Animal, Miracle, Kingsolver.

by katiclops

I love fall.

I love absolutely everything about it. I love the weather, I love the colours, the crispness in the air, the bundley-type clothes. I love the ebb of the tourist season, the locals returning to their streets and beaches (or at least emerging from fullstop schedules in cruise ship season) timidly reclaiming their cities and homes.

I am obviously  not the only one with this infatuation.

It was my birthday almost two weeks ago. I’ve always thought of myself as a fall baby, although I suppose the ninth of September places me solidly in the final throes of summer. We went to the mainland, ate burritos on the top of a mountain and sauna-ed in the valley. The next weekend we had a proper party at our flat. I held off on posting for awhile afterwards…I keep anticipating some major life crisis (beyond my inescapable cycle of existential-woes and fervor that keep us all propelling forward). I also finished reading an incredible book, Freedom Climbers, that I thought would prompt some deep birthday thoughts: but alack, they are yet to coagulate.

Barbara Kingsolver has written twelve books, many of them well renowned and a solidly established creative nonfiction writer. At fifteen, when I was incapacitated with influenza for several weeks, I initially spent the majority of my bedridden waking hours listening to the recently released Radiohead‘s Kid A on repeat (the perfect record for illness-induced delusion) and staring at the ceiling. When I emerged (a newly devout Radiohead fan) and finally regained my ability to focus-to read, the novel I chose to peck away in my meagre bursts of lucidly was The Poisonwood Bible. I’d likely stumbled over my mom’s copy, lying unsuspecting and unattended in the study.

I was so moved by the opening paragraph it prompted me to climb up precariously and scrawl the paragraphs on my ceiling where I would see it in the mornings:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Much to my parents dismay (and my sister’s, who repainted and inherited the room after I left for college) this trend continued throughout the book, and throughout many others until I graduated two years later. In hindsight this probably has(/had) something to do with my long fascination of Africa.

Despite the fact that I devoured the novel ravenously, I was somewhat put-off by the fact it was a book I had somehow picked up of my mother’s. That it was a book club book being discussed in circles by women thirty years my senior. The Poisonwood Bible has a bit of an anomalous cover design, simple, papyrus type background, clear type, non-mushy title.  I was off-put by the matronliness of some of the other covers, and the pseudo romance-novel sounding-ness of their titles: High Tide in Tuscon, Prodigal Summer, or Pigs in Heaven. I began to avoid her in bookstores, despite my initial awe and draw to her writing.

But then this book came onto my radar:

It came on gradually, first I started noticing the memorable cover and clever title on friends’ Facebook and Goodreads reading lists. It appeared a lot. I picked up the book once or twice, a vegetarian of ten years I’m well aware of food politics. I’ve always had friends involved food production and politics, and my earliest memories of  learning to grocery shop with my mom was (after understanding the frugal principal of choosing the lowest price) was that for some things, we would also chose the ones that came from close by, like apples. Although for other things it didn’t matter (i.e., bananas).

As I’ve finally moved into an era of my life where grocery shopping does not always begin with the discount bin (albeit it is always included!), I’ve recently had many animated discussions on what to pick while shopping. Local, or organic? Imported or hot house? Organic with tonnes of packaging, or local, bulk and expensive? How much am I willing to put my money where my mouth will be? After one of these discussions, and a delicious morning garden coffee-time and plum-cake (under the plum tree of all places!) a good friend (and fellow bloggess) implored me to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, pressing it into my plum-stained hands before I left. As it happened, earlier in the week a canning workshop teacher had raved about the recipes the book contained, so the timing couldn’t’ve been better. I pocketed the book, and biked home.

In brief, the book is written over the course of the year that Kingsolver and her family decide to relocate from Arizona to “live off the land” on their family property in the Virginian Appalachians.  Kingsolver sketches out this project as an experiment: one year to be spent shopping only at local farmers markets, buying local wine and flour, tending to a massive garden. Naturally, there are a few exceptions (some imported spices, coffee), but by and large, they make it; in part thanks to massive freezers, foresight and squash. There is an adorable website of the project, with exerpts, pictures and recipes available here.

The book begins with new life, in the spring:

April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot wrote, by which I think he meant (among other things) that springtime makes people crazy. We expect too much, the world burgeons with promises it can’t keep, all passion is really a setup, and we’re doomed to get our hearts broken yet again. I agree, and would further add: Who cares? Every spring I go there anyway, around the bed, unconditionally. I’m a soul on ice flung out on a rock in the sun, where the needles that pierced me begin to melt all as one.

Kingsolver is a kind of nauseatingly gifted writer, taking you through these arcing passages that are just dripping with description and poetry that are just too much and then she’ll completely redeem herself by her unabashed self-awareness of her geekdom. I felt almost tricked into identifying with her insecurities, letting my guard down until I realize it’s too late. In one paragraph she waxes “October ceded to us the unexpected gifts of a late first frost” and then four lines later she is confessing that she is ” a sucker for seed-catalog prose.” You can’t make fun of her or criticize her…she is a WRITER for pete’s sake. Living on a farm. The exact same age as my mom. My mom is allowed to be cool, heck she can even have fun too!

I read the book in two fell swoops. The first, regular daily doses for three or four days in row, and then one final push to complete the book from September on. By and large I thought the book was excellent, although perhaps it could have been organized slightly differently. Posionwood is about a missionary family living in Africa, with different voices narrating each of the chapters. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Kingsolver writes a new chapter (or two) for each month. In addition to her own observations, there are also short essays from her daughter (an 18-year-old aspiring nutritionist/food activist/yogi) and her husband (an environmental scientist specializing in bioacoustics). These interjections were interesting however would have been better suited to haave placed them in between chapters, or with more regularity.  The way they ran, kind of magazine style, splitting pages, or mid-chapter, takes you out of the flowing narrative that Kingsolver is so famous for. Also, the absence of Lily, the five-year-old, was painfully obvious, and if they were only going to incorporate two family members, drawings or photos of Lily would have been an appropriate addition.

In part, my initial aversion stemmed from the faint religious undertones of the Poisonwood, it was, after all, about a missionary family. However God was never mentioned (barely alluded to in fact) during the 350-page read. I was also nervous that the book would be a shade too preachy or unrealistic. But again, Kingsolver redeems herself. She never tries to convert or preach, but rather to approach the experiment from a more scientific point of view, offering research on the biology and economy of local choices (granted some of Camille’s essays are a tad righteous, but she’s eighteen!). Nor does the family pretend to be morally pure: they own and use an oh-so-controversial microwave, and in the middle of the book (where my reading took a lull) they take an extended trans-Atlantic vacation to Italy in September.

I did love this book because it reinstated all of our efforts this year to eat seasonally. We’ve been getting a veggie box from an association of city farmers so it’s been fun (and interesting) working through a glut of green onions, chard, snap peas, green onions, plums and zucchini. But not boring in the slightest!

Eating with the seasons feels *right*. I went to my acupuncturist this week and she (again) chastised me for (get this) eating too much salad. Yep. That’s right. Not everyone is well suited to a raw foods diet. “Salads are really a southern Ontario thing,” she patiently explained to me (again). “Think hot weather, when things are in season, here, hot weather, July, maybe a bit of August. By now we should be into warm foods: lots of soups, squashes…” With great delight I promptly went home (via securing a large stock pot and pretty new teapot) and cooked up not one, not two but eight liters of curry-miso-butternut squash-chickpea soup and a giant loaf of home made bread (yes, choc-full of all it’s gluten-glory, goodbye cleanse).

I always seem to harbor a childlike hope through the berry-stained months of June and Juy that summer will be for keeps. But then a day comes in early fall to remind me why it should end, after all.

The last part of the book, the part of the book I read in my second, fell 24-hour swoop, is largely about death. Part of this has been inherent since the harvest turned from fruits to whole entities (plums vs. carrots), but it becomes explicit as they host a graphic (yet educational) turkey-harvest.

People in this country do everything to cheat death, it seems. Instead of being happy with each moment, they worry so much about what comes next.

The book does go on to describe the winter, living off the harvest, planning for the coming year, but for me the true resolution to the novel was death, the death inherent in fall. Death is at the end, the change of seasons, the need for highs and lows to cause the natural cantor of life. One of my friends once told me he always associated people’s with seasons: winter for truth, spring for life, summer for romance, superficialness, hopefulness…and fall, fall for death (and romance).

Fall is not created everywhere equal. Out east it comes with a chill, a bite to the air, the first promises of snow and frost. The bright shocks of colour in the leaves, that smell. The past week I have felt myself battling back-east-(home)sickness. Here it happens all at once, the days are shorter, but the temperature stays more or less the same. We wake in darkness, the evenings are chopped in half. I don’t mind the deaths, the winter. Ever since moving here I feel  bit like an onion or a transplanted vegetable, without appropriate temperature or light regulation:

Other root crops are triggered by summer’s long days to start banking starch, preparing for the winter ahead. In fact, onions are so sensitive to day length, onion growers must choose their varieties with a latitude map.

I never thought I would live in a place where a chilly day in July could be mistaken for a warm day in January.

Maybe my lack of garden and temperature at this time of year has left me stuck so surreptitiously on death. Two weeks ago I left dried-up, dead dalias out for days. And in the week since my fête, instead of removing the sixty-odd balloons from our ceiling, I’ve taken pleasure in watching them shrink in the autumn light, and fall, like leaves.