Animals Australia: the voice for animals

Animals Australia: the voice for animals
Love life? Love all of life

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ethical eating: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Firstly, let me declare my bias. I am a Barbara Kingsolver fan. I haven't read everything she has ever written - but quite a lot from her first novel, The Bean Trees, through to her most recent work, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle written in collaboration with her husband Steven Hopp and her elder daughter Camille Kingsolver and ably and practically assisted by the youngest family member, Lily Hopp.
Kingsolver's pictorial representation of a Year of Local Food eaten seasonally - The Vegetannual.
Please reverse months for the Southern Hemisphere

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is subtitled Our Year of Seasonal Eating. It could, as easily, have been subtitled "How to Organise Your Local Food Menu". The Hopp-Kingsolver menage resolved to eat locally and eat seasonally - within the parameters of traditional food preservation methods. Their resolution included a determination to move from long-time residence in distance transport dependent Tucson, Arizona where the water travels long distances as do the fruit and veges and much else that supports modern life there. Fortunately, Steven Hopp long possessed a run-down farm and farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountians of Virginia.

There has been mention, some critical, of the magical or fairy tale quality of Kingsolver's description of the family's Appalachian lifestyle. I do take issue with this. If her description sounds magical, fairy tale, or idealistic, perhaps it is because it speaks to an ideal or fantasy within ourselves which is imbued with such qualities. True, not all of us - even if we wished - could replicate the Kingsolver-Hopp project. This family was particularly well resourced in more ways than one.

For starters, they did not risk their livelihood. Kingsolver has a high profile as a writer - not least because her best selling Poisonwood Bible was featured on that automatic provider of best selling status, Oprah's Book Club. One presumes that this provided some sound financial resource. Hopp is Adjunct Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia which is classified as a college that changes lives. Biology appears to be a family interest as Camille Kingsolver includes it in her studies at Duke University. Lily was too young to enter into a book contract but she, too, was committed every inch/centimetre of the way.

Secondly, they had the Appalachian farm - with house - which Steven had owned for a long time. Not everyone has one of those tucked away in their Glory Box.

Thirdly, they brought scientific training and literacy to the project. Having such skills backing the project has to be a plus.

Fourthly, the necessary resource of the free labour of three adults and one enthusiastic child. One adult (although she was absent at college for large chunks of the project) was young with, one assumes, the energy to match her age. Kingsolver and Hopp were hardly over the hill. I mention this because at my great age and antiquity I can get tired just thinking about consistent, strenuous, and demanding activity.

Lastly, the motivation of the entire family is a great spiritual resource. There is nothing quite like energetic, resourceful people reinforcing one another in their mutual resolve. It provides large quantities of fuel for the journey, particularly when the going gets tough or you wonder why you ever set out on the journey - although there did not appear to be much self-doubt in the Kingsolver-Hopp unit.

So, when these factors are present, I see nothing magical, fairy tale, or idealistic about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle merely a wonderful, imaginative, determined, and sensible use of resources by two people in mid-life. The Kingsolvers and Hopps appear to have done the project very well, very intelligently and in a well recorded manner - complete with detailed website. For those who wish to emulate them, there is a clear trail to follow.

Some of the clear, factual information provided in AVM is shocking:

Humans have eaten some 80,000 plant species in our history. After recent precipitous changes, three quarters of all human food now comes from just eight species with the field quickly narrowing down to genetically modified corn, soy and canola.

Garden seed inventories show that while about 5,000 non-hybrid vegetable varieties were available from catalogs in 1981, the number in 1998 was down to 600.

Hardly good stewardship of the planet's resources, is it?

The last chapter about the turkeys had me all but rolling on the floor with laughter - until the final paragraph when I was in tears. But it was life and death stuff Kingsolver was describing. The life and death of the re-creating pro-creating skills of created beings. If plain statistics make your eyes glaze over, the life and lot of an American turkey will not. Perhaps one day a futuristic Dr Strangelove will have wreaked the same havoc on humanity as has already been visited on the American turkey. It is our choice. Our questions, our demands, our very own actions will be the deciders. We can eat and die or we can eat and live.

I will be returning my copy to the Upper Ferntree Gully Library this afternoon, dear Reader, so get ye down there and check it out (641.0973 KIN). If it has disappeared from the shelf, great. Just get the friendly staff to put a hold on it.

It will take me a while to process all the information contained in AVM. For instance, I am a vegetarian and, for me, ahimsa/respect is a huge issue. My main motivation is the disrespect shown to animals by the industrial food chain. Kingsolver provides a rationale against vegetarian/vegan lifestyles in favour of respect and gratitude for animals while killing them for food. I do agree with her - in principle and in necessity. In reality, would I move to her side of the fence? I don't know.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is another contribution in the genre of think about what you eat or, in brief, ethical eating. We have philosophers, locavores, the 100 mile diet, seasonal eating, and the slow food movement. Kingsolver points out that when the family embarked on its project locavores and the 100 mile clubs were unknown. By the time the AVM was published, everyone was talking about ethically eating.

My view is that Prodigal Summer and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle should should be read in tandem. The first (written earlier than AVM) is fiction, the second non-fiction but each informs the other. Prodigal Summer deals with some issues that are not dealt with in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Some issues dealt with in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are dealt with more explicitly and graphically in Prodigal Summer. Otherwise, what else is fiction for?


Shannon said...

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Editorial Assistant,

lindsaylobe said...

I agree with your sentiments about having a spare property to purchase and a ready supply of family cheap labor; a rather idealized fanciful view of sustainability.

Simply put there is no need of us to all become farmers. Rather we can live more simply, as far as is possible to eat what is locally sustainable and in season. Overall vegetables usually take only a fraction of the energy and planetary resources compared to meat from large scale commercial operations.

I think we are what we eat, and what we eat reflects who we are. How we respect animals who we slaughtered for food tells us something about ourselves. We can do that humanely or inhumanely.
Best wishes

woof nanny said...

I started reading this book, but my copy was from the library and I loved the book so much that I wanted to write all over it. So I returned the book and need to get my own copy. But it really made an impact on me. I want to get my own chickens, but only for eggs.
And I'm starting my first garden this year.

Miss Eagle said...

Barbara Kingsolver has the same effect on me too, Barb. I want to write in the blank pages at the back of the book - but I have to do that in a journal now. I am on the Old Aged Pension these days and can't afford brand new books. I go to my favourite bookshop occasionally, stand in the doorway, and inhale!!! The addict has had to go cold turkey!

I would love to have chickens but I am vegetarian and even if I did not eat them, I might have to face the killing thing - so I'll live without that. A friend/neighbour of mine who is in to permaculture like me (although she is qualified p/c designer) had her last chicken taken by a fox. So that's another reason I will have to live without. Get into that garden, girl. Start with the compost. Three rules: compost, compost, compost. I have had a tonne of fun this year with pumpkins - the Queensland Blues (I'm from Qld) that Kingsolver had trouble with when she wanted to serve the pumpkin soup at thanksgiving. Their yellow flowers have been downright sexy and flirtation in trying to grab the bees' attentions. The next fun thing has been yellow zucchinis. Have never grown them before. The very first zuchhini was huge and yellow and curved. I try to be a lady so I won't go any further in describing what it looked like!!! I between there have been tomatoes and using up the produce. Don't forget the herbs. My favourites are: Basil, Oregano, Marjoram (I have a beautiful profligate golden marjoram) and Sage. I'm not sure life would be the same without them. As well, I have rosemary, pennyroyal, mint, lemonbalm (the last two are wonderful in a punch), catnip, and parsley, thyme, lemon thyme, and corsican mint. I love just to duck out into the garden with the scissors as I am preparing a meal and rounding up my fresh herbs. No only does it make the meal taste good but they give me some precious vitamins and minerals.

Blessings and bliss