Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I've got no qualms about saying that Animal Vegetable Miracle is one of the best books I've ever read about science and nature. I've only ever read two other books as good, and they were Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and so a triumverate now, of these books which have shown me how little I know about the world. But they've also invested that blank space of my ignorance with such wonder, and the very beginning of knowledge.

Animal Vegetable Miracle is not so much a lifestyle guide. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver (who has a graduate degree in biology, for the record) recognizes that most families do not have the means to do what hers did: to spend a year of self-sufficiency, growing all their food on their farm. No, she is not saying to do as they did, rather her message is "Here is what we did, and all that we learned." And so the reader learns in turn-- about the vegetannual (seen here). I never knew how early greens like lettuce come up in the growing season, or why. I didn't know why green peppers come into season before the red ones. With the same ignorance Kingsolver notes at the beginning of her book, I never realized that potatoes grow with stems and leaves. I was aware that tomatoes in the winter weren't the best thing, but I'd never thought too much about it.

I gleaned practical tips from this book-- to prevent rotting in the soil, stick a paperplate underneath my watermelons (and indeed we've got another one coming in in the garden!). The book contains seasonal recipes, instructions about canning and preserving, a helpful bibliography and list of resources. Alongside Kingsolver's beautiful prose, her husband and daughter have contributed articles on areas of their own expertise. And such is the story of a year in a family, though it spans more than a year, certainly. It takes three years before an asparagus plant is ready to eat after all. Planting must be carefully planned well in advance to allow for enough harvest to see them through the winter. For people with all the means that they have, Kingsolver's family still finds that sustenance to be a full time job, out of reach for most of us. But then, writes her husband Steven L. Hopp: "If every US citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we could reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels every week." That's small steps, and for most people very possible.

However infinitely educational, didacticism is not at the forefront of Animal Vegetable Miracle. The story (and it is a story) is by turns touching, hilarious, spiritual and rabble-rousing. How lucky when brilliant writers have the best stories to tell. It was a pleasure to read, and I'd urge it upon you as something so terribly important.