As one who advocates for, and practices, local self sufficiency, I sometimes feel like a very odd duck. Why are we the only household in our neighborhood with a substantial garden, a rainwater catchment system, a solar oven, and a wood stove? The only household without a television?
When I read Barbara Kingsolver‘s recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, subtitled “A Year of Food Life,” I was gratified to be reminded that you can both espouse radical homesteading and have mass appeal. Indeed, homesteading is only part of a panoply of radical views espoused by Ms. Kingsolver, whose most widely read novel, The Poisonwood Bible, is a serious critique of European/American influence in Africa, and whose other novels deal with the persecution and deculturalization of native peoples and the consequences of US-backed terrorist campaigns. Oprah Winfrey picked Poisonwood for her book club, which assured it phenomenal sales and probably set up Ms. Kingsolver for life; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle didn’t get a boost from Oprah, but still managed to sell nearly three hundred thousand copies in 2007, although the fact that she was outsold by Anne Coulter does tell us something disturbing about the state of America’s psyche….but, I digress….
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is actually three books in one. There is the narrative of her family’s decision to eat locally for a year, there is a wealth of background material on why they made this choice, and the book also includes many recipes showing how to cook elegantly with local fare–although Ms. Kingsolver decided that some low-bulk items such as tropical spices and olive oil would not be included in her ban on foods from a distance. Hey, olive oil has a long and venerable history as a trade item, dating back at least five thousand years to ancient Crete. I don’t know how reliably we’ll be able to get it from the Mediterranean basin after the petroleum’s gone, but maybe the climate will shift enough so that we can grow our own, or California will move out of housing and high-tech and back to olive trees and send it east via caravan…anyway, mankind has been coming up with local, low-tech cooking oils for a long time–sesame and sunflower are two oilseed crops that would at least theoretically grow in her home area of western Virginia. Sesame oil extraction is nearly as old as olive oil extraction, and sunflower oil extraction dates to the 17th century, so both ought to be produceable at a local level, even if we have to rediscover some technology to do so.
The wonderful thing about Ms. Kingsolver’s book is that it is so eminently readable. The story she has to tell, and the facts she transmits through it, could be dull if not downright stultifying in the hands of a lesser writer, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a thoroughly engaging read–especially the “miracle” part, which doesn’t come into play until nearly the end of the book–all I will tell you is that it involves turkeys, and brought tears to my eyes.
The only part of the book I would argue with is her contention that homestead meat production is essential to a healthy locavore diet. While I haven’t actually tried to raise all the beans I eat, it seems like a reasonable possibility to me. One of these years, while I still can and before I have to…but this is a small quibble in an otherwise wonderful book.
The turkey miracle at the end of the book was not the only emotional moment for me in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This is a story not just about growing your own, but about the poignancy of what we have lost now that most of us are so alienated from what we eat. Whether she’s talking about lactose intolerance, summer squash, the beauty of the Italian countryside, or seed saving, she connects us to her subject in a deep and personal way. offering a primer for anybody who cares to follow in her footsteps, a primer that covers not only the technical but the psychological details of growing your own and eating locally. Let me leave you with a sample, a couple of paragraphs that spring from a conversation about the rediscovery of the ivorybilled woodpecker, held while hunting wild mushrooms in an overgrown hillside pasture, in the rain:
I share with almost every adult I know this crazy quilt of optimism and worries, feeling locked into certain habits but keen to change them in the right direction. And the tendency to feel like a jerk for falling short of absolute conversion. I’m not sure why. If a friend had a coronary scare and finally started exercising three days a week, who would hound him about the other four days? It’s the worst of bad manners–and self-protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society–to ridicule the small gesture. These earnest efforts might just get us past the train-wreck of the daily news, or the anguish of standing behind a child, looking with her at the road ahead, searching out redemption where we can find it: recycling or carpooling or growing a garden or saving a species or something. Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t , add up to having been the thing that mattered.
We all went crazy over finding the ivorybill because he is the Lord God’s own redheaded whopper of a second chance. Something can happen for us, it seems, or through us, that will stop this earthly unraveling and start the clock over. Like every creature on earth, we want to make it too. We want more time.
And, really, more time is all we can ask for–more time to create the sane, humane, local future that will feed back to give us more time to create more of it. The human scale of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will inspire your own creative efforts. Read it, if you haven’t already–and if you have, consider a refresher course. It’s like visiting with a good friend.