of war. In April 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been campaigning on behalf of striking sanitation workers. In June of the same year, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong, the forces of the communist North Vietnamese, launched the Tet Offensive in February 1968, attacking the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and other South Vietnamese cities. Although the Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive showed that the United States, despite having nearly half a million troops in Vietnam, was not even close to winning the war. It was in the same year, 1968, that the My Lai massacre occurred, in which U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. The massacre was not reported until November 1969. In February 1968, Berry gave a speech to the Kentucky Conference on the War and the Draft at the University of Kentucky in which he stated his opposition to the Vietnam War, ‘‘I see it as a symptom of a deadly illness of mankind—the illness of selfishness and pride and greed which, empowered by modern weapons and technology, now threatens to destroy the world’’ (‘‘A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,’’ in The LongLegged House).
Elsewhere during these turbulent years, the Six-Day War was fought in 1967 in the Middle East, in which Israel defeated a coalition of Arab nations, and the Soviet Union, along with several Eastern European countries, invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, an attempt by the Czech government to liberalize its communist society.
The Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s
‘‘The Peace of Wild Things’’ suggests the importance of living in harmony with nature. As a farmer and poet, Berry felt a deep connection to the land, and he also shared the concerns that were beginning to emerge during the 1960s about the degradation of the environment. The modern environmental movement is often traced to the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring, a bestselling book by Rachel Carson. Carson alerted readers to the dangers associated with the widespread use of pesticides. On his farm in Kentucky, Berry decided to practice organic farming, shunning the use of pesticides. In 1972, the U.S. government banned the use of the toxic chemical DDT, which had been widely used as an agricultural pesticide.
Elsewhere in Berry’s home state, as well as in West Virginia, the seeds of new environmental problems were beginning to occur. In the late 1960s the coal mining industry began a practice known as mountaintop removal. The tops of mountains were blasted by explosives in order to gain access to the coal that was near the surface. This was cheaper than tunneling into the mountain to reach the coal, but it had negative environmental consequences. The dirt and rock removed was pushed down the mountain, filling streams and valleys, adversely affecting the habitats of a number of species. Berry was alert to all the damaging effects of this form of strip mining, and he published a fierce essay ‘‘The Landscaping of Hell: Strip-Mine Morality in East Kentucky,’’ in The Long-Legged House, in which he condemned the practice, commenting,
“The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was. . . . Such destruction . . . makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings.”
Berry called for the banning of strip mining by state and federal governments. It was not until 1977 that Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) regulating the environmental effects of such coal mining, although environmentalists claimed that the law was ineffective.
The first national Earth Day was held in 1970, bringing environmental concerns to the attention of millions of people. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in the same year, and in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect species and the ecosystems on which they depend.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Wendell Berry, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009