"All stories, they say, begin in one of two ways: A stranger came to town,' or else, I set out upon a journey,'" writes novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The latter theme pervades her new memoir cum investigative nonfiction narrative, a faithful, funny and thought-provoking chronicle of a year in which the author and her family pulled up their big-city stakes and moved from Tucson, Arizona, to a farm in southwestern Virginia. The objective: to spend a year subsisting on food they would raise themselves, or purchase only from local sources, like farmers' markets.
"The project of taking this sort of sabbatical year really was something we had to do as a family," Kingsolver says, speaking from her Virginia farm. "I couldn't do it by myself. And we talked about it for years—it's not something we did overnight." Indeed, the experiment germinated a while; its roots are clearly visible in her essay, Lily's Chickens, (from the 2002 Small Wonder collection) in which she discusses the energy crime of American food transportation and the ethics of responsible eating.
Kingsolver's Appalachian adventure was her response to a conviction that America's food system has been kidnapped, that our nation's food production and consumption habits have been hijacked ("There are ingredients on food labels we can't even pronounce!" she exclaims). She observes that we are now a mostly urban society disconnected from the land the source of our sustenance. "To connect to it, we have to know what farmers do and how vegetables grow. It's a whole area of knowledge that has been lost from our culture in the last two generations," she says.
Contributing to this loss is America's reliance upon highly processed foods across all product lines, with foodstuffs routinely transported worldwide to satisfy our national cravings for any comestible, any time. "Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars," states Steven L. Hopp, Kingsolver's husband, in the book's first chapter.
As it turns out, this book has not one author, but three. It is a collaborative project that, Kingsolver admits, no one in the family saw coming. "The idea to make a book," she says, "had its genesis in practicality and generosity, a way to inform people about how small, individual lifestyle changes (such as buying food locally and cooking at home) can make a huge difference in quality of life."
And inform it does—accompanying Kingsolver's finely crafted, endearingly personal narrative are information-packed sidebars of no-nonsense prose by Hopp, a biologist. There are also delightful, earnest essays from her 19-year-old daughter, Camille, who comments on the whole adventure, nutritional issues and the sometimes embarrassing (sausage-making!) behaviors of parents. Rounding out this bi-generational perspective are family recipes and weekly meal plans (downloadable from the book's website, www.animalvegetable.com).
Readers—whether vegetarian or carnivore—will not go hungry, literally or literarily. Nor was the Kingsolver-Hopp clan famished during their year of cutting off the industrial pipeline and sinking into the local foodshed. Though Kingsolver reports that it was hard work cultivating the farm, and harvesting and storing the crops for use in the winter months, she says her family thrived on reconnecting with a bounteous earth and its cycles, and derived great pleasure from cooking and eating delicious meals. "This was a project that brought our family together," Kingsolver says.
This year of engaging with the land, of changing eating and purchasing habits, expanded a sense of plenty not scarcity. During our conversation, she reveals that there has been a tremendous interest in the book, even before its publication. And the question people repeatedly ask her is: What was the hardest thing to give up? This confounds Kingsolver, who feels that, in their year of eating consciously, they gained a sense of connection, awareness and fulfillment, and a gratitude for the earth's abundance and generosity. "We didn't drag through the year missing things," she says. "We had such a good time celebrating what we had and celebrating the seasons it's really such a lesson for life, isn't it?" One thing they did not eschew, however, was coffee. "We wheedled out of that one!" she laughs, explaining that they purchased only fair-trade java.
Though they handily solved the coffee conundrum, situations arose that were not so easily dealt with, such as harvesting their livestock for the table. Just before our interview, Kingsolver had been out checking on her animals. "We just had lambs born yesterday," she enthuses. One of the book's most powerful essays, You Can't Run Away on Harvest Day, rationally, but tenderly, discusses how humans kill other life forms from worms, butterflies and broccoli to cattle for sustenance.
"People do get emotional about killing animals, but less than five percent of the population is vegetarian, which means that 95 percent of us eat animals, and we know that somebody killed them," Kingsolver says firmly. She knows that humans don't want to think about this, and says that it's hard for her, too, even though she takes great care in raising and dispatching her animals in the most humane ways possible. "I am a very soft-hearted person," she admits, "and it's difficult to look your food in the eye and face the fact that someone had to kill it for you. But looking at it head-on allows you to make good decisions. Every book I've ever written is about something difficult I don't shrink from raising the difficult questions."
After all our discussion of flora and fauna, I realized I hadn't queried Kingsolver about the third element of her book's title. What, I asked her, was your particular miracle? "Realizing that I could change," she answers, "that I could joyfully embrace a simpler, more sustainable way to live. We can act sensibly, return to our local economies and have a different world. Whether or not people read this book, fossil fuels are going to run out. The dinosaurs are not going to lie down and make more oil."
Alison Hood tends her strawberry patch in sunny California.