Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Bold Experiment

The idea of radical lifestyle change is daunting. It takes imagination and committment, drive and desire. Especially when you're questioning basic assumptions rather than just the surface. My high school biology lab partner would attempt this several years after I watched him dissect a fetal pig. Spurred by his success in walking home from college across the state -- approximately 400 miles -- he then decided to walk across the country. He didn't make it. He serialized his journey in our town newspaper, and as the weeks wore on, his columns grew increasingly anguished, describing his loneliness, his isolation, his overwhelming desire for clean clothes and the chance to spend more than one or two nights in the same place. He returned home after several months.

Barbara Kingsolver's family also undertook a radical lifestyle change, and this involved the food they ate. Their goal was simply to involve themselves at the production level of everything they ate. If they couldn't make it or raise it themselves, they forged relationships with those that could. This effort extended even to the meat they ate.

They (Kingsolver wrote the book with her husband and oldest daughter) make the point early and often that they're not just doing this for the hell of it. The current system of food supply in this country is not a sustainable one. Fruits and vegetables are grown year-round out of season and shipped thousands of miles to your grocery store. Animals are raised for slaughter in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, with quality sacrificed for quantity every step of the way. In the tradition of The Jungle, they do occasionally use disgust as a persuasive tactic. Did you know, for instance, that the breed of turkey most commonly used is incapable of supporting its own weight on its legs or reproducing naturally? And you eat them. Ewwwwwwww.

But she uses arguments beyond just disgust. She talks about how much better vegetables taste when they're not bio-engineered to withstand long journeys in trucks. She describes the fun of attending cheese-making classes, the exercise benefits of hoeing her own vegetable garden, the self-esteem her youngest daughter derives from operating her own successful egg business, and the way that food strengthens the bonds between family, friends and neighbors.

If you're doubting you can do any of this yourself, well, you're right to doubt. For a year, this was Kingsolver's job, so she could devote plenty of time to seeking out food sources, cultivating her own crops, etc. She also was fortunate enough to live on a farm, giving her the space to do this, and she had a family who believed whole-heartedly in the experiment. But that doesn't mean you can't do some of it yourself. Barbara's daughter Camille is a nutrition major, and her contribution to the book are recipies and meal plans, found at the end of each chapter and also at

Kingsolver is very earnest and passionate, and like all earnest and passionate people, easy to make fun of. It's easy to poke holes in her experiment, pointing out how her cheese cultures and her turkey and chicken flocks are shipped to her from far away, or how they stop in the middle of it all to consume tons of fossil fuels on a lengthy family vacation. It's easy to question her motives and wonder if it would've succeeded had their book not depended on it, if she's telling the whole truth, if there weren't some nights she was just dying to jump in the car in her pajamas and go through the Wendy's drive-thru.

But I invite those disinclined to share her views to work past the first chapter in particular (it even began to grate on me how she talked about "American habits" as if she herself wasn't American) and travel with her and her family on the rest of their journey. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she'll get even the most vegetable-averse among us wondering about fresh asparagus and the Christmas lima beans depicted on the cover (I can testify to this, for I am the most vegetable-averse among us). Furthermore, they show that there are things each of us can do without this level of comittment and energy, and they provide the resources to do it. After reading Naomi Klein's landmark book No Logo, I felt hopeless. There seemed to be little I could do about the growing prevalence of branding everything. After reading this book, I felt encouraged and interested in trying as well.

I'd like to end this post with a public shout-out to the person who is the reason why I read this book. Back in 1997, I was enrolled in a course on women writers, cross-listed with both English and women's studies. Dr. Daphne Kutzer assigned to us a book called Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I'd never heard of before. The book is about two sisters, three years apart, and was assigned to us when my own sister, three years younger than me, was up visiting. Living so far away from home, I didn't get to see her much, and after I walked her to the bus station, I took the book to the warm, greenhouse-like environment of the college art gallery and read about someone else who was also missing her younger sister. Since then, I've gone on to read everything Barbara Kingsolver has written, but it was that class that introduced me to it, and that wonderful professor that got me hooked. Thanks, Dr. Kutzer!

1 comment:

cb said...

i think you should write a book. a novel.

here's your starting point: the story about the failed walk across the country. point:counterpoint. alternating chapters or sections, between the Walker, and the Person at Home reading the dispatches. but NO romance between the two. too cliche.
there's a story there. for reals. you can dedicate the book to me once it's done. or i'll consult for you. for free. copyedit or something.

go vegetarian!