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
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.