Krista's Journal: The Pleasurable Choice Is the Ethical Choice

July 3, 2008

I like to say that I'm not 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.

In this spirit I am drawn to Barabara Kingsolver's hope and resolve that, however grim the manmade 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 — 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 is not really about what we have to give up. 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 bugun to frequent the farmer's market for the first time in my life. I've planted a vegetable garden, made pesto from basil I grew, 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."

Recommended Reading

Image of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Author: Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp
Publisher: Harper (2007)
Binding: Hardcover, 384 pages

Barbara Kingsolver approached her family's year of eating locally more as a citizen and a mother than a wordsmith and expert. This book does not transport me as some of her other writing — especially The Poisonwood Bible — has. But for that very reason, I suppose, the book, along with our conversation, has mobilized me in very practical and redemptive ways.

Voices on the Radio

is a novelist and author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.