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Rynn Berry

By January 16, 2014

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Rynn Berry
Rynn Berry tables at the Veggie Pride Parade, 2013
© Doris Lin 2013, licensed to About.com, Inc.

I was saddened to learn last week of the passing of Rynn Berry. Berry was the author of several books on a variety of vegan topics, historical advisor to the North American Vegetarian Society, and a regular speaker at the Vegetarian Summerfest and the Veggie Pride Parade. I enjoyed his session at the Vegetarian Summerfest a few years ago, when he had the audience perform skits about famous vegetarians, including Leo Tolstoy and Leonardo Da Vinci, and we took turns reading the different parts.

His good friend Martin Rowe, senior fellow at Brighter Green and vice president and co-owner of Lantern Books, wrote this beautiful and moving tribute (used with permission):

"Trencherman." That's the word I associate with Rynn Berry. Not because, as my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, he "play[ed] a good knife and fork," although I've no doubt he loved his food, or because he was "good, stout, valiant," although he was those things, too, but because he used the word in one of his books and it stopped me in my literary tracks. The word was so deliciously dental; almost onomatopoeic in its appetitiveness. Here, clearly, was someone who loved words as much as I did; who relished and savored them and wanted his readers to digest them with as much delight as well. We were logophiles, as Rynn would have put it, and we wanted to people to read them and change.

An independent scholar who translated texts from the Ancient Greek for pleasure and preferred to use "anthropophagy" when "cannibalism" would suffice, Rynn was a human John Soane Museum--full of recesses, nooks, and alcoves where antiquities nestled, painstakingly labeled and precisely catalogued, to be dusted off and displayed for an audience who might not appreciate them as much as the curator, but who were nonetheless irresistibly drawn to his house of curiosities. Both of us were a little out of our times, I fancy. We each enjoyed it when, in his wheezy and sussurant voice, Rynn would offer to "inscribe my tome" rather than "sign my book." Why do the latter when the former was so much more fun to proffer?

I met Rynn more than twenty years ago, and he contributed many articles and interviews to "Satya," the magazine I cofounded with Beth Gould shortly afterwards. Over the years, as we, writers and publishers both, circled each other (sometimes warily, but I like to believe, with mutual respect) Rynn took in stride my suggestion that he supply an introductory chapter for each interview in "Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World Religions"--thus doubling his workload. When he asked me to write an introduction to "Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover," and I produced a long piece designed to bulk up the monograph, he didn't complain that I questioned whether it really mattered whether Hitler was or wasn't a vegetarian. He was a gentleman and a pragmatist. Like all good author-publishers, he knew that survival entailed moving copies--and lots of them--pettifoggers and naysayers be damned!

And, boy, did he sell 'em! For the first seven years of its existence, my publishing company's offices overlooked Union Square. Every Wednesday and Saturday at the greenmarket, there was Rynn, standing at his table, his headcovering appropriate to the weather, purveying to the public "The Vegan Guide to New York City" and other works, and offering to append to their purchase an elegantly cursive dedication in best Indian ink. I loved that other aspect of Rynn: the reticent hustler, the retiring individual absolutely dedicated to promoting his research, to demonstrating that vegetarianism had a long and august history, its arguments on behalf of compassion formulated through the millennia by men and women of courage and conviction. He wanted to show that we weren't alone, that our words weren't the first or the last on this vital subject, and that we all had something to contribute.

These days, of course, as illustrated by the many pages of "The Vegan Guide to New York City" (admirably compiled by Rynn and his good friend Cristina), veganism is no longer the practice of ascetics or oddball visionaries, but mainstream, chic, almost a cliché--a mark not of restraint or denial but pleasure, even extravagance. Rynn helped that come about, even though he didn't walk the red carpets at the New York and LA galas, host his own cooking show on cable, present the keynotes at the big conferences, or front his own column in "Edible" [wherever]. He made it possible by bearing witness, week in week out: whether in the greenmarket, or lugging his titles in his enormous backpack around bookshops and health-food stores and veggie restaurants, or attending the Vegetarian Summerfest and potlucks and raw food conferences. Who knows how many tens if not hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of people encountered this shy, amused, and eloquent man and began to think about their diet for the first time? His influence is, quite literally, incalculable.

In one way, Rynn was one of a kind: the kind of singular personality that New York City welcomes and allows to thrive. In another way, however, Rynn was like so many other activists who remain unsung and unsalaried, but to whom all of us who follow them owe a great debt. We owe them for their writings and their perseverance. We owe them for their refusal to be cowed or browbeaten or diverted from their mission. And we owe them for the dedication and time it took to stand out in all weathers in the hopes that someone would be stopped short (as I was with "trencherman"), would pick up some literature (inscribed or no), and allow nothing else to be the same again.


January 16, 2014 at 4:19 pm
(1) Eden says:

I was happy to meet and talk to Rynn briefly, once or twice. I am sad to hear of his passing. May he rest in peace. Thank you, Rynn, for all your dedication to the compassionate cause….

February 3, 2014 at 10:54 am
(2) Tom says:

A great remembrance of a man who inspired so many of us to examine our conscience, then act accordingly, even when it took years to ultimately do so. The true extent of Rynn’s impact may never fully be known, but we take comfort in knowing the world is much better thanks to his life and work.

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