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    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection Two

    October 2, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    For all the talk that politicians on the left as well as the right make about America being a democracy, we are not. We never have been. In fact, founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” This is why James Madison promoted a republic in The Federalist Papers. In Number 51, he wrote: “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”

    Republicanism {as a political process, not a political party} protects minorities from majorities. Originally, it protected the rural parts of the country from being dictated to by densely populated cities. I can tell you, having my entire life watched the farmers in my area battle politicians from San Francisco for water rights, that city politicians don’t understand the needs of country folk, nor do they acknowledge that what is in the best interest of the farmer would be in the best interest of the city as well, since that is where they get their food.

    All of this is to frame my first quote from Kingsolver, which concerns this country-mouse-city-mouse battlefront {and would someone please explain this to President Bush??}:

    The policy of our nation is made in cities, controlled largely by urban voters who aren’t well-informed about the changes on the face of our land, and the men and women who work it.


    For much of U.S. history, rural regions have been treated essentially as colonial property of the cities.

    I expected Kingsolver to be a vegetarian or a vegan. Her politics seemed to line up perfectly, and she seemed health-conscious enough to pull it off without any major health repercussions. But she isn’t, and she explains why. She begins by musing about a young Hollywood starlet who is vegan and fantasizes about building a haven for domestic animals where they are safe from harvest:

    We know she meant well, and as fantasies of the super-rich go, it’s more inspired than most. It’s just the high-mindedness that rankles; when moral superiority combines with billowing ignorance, they fill up a hot-air balloon that’s awfully hard not to poke. The farm-liberation fantasy simply reflects a modern cultural confusion about farm animals. They’re human property, not just legally but biologically. Over the millenia of our clever history, we created from wild progenitors whole new classes of beasts whose sole purpose was to feed us. If turned loose in the wild, they would haplessly starve, succumb to predation, and destroy the habitats and lives of most or all natural things. If housed at the public expense they would post a more immense civic burden than our public schools and prisons combined. No thoughtful person really wants those things to happen. But living at a remove from the actual workings of a farm, most humans no longer learn appropriate modes of thinking about animal harvest.


    On our farm we don’t especially enjoy processing our animals, but we do value it, as an important ritual for ourselves and any friends adventurous enough to come and help, because of what we learn from it. We reconnect with the purpose for which these animals were bred. We dispense with all the delusions about who put the live in livestock and who must take it away.

    She had some comments about vegetarianism that I hadn’t heard before:

    Most humans could well consume more vegetable foods, and less meat. But globally speaking, the vegetarian option is a luxury. The oft-cited energetic argument for vegetarianism, that it takes ten times as much land to make a pound of meat as a pound of grain, only applies to the kind of land where rain falls abundantly on rich topsoil. Many of the world’s poor live in marginal lands that can’t support plant-based agriculture. Those not blessed with the fruited plain and amber waves of grain must make do with woody tree pods, tough-leaved shrubs, or sparse grasses. Camels, reindeer, sheep, goats, cattle, and other ruminants are uniquely adapted to transform all those types of indigestible cellulose into edible milk and meat. The fringes of desert, tundra, and marginal grasslands on every continent–coastal Peru, the southwestern United States, the Kalahari, the Gobi, the Australian outback, northern Scandinavia–are inhabited by herders. The Navajo, Mongols, Lapps, Masai, and countless other resourceful tribes would starve without their animals.

    Kingsolver echoes something my father has told me in the past, which also seems to be a simplistic summary of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic farming method:

    [W]ell-managed grazing can actually benefit natural habitats where native grazers exist or formerly existed.

    Kingsolver wasn’t afraid to cook with her children, even when they were small. She writes:

    Cooking is 80 percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrap around you twice.

    Fans of dessert everywhere will be thrilled to hear that Kingsolver extols indulging in pie on Thanksgiving and Christmas! She writes:

    [M]ost of America’s excess pounds were not gained on national holidays. After a certain age we can’t make a habit of pie, certainly, but it’s a soul-killing dogma that says we have to snub it even on Thanksgiving. Good people eat. So do bad people, skinny people, fat people, tall and short ones. Heaven help us, we will never master photosynthesis.

    Living like this–where you grow your own food, preserve it, and eat it throughout the year {with only minor supplementation from a local farmer’s market} is a choice:

    In a culture that assigns nil prestige to domestic work, I usually self-deprecate when anyone comments on my gardening and cooking-from-scratch lifestyle. I explain that I have to do something brainless to unwind from my work, and I don’t like TV. But the truth is, I enjoy this so-called brainless work. I like the kind of family I can raise on this kind of food.

    Kingsolver discusses poultry a lot in this book, and I found it all very fascinating. She explains how modern breeds have had the ability to reproduce on their own completely bred out of them. Modern chickens and turkeys are artificially inseminated, eggs are extracted and then raised by machines in incubators where robots systematically turn the eggs. Makes me wonder what a power-outage would do to the poultry industry:

    Having no self-sustaining bloodlines to back up the industry is like having no gold standard to underpin paper currency. Maintaining a naturally breeding poultry flock is a rebellion, at the most basic level, against the wholly artificial nature of how foods are produced.

    On raising certain types of children:

    [T]he ultimate act of failure is to raise helpless kids…Kids who can explain how supernovas are formed may not be allowed to get dirty in play group, and many teenagers who could construct and manage a Web site would starve if left alone on a working food farm.

    That is almost the end of my quote selection. I have two remaining, both of which deserve their own posts. The first explains the beauty of the rooster, something that will foster a new appreciation for the Creator. The second explains the worldview of the book, the reason why I can agree with Kingsolver on so much, appreciate her writing, seek to live a somewhat similar lifestyle, and yet feel, in the end, that we are worlds apart.

    Stay tuned.

    Other Posts Concerning Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

    Economics as a Form of Community
    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection One
    What to Look For in a Rooster
    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Final Review

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  • Reply Rahime October 4, 2008 at 3:18 am

    Frieda, I also felt that way about the Poisonwood Bible. It was so well written, a great story, and at times her insight into the missionary-in-Africa community was almost eerie, but there was also not-so-subtle hostility toward that community throughout the book. There’s no doubt in my mind that she sees her writing–fiction and nonfiction–as an instrument of social change. I thought the hostility toward Christians was more subtle in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle…it felt condescending, but not as venomous…but I think I was on high alert for it since I read Poisonwood first–I’m not sure I would have noticed it as much otherwise.

  • Reply Brandy October 3, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Frieda, I will have to put The Poisonwood Bible on my PaperBackSwap wishlist!

    In the very back of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle the bio for Kingsolver mentions that she “founded and administers the Bellwether Prize, awarded in even-numbered years to a first novel exemplifying outstanding literary quality and a commitment to literature as a tool of social change.” Now, I am one to think that literature is a tool of social change (or at the least, reinforcement) regardless of whether an author acknowledges this or even realizes it. However, it sounds to me like Kingsolver, with her interest in using literature as a vehicle for social change, might have more than meets the eye to her fiction works. Maybe what we are all picking up on is exactly this attempt to change, and our uncomfortability is a sign of our resistance and conviction that something else is true.

    Did that make sense?

    It sounds to me like you are discerning in this area!

  • Reply Brandy October 3, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Rahime, I agree with you that she had the best argument I’ve heard in regards to rethinking where your meat comes from. I wish she had dug even deeper into the nutrition issue. I was just reading yesterday about how important “grass finishing” is. As an animal is fed grain, the Omega-3 content drops, so even if an animal needs to be grain-fed in the wintertime, the farmer should wait and let them finish on grass to get the Omega-3’s back up. This is, by the way, one of our many motivations for raising our own eggs next year. Pasturing animals, including poultry, balances those fats and also helps to prevent food poisoning like salmonela.

    I also really liked her support for the farmer. I thought that her argument that buying at a farmer’s market made sure more dollars got into the pocket of the one growing the food was very compelling!

  • Reply Frieda October 3, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    I can’t wait for the rest of your review of this book. Have you read The Poisonwood Bible, by the same author? (I don’t know how to underline in this window.) As a missionary, my reaction to it was similar to yours to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I agree with so much of it, but at the same time discover myself to be worlds apart from this excellent writer’s positions, which often are understated, concealed, or disguised. That book reminded me of the Bible verses about the Devil being the ‘Accuser of the Brethren.’ Yet others don’t seem to see any hidden agendas in the book. It’s hard to explain and I wonder if I’m reading into it things that aren’t there.

  • Reply Rahime October 2, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Another excellent selection. One of my greatest pet-peeves when tutoring is hearing US government students repeatedly parrot their teachers’ saying that our country’s government is a democracy.

    On the meat-eating issue, I think this book has the best argument for eating meat of responsibly raised animals. I haven’t yet made it a priority in my budget to refrain from buying the cheapest meat at the grocery store…but the debate has been turning around in my mind for the past year or so. I, too, was half expecting her to turn out to be vegetarian and was happily surprised when it turned out that she had rally thought through the issue and didn’t just have the typical arguments.

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