Cultivating independence

Author Barbara Kingsolver writes about living off the land - well, except for coffee and chocolate.

Published May 6, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver has written about bean trees, pigs in heaven and the dreams of animals, so it will come as no surprise to her legion of readers that her new book is titled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

What may surprise them is its subject. Kingsolver's first book in five years is not a novel but an impassioned, sensual, smart and witty narrative about a year she and her family spent as "locavores": eating only food that they had grown or that had been grown or raised nearby.

"We didn't go off Skittles cold turkey," Kingsolver says. "When kids are involved, you can't be purists."

The kids are daughters Camille, 19, who is a co-author of the book and a student at Duke University, and Lily, 10, a chicken entrepreneur who is "just professionally interested in life itself."

About 2 1/2 years ago, the girls, Kingsolver and her husband, biologist Steven Hopp the book's other co-author, left Tucson, Ariz., to move to a farm of a little more than 100 acres (most of them vertical) in southwestern Virginia that Hopp had bought years before.

Kingsolver was raised in Kentucky and has many ties to that part of the country. In many of her novels, including Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible, some of her characters have been farmers. And she always grew some of her family's food - even in Tucson, where the Sonoran Desert is not exactly hospitable to agriculture, she planted an asparagus bed.

But, she says, "It was something of an act of faith for Steven and me to move to this farm at the end of our first half century. (She's 51, he's 52.) Are we crazy? Of course we are."

Perhaps an even bigger step than leaving a city of a million people for a small farm was the family's decision to eat locally and seasonally. "The whole project really came together at once, to do it and to write about it."

Her family's experiment in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is part of a much larger movement among American consumers who care about what they eat and how it is produced. "Global warming, diabetes, childhood obesity, the loss of community: All these problems come together in the way we eat."

Thanks to industrial agriculture and the demand for a constant variety of foods, regardless of how far they must be transported, Americans "are putting nearly as much petroleum into their refrigerators as they are into their cars. If you ride your bike to the store and buy organic produce from Chile, is that really green? It's a puzzle."

One of the first steps in their experiment was outlining the exceptions. "Coffee, chocolate, spices," Kingsolver says. "Fair trade saved us from having to spend a very grumpy year without coffee. The book would have had a very different title - an unprintable one."

And then they got to work. Kingsolver is a prolific author, Hopp is a college professor (at Emory and Henry College in Emory, Va.). Farming, even to feed just your family, is a full-time job. "It's like another child," Kingsolver says.

But the rewards, according to the book, were many, chief among them food bursting with flavors you won't find in the supermarket. A warning to readers: This book will really, really make you hungry.

It will also make you laugh. Whether it's the invasion of a bumper crop of 400 pounds of tomatoes or a hilarious description of young turkeys figuring out how to mate, Kingsolver is a master at leavening a serious message with humor.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is her first foray into full-length nonfiction narrative. "It was much more like writing a novel than I expected. I had to think about character and plot and having a suspenseful arc." The book also includes Hopp's cogent essays on the food industry and Camille Kingsolver's inviting recipes - cooking being as important a part of attentive eating as farming, maybe more so for those of us for whom raising all our food isn't an option.

But most Americans live near farmers' markets and other sources, Kingsolver says. "In Florida, you're surrounded by possibilities. Small, diversified food farms on the outskirts of cities are the fastest-growing segment of agriculture."

Kingsolver is on the book tour rounds for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and she has a novel to finish (expect to read it in a couple of years). But she's planting more this year, not less. "I look at seed catalogs the way some people shop for shoes."

And the farm's stock now includes Icelandic sheep. Food or fleece? "I'm a knitter, and we just had two sets of twin lambs born, and we look at those darling little lambs, and we think, oh, we'll raise them for the wool.

"But once they grow up and the rams get stinky, they'll look much more delicious."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

By Barbara Kingsolver, Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

HarperCollins, 384 pages, $26.95