Monday, May 28, 2007

Readings III

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins 2007). I’m a great fan of her fiction, including The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and The Poisonwood Bible. Fiction, however, is a misnomer. She writes the truth, about love, community, visions, dreams, and the natural world.

This latest book is an account of how she and her family lived for a year in their Appalachian home eating only food that they either produced themselves or was produced by local farmers. It also tells the larger story of how industrial agricultural practices combined with marketing and oil-guzzling transport is threatening is drastically reducing plant and animal species so as to lose resistance to disease and accomodations to local conditions, threaten our immediate physical health, and the long-term future of human survival.

It’s a message few us probably want to hear. That may explain a crude, satirical cartoon version of the book, painting it with the old myth that fresh food, organically grown is the rare privilege of the elite. [See PJ, May 21, 2007, never mind how the entire book explains in considerable detail why this is not and should not be so. The point is not to get us all to grow our own 21st century Victory Gardens or even to make vegetables and free animal meat and eggs the mainstays of our diet (though clearly that would not be a bad thing). It is to open our eyes to the insane, unnecessary extravagance of growing too much of a few crops, like corn and soy, on an industrial scale, with massive government subsidies for both the producers and the oil industry, the rapid elimination of genetic diversity among our main crops, and increasingly poorer health for us all as we consume more and more of less and less nutritious foods at a huge cost for both the present and future.

There is much to be gleaned from the book, but the following are a few excerpts, which may whet your appetite for more:

First, the book opens with Barbara’s family leaving Tucson, where they have lived for many years. The area is experiencing a drought – not normal, dry desert weather, but a severe shortage of the little rain to which they are accustomed. As they leave town, they encounter a young woman working as a cashier who scowls at the dark clouds outside and says she hopes it will not rain because she is soon to be off work and she wants to wash her car. She, like many of us these days, reflect a deep disconnect between our human-centered, contemporary U.S. culture and the natural world around us, even or maybe especially when it impacts us directly. Later on Kingsolver reflects and remarks:

It’s not a trivial difference: praying for or against rainfall during a drought. You can argue that wishes don’t count, but humans are good at making our own dreams manifest and we do, historically speaking, get what we wish for. What are the just deserts for a species too selfish or preoccupied to hope for rain when the land outside is dying? Should we buried under the topsoil in our own clean cars, to make room for wiser creatures?

p. 8, Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007).

Although one might have expected that the 21st century would have taken us towards greater scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us, the fact that we are so far removed from the natural world seems to be working in the opposite direction. We no longer have to wait for vegetables to come in season, as we take for granted that they come to us in the grocery store all year round from all over the world. Even more telling are the flowers that armies of landscapers bring fully grown into and out of our public spaces, with no sense of natural growth or progression. Our ability to meet our demands for instant gratification, enabled by science and fueled by oil, seems to have lead us backwards, not forwards, in our understanding of the world around us:

The same disconnection from natural processes may be at the heart of our country’s shift away from believing in evolution. In the past, principles of natural selection and change over time made sense to kids who’d watched it all unfold. Whether or not they knew the terms, farm families understood the processes well enough to imitate them: culling, selecting, and improving their herds and crops. For modern kids who intuitively believe in the spontaneous generation of fruits and vegetables in the produce section, trying to get their minds around the slow speciation of the plant kingdom may be a stretch.

p. 11, Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007).

Finally, we need to recognize that our spirtual health is not unrelated to our physical health and that of the planet’s:

Human manners are wildly inconsistent; plenty of people before me have said so. but this one takes the cake: the manner in which we’re allowed to steal from future generations, while commanding them not to do that to us, and rolling our eyes at anyone who is tediously PC enough to point this out. The consipicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spirtual error, or even bad manners.

Our culture is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spirtually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Generally unacceptable resons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text. Set down a platter of country ham in front of a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, and you may have just conjured three different versions of damnation. Guests with high blood pressure may add a fourth. Is it such a stretch, then, to make moral choices about food based on the global consquences of its production and transport? In a country where 5 percent of the world’s population glugs down a quarter of all the fuel, also belching out that much of the world’s waste and pollution, we’ve apparently made big choices about consumption. They could be up for review.

p. 67, Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007).

Ironically, the old dietary laws seem to be the only ones that so-called orthodox Christians are willing to ignore based on the supposed protections brought about by sceintific methods of processing and testing of meat and seafood. Yet, even with these, we seem unable to look to the spirit of the laws and enact new ones based on present conditions.

For a report on Barbara Kingsolver’s talk at the National Cathedral, see Episcopal Café, Daily Episoplian, May 3, 2007


Eileen said...

This book is on my to read list.

Can't wait until I have some time for it!

Gallycat said...

Thanks for the link to my write-up! It was a very engaging presentation.

klady said...


I thought your write-up did a great job of pointing out that as passionate as Barbara Kingsolver is about making the most of the land and local food production, she's not storming up and down and telling everyone that they must go organic, compost, and do everything from "scratch" because it's the virtuous thing to do. There are, indeed, compelling reasons for eating less packaged and traveled junk, for slowing down our lifestyles, and eating and living more deliberately. But her approach is to simply tell the story of what her family did, interspersed with good information about the larger context in which she carried out the experiment. Some of what she describes really sounds fun and page after page my mouth was left watering, hungering for food that really has some flavor and substance to it. I think she hopes that if someone reads the book and is intrigued enough to try one or two things, or even just start buying more from local farmers markets, that some of the larger messages will have some hopes of being carried forward.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

Eileen, you and me both -- waiting for time to read so many things!