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 finance the elementary school and support local improvements.
The raucous proceedings are not exactly the kind of thing one might associate with the scholarly St. Jerome. Most noted for translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin, Jerome lived from approximately 347 to 419 C.E. Had the hallowed hermit been subject to the tortured political rhetoric of Fancy Farm, he might have been considered 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 for me 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, and he is right.
For the entire text of the article log on to https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/going-home-with-wendell-berry.