red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Barbara Kingsolver
New York: Collins/HarperCollins Publishers ©2007

 

Consider this your hands-on, muddy boots, family farm and garden companion to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Solid practice meets good history and interesting premise. One man's quest for understanding expands into an honest-to-goodness family's actual year-long experiment and on-going practice.

Pollan's description of the current U.S. system of industrial food production may have been enough to make you lose your lunch and strike out for the nearest farmers' market. Kingsolver's seasonal trek provides the next step in that wise move: what to do with what you find in the fresh produce stalls and how to grow your own. Her description of how a family of four can eat quite well, learn a lot, nourish the land, develop useful skills, appreciate the seasonal cycles, and support many diverse communities offers hope that we still retain the vestiges of self-sufficiency. In fact, our literal survival as living beings depends upon reclaiming the ability to provide for ourselves and the rest of the world at a realistically human scale through enterprises in agriculture, animal husbandry, nutrition, and community. We have our work cut out for us.

Kingsolver and her family, all of whom contribute to and appear in the pages of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, capture their year of family farming — on about an acre of land — and show us how we can do something similar, even if we have only a windowbox full of herbs and the will to consistently support local small operators who regularly show up at weekend farmers' markets. Becoming a 'conscious eater' means we recognize all of the costs that go into getting any package of food onto the grocery store shelf, including the fossil fuels used in transportation, packaging, and storage, as well as the dependence on fewer numbers of crops (primarily corn, wheat, soybeans, rice), the warehousing of food animals before their meat shows up on the grill, and the resource depletion that turns fertile soil into nonproductive dust. Truly, there is a better way to find food, eat, and live.

The contrast became ever more apparent to Kingsolver and her family as much because of their personal circumstances as because of her (and her husband's) formal education as biologists. Originally from Kentucky, Kingsolver had gone off to school, off to a life of writing, off to learn about the world in the warmth of southern Arizona. But she returned, divorced and with a daughter, to her Appalachian roots for graduate school, meeting her soon-to-be-husband (Steven Hopp) and his 40 acres of mostly timber and mountainous land in the process. Neither wanted to completely trade one home for the other, so they came to a sort of time-share agreement: nine months in Tucson where their daughters could attend school, and three months in the western Virginia woodlands to re-establish connections with a different aspect of life. When the time was right, they agreed they would move to the Appalachian farm for good.

Well, like all of us, the Kingsolver-Hopp family can watch the shifts in temperature, population, resources, weather, and gas prices, among other vicissitudes of modern urban life. After twenty-five years in the land of "red hot chiles and five-alarm sunsets," they decided that "we wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground." They realized the entire food supply of a growing urban center in the desert, such as Tucson, or, say, Las Vegas, "moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every ounce of the city's drinking, washing, and goldfish-bowl-filling water is pumped from a nonrenewable source — a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles."

Although they were part of a "far-flung little community of erstwhile Tucson homesteaders, raising chickens in our yards and patches of vegetables for our own use, frequenting farmers' markets to buy from Arizona farmers, trying to reduce the miles-per-gallon quotient of our diets in a gasoholic world," Kingsolver was uneasy about "living in Arizona on borrowed water," which tipped the scales toward a more temperate climate. That — and the realization about how little our educational system teaches youngsters regarding the life cycle of plants, animals, and our food relationship to them, as well as the occasional grown-up comments on the order of "I didn't know potatoes had 'plant parts'," meaning stems and leaves that grow above ground.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is Kingsolver's attempt to recapture and pass on some of the knowledge lost in the space of just two generations. The grandparents of World War II's baby boomers, she says, "had an intuitive sense of agricultural basics: when various fruits and vegetables come into season, which ones keep through the winter, how to preserve the others.... Which crops can be planted before the last frost, and which must wait.... What an asparagus patch looks like in August. Most importantly: what animals and vegetables thrive in one's immediate region and how to live well on those, with little else thrown into the mix beyond a bag of flour, a pinch of salt, and a handful of coffee."

While we have "largely convinced ourselves [this knowledge isn't] too important," Kingsolver ties it to the nature of good citizenship, including the ability to know whether or not the food we encounter is actually good for us to consume, the obesity crisis, and our country's shift away from believing in evolution. Her "biology-professor brother pointed...out...[that] many bright people are really in the dark about vegetable life. Biology teachers face kids in classrooms who may not even believe in the metamorphosis of bud to flower to fruit to seed, but rather, some continuum of pansies becoming petunias becoming chrysanthemums; that's the reality they witness as landscapers come to campuses and city parks and surreptitiously yank out one flower before it fades from its prime, replacing it with another."

So Kingsolver and her family resolved to become as self-sufficient in their food consumption as possible, all while maintaining their regular lives, and, in the process, learning about what happened to agriculture in the United States during the last fifty years of the 20th century and how to resuscitate it as a thriving food culture.

"At its heart," says Kingsolver, "a genuine food culture is an affinity between people and the land that feeds them. Step one, probably, is to live on the land that feeds them, or at least on the same continent, ideally the same region. Step two is to be able to countenance the ideas of 'food' and 'dirt' in the same sentence [yes, carrots, potatoes, and beets, among other foods come out of the ground, not simply appearing swathed in shrink-wrapped plastic on grocery store shelves], and three is to start poking into one's supply chain to learn where things come from. In the spirit of this adventure, our family set out to find ourselves a real American culture of food, or at least the piece of it that worked for us, and to describe it for anyone who might be looking for something similar. This book tells the story of what we learned, or didn't; what we ate, or couldn't; and how our family was changed by one year of deliberately eating food produced in the same place where we worked, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air."

Kingsolver's assertion that "it's not at all necessary to live on a food-producing farm to participate in this culture" offers even more encouragement. Still, she reminds, "it is necessary to know such farms exist, understand something about what they do, and consider oneself basically in their court." Their lives, our lives — indeed, all remaining life on Earth — depends upon it.

RELATED READING
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken
Ripples from the Zambezi by Ernesto Sirolli
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

 

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