Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Kingsolver, Barbara

2007, Harper Collins

I continue to be amazed by Barbara Kingsolver’s span as a writer and a person.  Whether the realm is fiction, non-fiction, essays, or anything else she generates, her basic model of mixing science, social issues, and awareness of the world around her produces books that are a pleasure to read, familiar, thought provoking, and just that little bit challenging.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is one of the more personal books she has written.  Through it, she invites the reader to join in with her family as they leave Tucson and resettle in Appalachia on a mission to, among other things, eat deliberately.  A part of that was a plan to live for a year on only local foods, much of it self-raised.  Having spent significant time in Tucson, only to find my work eventually taking me even further into the high desert of southern California, her description of why they left included a line nearly identical with what I have for years told people about why I continue to hold onto my house in the Midwest:

“We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground.”

Arriving at their new home on an old farm in the summer, the first priorities are getting settled, and though they do start a late garden that year, the local eating year doesn’t officially begin until the next March when the first asparagus of the season came up in their garden. They do make some exceptions for spices and coffee and a few other minor items that simply don’t occur in their area, but otherwise the spring, summer and fall are periods where the daily menu generally comes out of the garden or from the local farmer’s market and any excess is put away for the less productive months.  Chickens and turkeys are raised and slaughtered, parties are held, day jobs are done, school is attended, friends visit, and the highlights of these events are included in month based chapters otherwise chronicling what was ripe when and what was done with it.  Interspersed are essays, recipes, and articles from other family members, as well as tangential, yet targeted, meanderings into the societal aspects of local vs industrialized foods across multiple cultures and communities.

Yes, I have to admit that I’m biased toward this book.  It was written by one of my favorite authors.  I also believe in living where the land can naturally support people, and have also spent significant time in places where that isn’t the case.  A good part of my childhood was spent eating vegetables which came from either our own or neighbor’s gardens, and as a college student I made liberal use of the local food options available to me at the time via a farmer’s market two blocks from my apartment and the university’s own markets for the produce and meats grown on the research farms (including, among that, apples with mysterious numeric codes instead of names, some of which, partly on the basis of consumer surveys included in the bags, have since been launched as new commercial varieties).  At the time no one was proclaiming them to be local foods, but they were.  Once I had a lawn of my own, I immediately ripped out a row of grass and put in a small garden, followed shortly thereafter by grape vines and pear trees.  When I later moved to more space an orchard went in, and later a larger garden.  When I found myself needing to buy a house in the desert, I was strongly attracted to the house I ended up in not only by the location and style, but also by the small garden the prior owners had managed to establish with plenty of compost and judicious irrigation.  I will never be able to be food sufficient from that garden, but having that connection between “my” ground and my stomach visible on a daily basis is important to me.

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