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Constance Alexander: Forgoing the miracle of Fancy Farm by staying close to home for some reflection

Along with the 19,500 pounds of barbecue served up at the annual Fancy Farm picnic, there is enough hot air to lift the tiny town of 500 aloft. In just one day, the local population balloons to 10,000, and St. Jerome Catholic Church raises enough money to support church projects and finance local improvements.

The raucous proceedings are not exactly the kind of thing one might associate with a saint. Most noted for translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin, and removing a thorn from a lion’s paw thus earning its lifelong devotion, Jerome lived from approximately 347 to 419 CE. Had the hallowed hermit been exposed to even one Fancy Farm picnic, he might have died a martyr instead of a scholar.

Since 1880, St. Jerome’s Church has hosted the picnic, an event that kicks off the political season in Kentucky. In the old days, speechifying took place beneath a massive oak tree that was struck by lightning in 1974, inspiring Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn to quip, “Too much fertilizer will kill anything.”

Today speakers are seated on a stage, separated from the noisy audience by a flimsy fence. One by one they emit steaming heaps of political poppycock that is seasoned with jeers and cheers from the audience.

In the past, I trekked to Fancy Farm on the first Saturday in August because it was a great opportunity to observe people and paradox. This year, I stayed home to read and reflect on insights of the renowned Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry, thanks to a recent interview by Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker magazine.

Berry talks about his collection of essays and stories, “The Art of Loading Brush” in relation to his own life in Port Royal, Kentucky. He recalls his travels in Europe and teaching in New York City, followed by his decision to move back home. Against the advice of those around him, he and his wife headed back to Kentucky.

“And so I came back here with some fear and trembling, but also a sense of doing the right thing,” he said.

Reading Wendell Berry instead of showing up at Fancy Farm was the right thing to do on Saturday. Rather than being surrounded by indignant placards and derisive epithets, I was reminded of the importance of plain old conversation.

“Our dominant practice now is to solve problems with other problems,” he said. “What we need to do is submit… to the influence of actually talking to your enemy. Loving your enemy.”

“It’s either that or kill each other,” Wendell Berry declared.

While the folks at Fancy Farm engaged in what is often characterized as good-natured diatribe and harmless hyperbole, folks at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, faced a killer with a semi-automatic weapon, who murdered twenty-two and injured twenty-four more.

Less than twenty-four hours later — and also armed with a combat-type weapon — another gunman rampaged through a downtown district in Dayton, Ohio, known for its nightlife. He mowed down at least nine, including his sister, and injured another twenty-seven.

In both cases, evidence and information is still being gathered, but it is safe to surmise that both young men, rather than talking to their perceived enemies, chose to kill.

This afternoon, in my local Walmart, I wondered if we might end up the target of a misguided madman. Of course, it can happen here. It already has, in two high schools in our region.

In the “Going Home” interview, Wendell Berry points out that Americans solve problems with other problems, instead of applying “the respectful, patient back-and-forth that real solutions require. By real solutions,” he continues, “I mean solutions that are not destructive…”

Berry admits that this conversation cannot be carried on very long without talking about commitment that does not see any end. So let’s get the conversation started.

For the entire text of the Berry interview, visit www.newyorker.com.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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