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The constant gardener

Kingsolver chews over the sensual pleasures and larger benefits of a home-grown diet

(KATHERINE STREETER)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
By Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
HarperCollins, 370 pp., $26.95

It's a rare book about which it can be said, "It will change your life," but I suspect that many readers of Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" will be able to make that claim. And I don't make that prediction based on the anticipation of some explosive, single-sentence epiphany but, rather, on the conviction that this text will fold quietly into the reader's consciousness, with affecting grace and dignity, because of its prose and sensibilities.

The book's premise is adventurous, with its challenges situated in an equal balance between the inner life and the outer. Kingsolver proposed that she and her family -- husband Steven and daughters Camille and Lily -- live for a year only on the food the four of them could grow on their small farm in Virginia , or on food grown locally. Endearingly -- and this is a hallmark of Kingsolver's prose persona, to not be sanctimonious or enviro-pious -- each family member was allowed one indulgence. Steven chose organic coffee, 19-year - old Camille chose dried fruit, 9-year - old Lily chose hot chocolate, and Kingsolver selected several spices -- turmeric, cinnamon, cloves. They weren't trying to be purists; if they were invited to dinner at a friend's when some nonlocal or nonseasonal item was being served, they accepted that fare with pleasure.

Early on, the first true local vegetable, asparagus, makes its dramatic appearance.

Perhaps never has fresh asparagus been written about so passionately -- indeed, rapturously. Throughout the book, Kingsolver explores two major themes: economy, with a Thoreauvian fastidiousness -- what are the true costs of an item? -- and the magnificent, miraculous primacy of the senses. Why not wait on food to be in season, so that the experience is savored fully and in the world's created rhythm, rather than partially and prematurely ? Is this not a moral obligation, having been gifted with life, and the senses, in the first place?

Kingsolver is no pious soapboxer, but instead explores these ideas with enthusiasm and the awe of discovery. The book's structure is aided by postscript vignettes by Camille and occasional sidebars and footnotes by Steven, who occupies an interesting niche. His pithy subscripts are direct, blunt, and unabashedly activist. They would stand on their own, but set off as they are -- in the dugout or on-deck circle, so to speak, while Kingsolver's merry and intelligent prose sparkles across the pages -- Steven's follow-up s are almost charmingly reminiscent of that of the lawyer who wishes to tear the throat out of a corporate antagonist.

In nonjudgmental fashion, but with true intellectual curiosity, Kingsolver continues to examine the notion of a moral responsibility in the most fundamental of our actions, such as eating and shopping. The tastes-great and is-good-for-the-local-economy discussion is of course the tip of the iceberg.

"Our culture," she writes, "is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We're just particular about which spiritual arguments we'll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it's prohibited by a holy text. . . . Is it such a stretch, then, to make moral choices about food based on the global consequences of its production and transport? . . . The business of importing foods across great distances is not, by its nature, a boon to Third World farmers, but it's very good business for oil companies. Transporting a single calorie of a perishable fresh fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories ' worth of fuel. That's as efficient as driving from Philadelphia to Annapolis, and back, in order to walk three miles on a treadmill in a Maryland gym. There may be people who'd do it. Pardon me while I ask someone else to draft my energy budget."

The profusion, the outrage of bounty, proceeds through summer, with some foods canned or otherwise stored. A great chapter on tomatoes ensues, as well as good-humored writing on -- what else? -- zucchini .

Lily's profitable chicken-and-egg venture, Kingsolver's turkey ranching and cheese-making -- the year advances through a fabric of life deeply sensed and experienced. Horrifically, we learn that domestic turkeys are now too barrel-chested to be able to breed, and the hens have to be artificially inseminated.

One quickly becomes a fan of Kingsolver's intellectual reasoning and place-based logic, which is all the more expansive, rather than parochial, for her attachments and connections. "It's actually possible to wait [on a food or crop], celebrating each season when it comes," she writes, "not fretting about it being absent at all other times because something else good is at hand."

How hypocritically our children must see us, and correctly so, as we lecture them about the virtues of patience, and the imprudence of impulsiveness, even as we increasingly refuse to go without anything, in any fashion, at any time.

Near the end of the book Kingsolver writes passionately and movingly about the pleasure of being in the kitchen with her family, working with them and for them in the elaborate preparation of a meal, or meals. It's a pleasure we've all known but which has gradually been relegated -- by culture, schedules, and lack of imagination -- to the occasional holiday.

More so than even the best cookbooks, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" makes you want to go out and eat: to cook and garden and think, and to live a passionate and sensate life. My great fear in reviewing this book is that I might make it sound like the treatise of a hokey earth mother and do-gooder, rather than a profound, graceful, and literary work of philosophy and economics, well tempered for our times, and yet timeless.

And not to worry: It contains sufficient hedonism. It is a book bursting with the senses. It will change the way you enter a grocery store, will change the way you look at the food you put into your body.

Which is to say, it can change who you are.

Rick Bass lives in Montana and is the author, most recently, of a short-story collection, "The Lives of Rocks." See "Bookings," Page D6, for information on a local appearance by Barbara Kingsolver.

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