I like to say that I’m not an an optimist, but I am a person of hope. That is to say, I cultivate the virtue of hope in myself. Hope takes account of the enormity and darkness of challenges and problems, and yet it meets darkness with light, and points to resilience and goodness where they can be found.

(photo: Jen Kim/Flickr)

In this spirit I am drawn to Barbara Kingsolver’s hope and resolve that, however grim the man-made crises of our time, we are gradually getting some things “more right.” And, Kingsolver advises, we must treat hope itself as a renewable resource, something we put on with our shoes every morning.

But she also says, reframing an equation many of us are internalizing, that it is not the job of the next generation to right the grand, looming environmental crises of the present. The work has to start here and now with our daily routines. Barbara Kingsolver has made one kind of beginning with her family’s “food life.”

Her story begins with a sense of urgency, however, in Tucson, where she had spent half her life, and her children the whole of theirs. As she became more aware of the larger issues she explores in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life — including the elaborate environmental cost of the global food chain — she came to perceive this great American city as a kind of space station, utterly dependent on the outside world for its most basic needs. And after three consecutive years of drought, she felt she was staring global warming in the face. “Like rats leaping off the burning ship,” her family moved to a farm in Appalachia to land that could feed them.

There is an irony in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver’s move to a simpler, sustainable life required a certain level of social and economic privilege, just as the ostensibly back-to-basics idea of organic food remains beyond the range of choice and budget of many. For me, the adventure related in her book — of giving her family’s life over to planning, planting, weeding, cooking, freezing, storing, and harvesting both plants and animals — appears immediately impracticable in light of another “drought” in American life and in my own, a drought of time.

Kingsolver helps put this into perspective by reminding me that the cheap and easy habits we take for granted — lettuce for salad all year round, strawberries in January — began as luxuries for the very rich. What her family did for a year, living off what they could grow and raise on the land around them, is the way most human beings have lived forever and many in the world still do.

The real irony is that the way most Americans eat is elite in the extreme. This is hard to grasp, as the crops behind some of the cheapest, easiest staples of American life — including that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup — are underwritten by government funding. The real costs of much of our food do not turn up itemized in our grocery bills, but hidden in our taxes. And then there are, of course, the environmental costs, harder still to see and calculate and that we confer as a debt to our children. Some people give up meat, Barbara Kingsolver says; she has given up bananas, no longer willing to live with the fossil fuel footprint that is necessary to bring them all the way to her in Virginia.

But this conversation, which you can hear in the audio link at the top of the page, is not really about what we have to give up. The U.S. culture has fallen into “the language of sin,” Kingsolver says, when it comes to discussing changed eating habits. We steel ourselves to replace what is bad for us with what is good for us; we grit our teeth and enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. What surprised Kingsolver most in her year of local eating was how pleasant it was for her whole family, really, once they had retrained what felt like habit. They became focused in the most practical, daily way not on what they did not have, but on what they had — what was in season, what the garden was yielding plenty of today. It became, she says, a long exercise in gratitude.

I’m very aware that the details of my life — including the northern climate of the place I inhabit — limit my ability to follow Barbara Kingsolver’s experiment in totally local eating. But since this conversation I have begun to frequent the farmer’s market for the first time in my life. I planted a vegetable garden last summer and made pesto from basil I grew. I tossed my own home-grown lettuce, and watched tiny green tomatoes bud with the rapture of an expectant mother. I’m living some new questions about food life now, to paraphrase Rilke; as Barbara Kingsolver might say, I’m getting it a bit more right. And I’m delighting in the truth of my favorite line in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.”

Share Your Reflection



I love the idea of eating from home, at home.... the right thing for us all...thanks to my parents for teaching me food practices that are sustainable...goats, chickens, ducks, an occasional beef cow...and an acre in garden and fruit was how we lived....now just garden, fruit and hens. Ienjoyed Barbara Kingsolver's book and experience. Definitely a spiritual practice to say no to the big footprint foods.

Late July and a heaping bowl of sweet cherry tomato goodness ...benefits of minding a few eating and time-management habits along with a tiny patch o' land.

A quick word on community...

I can't help but be impressed by a certain bond and shared sense of survival that often develops among small farmers or neighborhood growers. Be it a tiny farming village in the hills of southern Europe from where my family originates... or the suburban neighborhoods, scattered among the arable lands of New England, that I call home...

I find that wherever a small plot is still turned and worked for a basket or bushel... a special kind of community exists -- one unique in its shared rituals of the season, its shared counsel, the shared harvest, and the shared challenges that nature often unpredictably brings.

In addition to healthy, happy bellies... I think we may have so much more to gain by rejecting as best we can the industrial farming of today

Thanks for a great show and for highlighting such a great book. I live in St. Louis and we have a wonderful abundance of farmer's markets and restaurants utilizing local food. I live in the heart of the city and have a native wildflower garden and created a raised bed for vegetables and herbs. It's not hard or even that expensive to make use of what you have...you can grow tomatoes from a bag hanging off the deck and herbs in a small pot in a window.

There is something grounding and connecting, spiritual and yet so very tangible and visceral about food choices. It creates community and a sense of belonging when neighbors stop by to talk about peppers or what flowers are blooming. It creates a sense of connection to the Divine and to the Earth when I work in and with her, feeling dirt on my hands and the full burst of flavor from a freshly picked tomato. I was thinking this morning about the natural rhythm of things and the comings and goings of the cycles of life. Food and being connected to the earth become such a connection to the sacred when viewed and experienced in that manner. Growing food to feed my body feeds my soul in even deeper ways.

In a time when most kids I am around know more about how to recycle to save a tree than to actually climb one, I think this is a powerful movement and choice.
Thanks for the show, thanks for the postings and thanks for all the work you do.

Peace and blessings,
Terri Schanks, MSW, LCSW