Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Part I

Barbara Kingsolver is #74 on the list of America’s most dangerous people, according to the author of a recent well-publicized book cited in Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (p. 236). I’m not sure how Kingsolver earned her stripes in that author’s opinion, but I would agree that her linguistic artistry, self-deprecating humor, and winsome enthusiasm for her cause impart a formidable ability to win converts to just about any position.Well, maybe not any. Actually, I was already in at least theoretical sympathy with Kingsolver’s commitment to local, organic food, so I didn’t need much convincing, but Kingsolver’s treatise broadened my understanding and deepened my convictions. (I just bought some bean and pepper plants for a nascent garden on the balcony of our condominium. So I’m a little late getting started … at least I’ll get a feel for container gardening.)

Kingsolver’s principle concern is that future generations will pay for our present over-consumption of nonrenewable resources, like oil, and misused resources, like land. (Indeed, we are already paying the price, though we are not always aware of it, and it is more evident in some parts of the world than in others.) Kingsolver contends that visible costs such as higher prices for local and organic products are outweighed by hidden costs associated with shipping products across continents and oceans and using pesticides that harm beneficial creatures and ultimately increase pest populations. Other detrimental practices include reducing the quality of vegetables and animal products through genetic engineering and promoting the growth of industrial farms, while small farmers, who are more likely to employ sustainable practices, fall by the wayside.

In order to adopt a more responsible lifestyle, Kingsolver’s family moved from Tucson, where water and arable land are in short supply, to Appalachia, where they already owned some land they had been cultivating in the summers. The family committed to eating locally for one year, in large part on produce, poultry, dairy products, and other items they produced themselves. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle documents the results of that experiment, as well as explaining in detail the motivations for it.

“Patience and a pinch of restraint” are the key to a seasonal, local-food diet, Kingsolver writes, observing that these qualities are unpopular in contemporary American society (31). She finds a parallel to the principle in the message regarding sexual promiscuity that young people frequently hear:

“Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now” (31).

But Kingsolver contends that eating locally isn’t about deprivation. By refusing to indulge our desire to have it all, we give ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the best. Eating watery, mushy tomatoes shipped from Peru in the winter isn’t much of a sacrifice if you’re holding out for the luscious, firm fruit you can grow in your own backyard in August.

Much of what Kingsolver promotes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle would boost our nation’s economy by reducing reliance on imports and foreign oil, supporting small farmers, and enriching American food production (not to mention the health of the overall population). But US citizens aren’t the only ones who would benefit. South American agricultural workers, for example, would profit from the demise of multinational agribusiness, if they had the opportunity to recoup land and resources currently exploited for North American markets. It’s a classic case of what’s good for me is also good for my neighbor. Not that a little self sacrifice might not be required. But developing a habit of reasonable self restraint might curtail the host of social ills associated with self indulgence, which is probably among the greatest real dangers to America and one in which we’re all implicated.

Kingsolver acknowledges the challenges in promoting–and maintaining–such a mindset. It’s tempting to feel that small, “halfway” efforts to alter our buying and eating habits are useless. But the challenge to make wholesale changes can be so daunting that we dismiss the prospect altogether. In the final chapter, Kingsolver muses over this dilemma and how to present the proposition to her readers. She acknowledges that she and her family were not purists:

“We’d maintained those emergency rations of mac-and-cheese. (And anyone giving up coffee gets a medal we weren’t even in the running for.) But, frankly, any year in which no high-fructose corn syrup crosses my threshold is pure enough for me” (342).

The point is that the average American can make responsible choices, and Kingsolves gives us guidelines for doing it. Her husband, Steven Hopp, includes a sidebar toward the end of the book that helps the consumer think through the issues: How far has this traveled? How much does it weigh (for example, dried fruit costs less to move than fresh)? What kinds of chemicals were involved in its growth and production? and so forth (348-9).

Kingsolver argues that most Americans are far removed from the source of their food, with no conception how such a basic resource is produced. We thus have little basis for making informed choices. Efforts to correct this have led to the introduction of agriculture courses and student gardens in some public schools. Kingsolver’s book, likewise, provides an engaging introduction to subjects that most of us would not encounter outside of a reference book on agriculture or animal husbandry, which we would have little cause to pick up. (Kingsolver herself had difficulty accessing information on certain topics, i.e. turkey sex–the ability to reproduce has been bred out of most turkeys raised for food, in exchange for a high yield of breast meat [320].)

Kingsolver gave me a new understanding of what actually goes on in the vegetable kingdom and inspired me to take more seriously my desire to eat locally and consume responsibly. As I got deeper into her book, I realized she has been involved with agriculture to some degree for most of her life–her family didn’t plunge straight from city life into the agricultural scene. Which reassured me that I don’t need to run right out to purchase a field and sell my condo. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle includes practical suggestions for beginners as well as simple recipes for homemade cheese, canned goods, and seasonal dishes.

Sidebars by Kingsolver’s daughter Camille Kingsolver provide a young-adult perspective on the experience, as well as the aforementioned recipes. Kingsolver has generously made all these available at the book’s Web site Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (so I can return the book to the library without buying it, though I wouldn’t mind having it at home). Additional sidebars by Hopp provide scientific and statistical information. Back matter includes references as well as a list of organizations associated with subjects such as Local Food, Eating, and Food Security; Sustainable Agriculture and Farming; and Government Agencies. I highly recommend this creative, entertaining, and informative account of Kingsolver’s family experiment.

Come back in a few days for more thoughts on Kingsolver’s philosophical position and values.

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