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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A review of the new book by Barbara Kingsolver

The Independent, 12th July 2007

This is a book about the things we don’t know. It is about a species of knowledge which, until very recently, most people took for granted, but which has now been largely lost. It is a book about land, food and farming: three things which continue to keep all of us alive, but of which we are now mostly utterly ignorant.

The loss of this knowledge, as Kingsolver writes of her mother country, the USA , has had a major impact:

‘Most people of my grandparents’ generation had an intuitive sense of agricultural basics: when various fruits and vegetables come into season, which ones keep through the winter, how to preserve the others … what animals and vegetables thrive in one's immediate region, and how to live well on those … few people of my generation, and approximately none of our children's generation, could answer any of those questions, let alone all. This knowledge has vanished from our culture.’

In a way, Kingsolver herself is a representative of this transition: a novelist and intellectual who has lived in many parts of the world, she is also the child of a farming family. For twenty years, her husband has owned a farm in the Appalachian Mountains , which they have migrated to for holidays. Now, her family decide to take the plunge. They move from urban Arizona to the Appalachian farm to make it their home. At the same time, they set themselves a task: for a year they will survive only on food they have grown or raised themselves, or bought from the local area.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her account of this experiment, is a strange hybrid of a book. Most of it is Kingsolver's account of her local food year, divided into chapters which take us through the months. But stirred into the mix are sidebars written by her husband about the politics of food and farming, and recipe boxes by her daughter Camille. Add to this the chapters on her trips to Italy or Massachusetts , and what she ate while she was there, and you end up with a structure whose parts are in themselves often fascinating, but which somehow doesn’t hang together.

Nevertheless, there is much that is worth reading here, above all her eloquent and incisive dissections of the lack of interest shown by most urban Americans in their cultural, landscape and food heritage. There is an elegiac quality to her writing about the disappearance of America 's farmers, and the crazed politics and economics which is sealing their fate.

She quotes the American farmer-novelist Wendell Berry: ‘Eaters’, he writes, ‘must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.’ If eaters did understand this, what would our current careless, bargain-obsessed food buying habits say to our remaining farmers? ‘Let them eat dirt’, suggests Kingsolver. She and her family are no longer content to eat dirt. Reading her account of why, it's hard to see how anybody could be.