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Wednesday, July 30, 2008 03:41 pm

Documenting a year of change

Barbara Kingsolver explains what it’s like becoming a locavore

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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life By Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver; HarperCollins, 2007, 384 pages, $26.95

This isn't the Kingsolver you've grown to love. It's nonfiction, about herself and family; in fact, it's partially written by her husband, Stephen Hopp, a biologist, and her daughter Camille, who has her mother's talent. And it's about food. It does tell a story — of the family's exodus from Tucson, where almost all food is imported and the natural aquifer is going down so rapidly that, even were there no drought (now going on five years), the burgeoning city is draining it faster than it can possibly recover. Their promised land is a small farm they own in southwest Virginia, and they've made a vow to try for a year to live on local produce, to know where the food came from — to become "locavores" — and to document their efforts.

The story, beautifully told, takes us through that year, month by month, what they increasingly grew in their own garden or raised in their henhouse and turkey shed, where and from whom they obtained other needed food. They weren't total purists — they bought coffee, salt, and, because wheat does not do well in that part of Virginia, flour for the bread Stephen made daily.

This book is so packed that to review all aspects would take a New Yorker article and probably has. You'll remember their 9-year-old's egg business and her careful accounts, charging her own family; you'll find the "Will the turkey eggs hatch?" climax as thrilling as any novel. And the mating of turkeys will astonish you and satisfy any prurient interests, should you have such, God forbid. The authors will be your friends, talking directly to you, sharing as with their neighbors.

In addition, you'll learn a lot: A brief history of national farm policy. Why we stuff ourselves with high-calorie junk food and then wonder why we're increasingly fat. The problems with fad diets. How our corn consumption is mainly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup — read the labels; it's bad for us — and more and more of it is going into bioenergy, which takes petroleum to process. Every so often come Hopp's sidebars — the problems with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs — I call them factory farms and have my own book, Chicken Ten Thousand, published in 1968, about such a farm); how urbanites with small or no space to garden can still raise some produce in their homes or yards, or find or start a community garden. And much more. Camille's contributions are a teenager's fresh comments on local eating, teens at home or at college. Plus she gives recipes for the meals her mother writes about. She, too, talks directly to the reader and lets us know that all the recipes can be downloaded at AnimalVegetableMiracle.com.

The books ends with what they've learned — not just how to eat locally but the reasons for it, how one alters one's routines, how it all became easier and less of an experiment and dinner became just that, dinner; the important — which they'd known before — of sit-down family meals; the actual considerably lower cost. Their family food footprint for the year was about 1 acre; current national consumption in the U.S. requires 4.8 acres for a family of four, and the prediction is, by 2050 the amount of farmland available per citizen will be 0.6 acres.

Change has to happen. Kingsolver asks, with the scope of the problem seemingly insuperable, why even try? She writes: "I know the answer to that one: It's called child abuse. When my teenager worries that her generation won't be able to fix this problem, I have to admit to her that it won't be up to her generation. It's up to mine. This is a now-or-never kind of project." And, if sweeping national change doesn't happen, "Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren't trivial. Ultimately they will, or won't, add up to having been the thing that mattered."

This is a book of hope — hope based on action. There are endpages of valuable references and resources.

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of

Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English

at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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