Sus­tained by a DIY ethic

An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle: Our Year of Sea­sonal Eat­ing By Bar­bara King­solver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille King­solver Faber and Faber, 352pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner

AS An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle opens, Bar­bara King­solver and her fam­ily are in the car, in the mid­dle of a move from Ari­zona to Vir­ginia. This will sur­prise many of the writer’s fans, be­cause al­though King­solver is best known for her much- loved African novel The Poi­son­wood Bi­ble , she also has been for the past 20 years an acute chron­i­cler ( in High Tide in Tuc­son and An­i­mal Dreams ) of life among the saguaro cac­tuses on the Tuc­son city lim­its.

But the desert days have come to an end, she tells us, be­cause they have been bought at too great a price. Tuc­son, with a pop­u­la­tion of nearly a mil­lion, is like a space sta­tion in the mid­dle of the desert: al­most ev­ery­thing it con­sumes is un­sus­tain­able or comes from very far away. Its aqui­fier is drop­ping; it pumps min­eral- heavy wa­ter from the dis­tant Colorado River; and it is al­most en­tirely de­pen­dent on long- haul in­dus­trial food. And so, in or­der to re­duce its eco­log­i­cal foot­print, the fam­ily — King­solver, her en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist hus­band, Steven Hopp, and two daugh­ters — has de­cided to move to a farm in the fer­tile re­gion of Ap­palachia. Here they dream of liv­ing ‘‘ in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow and drink­ing wa­ter bub­bles right up out of the ground’’.

This is no one- off gas­tro­nomic ex­per­i­ment along the lines of Morgan Spur­lock’s Su­per Size Me or Bill Bu­ford’s Heat . King­solver has strong ties to Vir­ginia; the farm has been in her hus­band’s fam­ily for years and they have been mov­ing to­wards this de­ci­sion for some time. An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle opens with an im­pas­sioned in­dict­ment of the in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of Amer­i­can farm­ing, the re­sult of which is that 70 per cent of mid­west­ern agri­cul­tural land is now de­voted to grow­ing only two prod­ucts, corn and soya bean. As a re­sult, the US now im­ports much of its fruit and veg­eta­bles. At the same time, more and more an­i­mals live knee- deep in ex­cre­ment in dark barns and soul­less feed­lots.

As well as grow­ing their own fruit and veg­eta­bles in the 40ha gar­den around their cabin, the King­solver clan make the much tougher de­ci­sion to ex­clude any­thing out of sea­son or non- lo­cal, such as fish and flour. This sin­cere, al­most ob­ses­sive ded­i­ca­tion makes An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle a very dif­fer­ent book to the gas­tro- porn and home- im­prove­ment genre pur­veyed by writ­ers such as Peter Mayle ( A Year in Provence) and Frances Mayes ( Un­der the Tus­can Sun). There is no moon­ing and thrilling about ter­roir, ex­pen­sive hand creams or lo­cal colour. In­stead, we are re­minded that learn­ing to use only what is at hand of­ten re­quires self- re­straint and re­source­ful­ness. The fam­ily raises and butch­ers its own flocks of chick­ens, bot­tles toma­toes for win­ter use and makes turkey sausage.

King­solver’s de­tailed ac­counts of her grow­ing gar­den make sen­su­ous read­ing: her first as­para­gus crop is ‘‘ a waist- high for­est of feath­ery fronds’’. By sum­mer’s end, be­fore the frost knocks them down, they re­sem­ble ‘‘ dwarf Christ­mas trees cov­ered with tiny red balls’’. She is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing on rais­ing rare breeds of turkeys and chick­ens and en­cour­ag­ing them ( as most stock is grown in­dus­tri­ally through ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion) to re­learn to breed.

But this book is a fam­ily af­fair. While the nov­el­ist di­arises, her hus­band con­trib­utes in­for­ma­tional side­bars, and their eldest daugh­ter Camille of­fers es­says and recipes. The ef­fect is home­spun, a kind of ac­tivist’s guide ( in­cor­po­rat­ing web­site ad­dresses for seed savers and eth­i­cal trad­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions) crossed with a gar­den­ing col­umn and cook­ing man­ual.

In fact, An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle ’ s clos­est rel­a­tive is that sta­ple of 1980s share house­holds, The Moose­wood Cook­book . And, like Molly Katzen’s book, its tone is point­edly warm, non­in­tim­i­dat­ing and slightly re­me­dial: King­solver aban­dons her es­say­is­tic style for a text filled with ‘‘ boy howdys’’, ‘‘ ee- ews’’ and ‘‘ yikes’’. Even the ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing back to the earth, it seems, can­not es­cape the in­grained North Amer­i­can ten­dency to­ward the pre- pack­aged and lin­guis­ti­cally com­mod­i­fied.

Its de­lib­er­ate folksi­ness raises the ques­tion of how such a lo­cal book, filled with sea­sonal ad­vice, trans­lates here. A more el­e­gantly writ­ten vol­ume that em­ployed King­solver’s lit­er­ary tal­ents more fully might have at­tracted a broader au­di­ence. And Aus­tralian read­ers in­ter­ested in the or­ganic in­dus­try might do bet­ter start­ing with Pa­trice Newell or Gay Bil­son.

The main pur­pose of King­solver’s book seems to be to bring out the gar­dener or ac­tivist con­sumer in her fel­low Amer­i­cans. Some of the facts she ac­cu­mu­lates about Amer­i­can agribusi­ness ( which is also our re­al­ity in a global econ­omy) are eye- open­ing. This is es­pe­cially the case in her ac­count of le­gal bul­ly­ing by the huge Amer­i­can com­pa­nies that deal in ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops ( which pros­e­cute farm­ers, for ex­am­ple, for sav­ing seeds that have been crosspol­li­nated by copy­right crops).

Read in the con­text of the new food wars, An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle at least has the virtue of try­ing to em­power rather than blame the con­sumer. De­spite its egre­gious folksi­ness, the book’s ar­gu­ment against the hid­den costs of agribusi­ness is in­spir­ing. And — boy howdy — I have to ad­mit to dou­bling my usual shop­ping this week at the lo­cal or­ganic mar­ket. Delia Fal­coner is the au­thor of The Ser­vice of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Sol­diers.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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