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Kingsolver's Earth Day Celebration

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It’s been nearly a decade since author Barbara Kingsolver published her personal account of living sustainably in Virginia.  Now, as the nation prepares to celebrate Earth Day, she’s speaking out about the impact of that work and her hopes for the future. Sandy Hausman spoke with Kingsolver and filed this report.

The story of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle begins in Tucson, where Barbara Kingsolver lived with her husband and daughter.  It was a place rich in culture and services, but almost everything the family ate was grown somewhere else – arriving in a refrigerated truck.  Since they owned land in southwestern Virginia, they decided to live like birds – migrating each spring and fall.

“For three months a year, we lived in a tiny, extremely crooked log cabin in the woods, listening to wood thrushes, growing our own food," Kingsolver wrote.   "The girls, for another child came along shortly, loved playing in the creek, catching turtles, experiencing real mud.  I liked working the land, and increasingly came to think of this place as my home too.  When all of us were ready, we decided we’d go there for keeps.”

And when they did, they would spend an entire year eating only things that grew locally. The book made its way to the New York Times bestseller list and was welcomed into many American schools and homes.

“So many people wrote to tell us and send us pictures of how they dug up their front yard and planted vegetable," the author recalls.  "We tapped into an energy that’s really alive in this country – of people wanting to reclaim the power of their own food systems.”

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She came to think of gardening and cooking as exercise, recreation and opportunities to socialize.  Unlike other changes in lifestyle, this one was easy and delicious.

“In this case, doing the right thing by our neighborhood and our planet meant eating the freshest possible food, reconstructing a food culture in our family," Kingsolver explains.  "We did more cooking, and did it more together, and it was so good, and it was so much fun that there is no way that we could ever go back.”

And she began to think about what the pioneering environmentalist Wendell Berry called the politics of food.

“Basically, why are our tax dollars funding the unhealthiest foods imaginable, that are literally making us sick, and what can we do about it?  Food choices are one of the things we really do control.  We get to decide every day, ‘What are we going to eat?’” Kingsolver says.

As a biologist, you might expect the author to choose a vegetarian diet.  In fact, she sees a place for meat – especially here in Virginia.

“I don’t eat any meat that was grown in a feed lot," Kingsolver says. "Feed lots are bad for the planet, bad for the animal and bad for the consumer, but there is an interesting and very positive movement toward grass finished meat, and pasture-based animal husbandry in this part of the country is a great way to sequester carbon.  When you keep these hillsides in pasture, rather than tilling them up to make soybeans, it’s much healthier for the ecosystem, and it’s a way of feeding people here very economically, rather than importing protein from some other place.”

Changing government policies that support what some call factory farms isn’t easy, but Kingsolver has hope.

“I think of it as something that I can put on again every morning, along with my shoes.  When we stop having hope, we quit trying, and that is not something I feel allowed to do,” she says.

She’ll speak more on that subject and on her next book at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater this Friday night.