I recently tried to recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to a friend and it didn’t go at all well. She assured me as we walked out of the noisy bar that it wasn’t because only half of what I’d said was audible, and slightly less than a third coherent, it was that the topic sounded dead boring. I had tried to sell an urban girl on the merits of a book about agriculture.
So I know that not everyone finds tales of life on the land thrilling reading. Normally, I don’t either. But this book is an exception.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir about the year when she moved with her husband and two daughters from Tucson Arizona to a farm in Appalachia, determined to live off local produce for a year.
Kingsolver has written eleven novels, so she approaches non-fiction as a storyteller, describing in a warm and folksy way the dumb-as-dirt idiocy of newborn turkeys, the correct way to harvest asparagus, and the pleasure to be had in bottling homemade tomato sauce in a kitchen warmed by a crackling fire. She’s also whip-smart and funny, and has a topical tale to tell, albeit one without much conflict.
Kingsolver’s love of nature, food and family shines through. She is incredibly proud of her daughters and they embrace the year of local food with an endearing lack of brattiness. It must have helped that nine-year-old Lily, at least, was predisposed towards farm life. Kingsolver writes: ‘Other little girls have ballerinas or Barbie posters on their bedroom walls; my daughter has a calendar titled ‘The Fairest Fowl’. One of the earliest lessons in poultry husbandry we had to teach her was ‘Why we don’t kiss chickens on the mouth.’’
The book is co-written with her husband Steven Hopp, a biology professor, and 19-year-old daughter Camille. Hopp contributes energetic essays about global food distribution, genetic modification, and fair trade, among other things, and Camille writes personable, accomplished pieces on cooking and nutrition.
Not that Kingsolver limits herself to the warm and fuzzy. She’s deeply troubled that we have become ignorant and selfish about what we eat. Ignorant in that we know little about how food gets from the ground to the table, and selfish in that we waste what’s left of the world’s fossil fuels flying watermelon and cucumber across the globe to satisfy dietary whim.
So when I said there was little conflict I meant on the family front. She omits much that’s deeply personal. Conflict finds its way into the text as controversy. Kingsolver is blunt in her criticism of America’s path of culinary destruction, the cruelty of feeding a generation on corn-based products that leave them undernourished, fat and diabetic, the lunacy of thinking things can go on this way.
She knows most of us aren’t able or inclined to take up farm life. She asks instead that we educate ourselves about what we are eating, support local organic growers, and think about the world we want to leave the next generation.
But maybe, like my friend, you find it hard to believe this could be made interesting. Or, like me, you have a touch of green fatigue. Not the kind soldiers wear, the kind that’s akin to compassion fatigue. Kingsolver’s not the first person to write about the mess we’ve made of feeding ourselves. There are scores of books out at the moment about the business of eating. Some of them, like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, are enlightening as well as grim. But some of them are tiresome, haranguing, even smug. Not this one.
Kingsolver hits just the right tone, mixing worthy sentiment with humour, homespun wisdom, and unadorned fact. She has a great sense of pace, too, changing gear when your attention starts to drift, moving from gardening minutiae to an anecdote about Lily’s chicken business (her youngest daughter is very entrepreneurial), then shifting back when levity gets too cute by reminding us of the import of the family’s goal.
She explains that the family tried to make their lifestyle change based on a positive rather than a negative, saying: ‘sticking it to the Man (whoever he is) may not be the most inspired principle around which to organise one’s life. We were after tangible, healthy pleasures, in the same way that boycotting tobacco, for instance, brings other benefits besides the satisfaction of withholding your money from Philip Morris. We hoped a year away from industrial food would taste so good, we might actually enjoy it.’
And it does sound enjoyable. Life on a farm is hard work, but it must be rewarding to eat what you or your neighbours have grown, to meet people who are trying to preserve food varieties ignored by big chains, to feel confident your kids aren’t chowing down on pesticide residue.
Kingsolver takes us back to the basics, urging us to know and respect the activity of digging, weeding, and harvesting. Obvious though it may be, she reminds us that food is not just a hobby or distraction. It’s what keeps us alive. She writes: ‘Like most of the other top-heavy hominids walking around in shoes, failing to notice the forest for the mashed trees reincarnated as newspapers and such, I’d nearly forgotten the truest of all truths: we are what we eat.’