I recently visited Christina (Christy) Lee Brown at Poplar Terrace, her “forever and ever” home located in the rolling hills just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Christy, together with her late husband Owsley Brown II, has been a pillar of philanthropy in Kentucky and beyond for many years. She is a founding board member of The Berry Center and provided inspiration, guidance, and initial funding that launched the Center.
We sat down in the very drawing room where she and her husband first met Wendell Berry back in the early 1980s and talked about influences in her life, her many years of community service, and reflections on the work at The Berry Center.
DB: What influences did you have growing up that informed your sense of philanthropy and the issues you care about and have supported for so many years?
CB: Two great influences come to mind immediately. First, I had a horse that really was my best friend until I went to college. I used to ride a lot; I didn’t competitively show but I just rode throughout the countryside and the older I get, the more I realize how important that was to who I am today. Spending those hours on my wonderful horse, whose name was Grey Ghost, I was absorbing the magnificence of nature. This was a tremendous influence.
DB: This was in Maryland?
CB: Yes, I grew up in Maryland. When I rode my horse I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the wonders of nature but just thinking how lucky I was to have this horse and ride in the country. But I believe that by years of riding in the beautiful surroundings (which have changed greatly today) I absorbed the grandeur of land, trees, birds, and all of nature. This was a tremendous influence.
Another influence was my grandfather (on my mother’s side). He was a country doctor. He was also very involved in the political world of his community, and his community in general. He knew the importance of addressing all aspects of health besides only human health. I didn’t realize then either what an influence he was on me but he was.
For instance he ran for governor when no one thought he had any chance of winning but he did it because he wanted to bring attention to the issue that the Democratic machine, so tightly controlled by Governor Ritchie in those days, needed to be broken up. I grew up with stories of him playing that leadership role, as well as being a doctor and a gentleman farmer. He farmed very seriously and our family’s food source came primarily from my grandparents’ farm.
And, as I think about this further, another great influence was going to the convent school.
DB: This was Visitation Academy of Frederick, in Maryland?
CB: Yes, there was a particular point in middle school that was terribly influential. It was a cloistered order and while, at times when I was young I remember thinking that some of the nuns might not be very nice and those kinds of things you think when you are young. But yet I felt a deep love for them—they gave up everything, there was a lot of sacrifice, for the purpose of teaching us, praying for us. That was an extraordinary gift. Such examples become a part of the tapestry of life that created you.
DB: So all of these experiences and examples imparted in you a strong sense of stewardship and serving it seems.
CB: Yes, I was raised that we were here to serve. My daddy was also a strong example—he served as mayor of our very small town.
DB: And then you met your husband, Owsley Brown II, and both of you began serving the community here in Kentucky.
CB: Service was a primary thing that Owsley and I had in common; a sort of philosophical connection. We both believed that people are born to serve.
DB: It seems it was part of our society then in a way that is lacking today.
CB: Yes, in those days everybody served in some way.
DB: What did you and Owsley learn from one another in your service?
CB: Our stewardship grew. The largest part of our love and our marriage and the evolution of our friendship was the fact that we had that desire to serve in common, it was natural.
We would discuss things with each other and share with each other, but didn’t burden each other with our various projects. We had fun, interesting conversations. Our dinner conversation was always fascinating.
And we learned from each other and enriched each other. It was a wonderful journey for 43 years.
DB: Can you share with me how you came to live here at Poplar Terrace?
When we first moved to Louisville I didn’t know a soul (except Owsley of course). I became involved with the Actor’s Theatre and we lived in my mother-in-law’s studio and then we found our first home not far from here and lived there until our second child, Brooke, was born.
A real estate agent came to us about what we now call Poplar Terrace. Owsley convinced me to come look at this place (even though I knew the house fairly well as we came to visit friends who lived here). He wanted me to see it through the lens of it being my forever and ever house. With that in mind, I understood this should be the place for us. One of the things I really liked was that even though it’s a big house, it doesn’t look like a huge house, it’s not intimidating. So that was one of the things that convinced me. I knew that it would be large enough so we could do serious community work here.
DB: And then you also acquired a farm, Breeze Hill, which has become important in your life and your stewardship.
CB: Yes, my father-in-law had farms in Oldham County (Kentucky) and one farm had an 1810 brick house on it, which was similar to the house in Maryland that I grew up in. Early in our marriage we bought that from him and restored the house (which had been used as a barn). Since 2012, I have worked with a wonderful couple, Ben and Bree, to grow an organic farm, raising pounds and pounds of vegetables. We also have sheep now. I call Ben our director of healthy air, water, and soil. That’s really what farmers are—they are guardians of our resources.
DB: When did you meet Wendell?
I met him through Lois Mateus, who worked for Brown- Forman (the family business). I think this was around the ‘80s.
Wendell came to Poplar Terrace a number of times to see Owsley and me to solicit for different projects that he cared about. Of course we were very impressed; he is such a sincere, authentic man.
I would (and still) take his books on my vacations; I always took a suitcase full of book on vacations, I still do it. I would read a Wendell book on the beach and I’d just have to put it down after awhile because every paragraph is so rich and full of the tasks and hard work we need to do. I’d take notes of actions we needed to take.
DB: And then you met Mary Berry before she had founded The Berry Center. How did this come about?
CB: Again, I think it was through Lois. She invited me to the winery that Mary had begun; we had a lovely lunch with Mary and I bought one of those divine chickens (Mary raised pastured poultry). They were the best. Then when she moved for a spell to Louisville, I saw her more often.
DB: And about this time she got the notion to start some kind of institution to preserve the legacy of her farming family, the Berrys, who were leaders in their community for several generations.
She told me that you and Owsley were the first ones she talked to about this idea (besides her father) and that you offered not only financial support but gave her the courage that she could make something of her idea.
CB: Well, I was impressed with how heart felt she was about perpetuating the legacy of her family; it wasn’t just about Wendell. Having come from the family that I came from, that really resonated with me. We are a part of our heritage and the fact that she cared about it in that way I thought was really beautiful. It’s still inspiring to me. Rather than coming at it from just the Wendell approach; it had much deeper roots.
She then had the idea of using her uncle’s office to start The Berry Center, which I thought was brilliant. Her uncle, John Berry, Jr., was a wonderful leader in Kentucky who lived a life of service. This was very special; so I said, “I can furnish it.” It was fun.
Eventually, we outgrew the place; I had been quietly looking around for what was available in town and found the house that is now the TBC headquarters, the Oldham House built in 1820 in downtown New Castle, Kentucky.
DB: Fast forward to today; TBC has four major programs.
What do you find that’s unique about TBC’s work?
CB: For me the work of TBC reflects the term “home place,” a term that Wendell uses often. That’s what Wendell represents to me the most, community. TBC work reinforces those words and values in a holistic way. TBC is preserving the legacy of not only his wise writings but of the Berry family’s service to their community.
DB: Yes, preserving legacy is more important than I think people realize in these times. A Wendell quote we use in describing part of the mission of the Archive of the Berry Center is: “If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.”
CB: Yes, TBC provides important documentation of farm programs that worked such as the Producer’s Program. We are becoming an important center for historians, researchers, teachers, students, and others seeking agrarian information and history that is difficult to find.
DB: Across our nation we see an increasing divide between rural and urban America, which Wendell has been writing about for years, and TBC work is also addressing these issues head on.
CB: Yes, Wendell is the seer, the voice in the wilderness. If we don’t embrace our home place, and all forms of health—soil, water, air, and more, including spiritual—in a community, we’re in trouble. We need all forms of health and TBC is doing this work. How perfect and how beautiful is that?
For example, TBC Agrarian Culture Center and Bookstore is contributing to intellectual health. Virginia (Berry-Aguilar, director of the Culture Center and Bookstore) has developed the Agrarian Literary League (ALL), which is bringing back humanities education to our rural communities. To me, that’s the kind of evolution I love to see at TBC.
DB: And then we have Home Place Meat, which is bringing local beef farmers together with local markets.
CB: Home Place Meat is a wonderful model because it is identifying farmers who wish for financial stability through healthier forms of farming that contribute to healthy air, water, and soil. So we are thoroughly working with farmers to give them the tools (when they don’t have them) so they can end up with various forms of health. It’s not just getting the cattle out the door.
DB: To me that’s unique about TBC. Several organizations work on agriculture but often on specific, isolated aspects—perhaps on a policy—and too often relinquish the holistic view, or they don’t address critical questions.
CB: Yes, TBC does its most admirable work when all forms of health are cared for. Our most effective work demonstrates how to grow healthy agriculture and farming with the awareness that the farm has to be financial, spiritual, psychological, etc.,— all types of health must thrive.
DB: And this work helps people understand why it’s so important to build place-based, home place models.
CB: This gets back to your comment about the urban-rural divide. We have to learn to understand the interdependence and interconnectedness (which Wendell writes about all the time). It’s up to each of us to take responsibility. How do we empower New Castle, Kentucky, and other communities so that we can become intimately engaged versus having other people from the outside saying what needs to be done? We have to build models that are led by the community.
DB: After doing a lot of national and international policy work, I find that working on local levels is much more accountable.
CB: Yes, and it’s a lot of work. It’s been an interesting evolution at TBC; a tiny group of people started this organization and we continue to grow and mature.
DB: Another exciting program that is being developed at TBC is The Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College.
CB: I think the Wendell Berry Farming Program checks all the boxes for health and building community. It’s so exciting and it’s a huge responsibility, partnering with a college (TBC is partnering with Sterling College). It has tremendous potential on all sides of the spectrum so we are working carefully to roll this out.
We’re developing a farming curriculum that applies Wendell’s thoughts about agriculture and the vital importance about building a new type (and old type) of farmer for today. It begins with building farming principles and values based on nature and understanding the relationship of nature and human health. This curriculum can revitalize future farmers and communities and really be a model for the world.
DB: Yes, this work has to start in local communities to show it can happen.
CB: Hard work starts with each one of us, our families, our workplace. We have to understand the interrelationship. Urban people have to understand that they are dependent on rural areas for all sorts of things—yes, food, but also natural resources. At the heart of TBC and Wendell Berry and a handful of other thoughtful prophets—when we have healthy air, water, and soil is when we will have healthy humans and a healthy world. Wendell’s writings are telling us to pay attention to that.