Pros: Non-fiction reads like fiction, memoir inspires, a message that encourages, humor and language, audio-version
Cons: Not long enough, her scale not possible for everyone but there’s something for anyone
In Barbara Kingsolver's world the seasons are defined not by the movement of the moon or sun, but by the activity in the garden and kitchen. This investigative look into the possibility of living within her foodshed turned into an exploration her resourcefulness.
Many are familiar with the question (and its answer), do you know your watershed, but how many know their foodshed? If you made the decision to live within your own foodshed, could you?
For author Barbara Kingsolver and her family, making the decision to become a locavore for a prescribed period of time surpassed living off the land and it presented challenges and created sacrifices-could you give up fresh bananas or oranges? Aware of the high cost of transporting produce not only across the country, but across the globe, they decided to embark on an experiment that meant avoiding fresh produce from thousands of miles away in the winter. It meant living on what you grew, harvested, and stored during the summer. It meant eating what you were intimate with. It meant not naming the chickens but letting them roam and enjoy their short lives rather than suffering in a commercial feed facility. For this reader, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle meant enjoying her poetic style as well as her humor and trust me, I had numerous moments of laughing out loud while in the airport.
(I've no doubt that's why the seats next to me in the terminal suddenly became vacant, but the scene between two virgin turkeys conducting experimental sex was beyond funny and reminded me of something I would do.)
The author's and her family's conscientious choices to leave out-of-season foods behind for asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, homemade breads, and home-grown poultry will invariably influence numerous readers. Her memoir shares the joys, and struggles, of learning how to grow crops on a much larger scale. Her seasons become the chapters. Each chapter was great fun to read and each had contributions by her husband, Steven L. Hopp, and her daughter Camille.
Barbara Kingsolver is a biologist as well as an author. Expect well directed side journeys that stray from the actual effort of growing asparagus or potatoes to learning more about the origins. As she elaborates on the venerable pumpkin or potato Steven Hopp contributes a brief essay on trading fair and square and how the local food movement addresses agricultural sustainability and environmental responsibility that includes pumpkin pie spices and coffee.
I chuckled as she described her anguish when eating plants. "If I put emotion in charge of my diet I would not only be a vegetarian, I'd end up living on air and noodles like a three-year old because I also feel sorry for the plants. In virtuous green silence they work as hard as any chicken or cow. They don't bleat or wail as we behead them, rip them from their roots, pull their children from their embrace. We allow them no tender mercies."
Her anguish doesn't deter her as she plows through the year planting asparagus, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers as well as lots of different beans, squash, and pumpkins. She is rational about her meat-her meat needed to have been happy.
She has two daughters, Camille and Lily. Camille has a strong interest in nutrition and admits to being odder than most of her classmates or friends. She prefers edamame over junk food. She writes in much the same beautiful poetic style that we expect from her mom, although perhaps not with the same flair for humor. Give her time. Her essays wrap up thoughts from the chapter always beginning with special insights and concluding with recipes from that month. (I've a pumpkin patch that remains out of control but nearly ready for harvest and Camille's pumpkin soup recipe is on my personal list.)
"August is rarely announced to kids by a calendar. For some of my friends it was the shiny floors and fluorescent lights of the department stores with their back-to-school sales that brought the message. For me it was the bubbling canning bath and the smell of tomatoes. In my family the end of summer means the drone of our food-dehydrator is background music, and you can't open the fridge without huge lumpy bags of produce falling out and clobbering your feet."
Finishing this book was a disappointment only because after 352 pages I was ready for the next year. It was more than an introduction to eating within your foodshed, it was a year spent in close proximity to this family. It was more than learning how to be an ant surrounded by grasshoppers; this was an exploration into the options and the challenges as well as the rewards. This family offered perspectives that I found myself relating to, or wanting to share. It was a grand, and yes, often very funny journey with them through their first year of living off the land and within their foodshed.
They shared how they could have large elegant parties with friends and not stray from their foodshed, how to plan menus with this month's crop (and in early spring that could be difficult), and how to establish a small side business. Lily, the younger daughter, became quite the entrepreneur with her egg business. They demonstrated how this was possible on a small farm while working full-time jobs.
There is a holiday, although the origin is unknown to me, that celebrates zucchini and it's "Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night." Kingsolver lived in a rural community where very few people locked their doors (sort of like mine), but she found herself locking her doors during the season of the over-zealous zucchini.
In Conclusion, The Gardening Season Always begins with Catalogues and Dreams
Everything about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was delightful. The blending of the three voices was a perfect balance, but my choice for experiencing this might have been better than the ordinary journey through this book. I listened to the audio version while reading their words. If you think the book is fun, you really really need to listen. The turkey virgin sex scene in the book will have you cackling, but the audio version, listening to her laugh and tell it, almost got me in trouble. Sometimes when reading a book while surrounded by strangers you want to nudge them and ask if they would like to hear a passage. I was tempted but realized some passages were best not shared. On the audio version the three voices read their own parts and they do occasionally stray from the written word.
I read this in part because gardening is sort of my thing, my personal release. Environment is what I studied, it is the backdrop for me and the natural world frames my spirit. I read this because Barbara Kingsolver has a wonderful way of sharing her thoughts without being flowery-she's on my list of favorite authors--and she can make a point without preaching. I related as she began her season dreaming through seed catalogues and ended with reflection as part of the planning for the next season. This non-fiction account reads very much like fiction and that's what I anticipated. But I also read this because there is a part of me that, like the author and her family, would like to reduce my global footprint and eat locally. Don't look at this as a guideline for how to live off the land but instead how to work with your neighbors, local farmers, and your own talents to provide for your family's food needs. If you are like me in any of these ways, I recommend this book.