Barbara Kingsolver Gets Her Boots Muddy

Barbara Kingsolver, novelist and local-food doyenne, goes to India in an article in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. It’s a sober, thoughtful, steely piece that’ll please her admirers. Jumping off from a description of her own chipmunklike harvest activities in Virginia—“We freeze, we preserve, we give away excess”—Kingsolver admits she faces this work “with satisfaction, but not without self-consciousness”:

I come from a line of folks with some dirt on our jeans who’ve watched the long exodus from the land that seems inevitable to our species. As a popular World War I song asked, ‘How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-ee?’

“Paris I have seen,” Kingsolver continues. That’s her point: that even away from the farm, we can’t escape the continual work of feeding ourselves. To illustrate this, she describes a recent visit to Vandana Shiva’s farm institute in India, Navdanya. Shiva’s an acclaimed activist and intellectual who’s fought fiercely against the Green Revolution and the effects of global capitalism on agriculture and for the rights of traditional farmers and the systems of traditional farming.

Kingsolver describes Shiva’s work: prodigious seed saving, researching and validating the value of multicrop farming, the wonderfully named Grandmothers’ University, which is “a series of cooking festivals to help connect the conservation of traditional crops with the practical skills of cooking and eating them.” But the point that’s most meaningful to Kingsolver is worth quoting at length:

Industrial farming—however destructive to the land and our nutrition—has held out as its main selling point the allure of freedom: Two percent of the population would be able to feed everyone. The rest could do as we pleased. Shiva sees straight through that promise. ‘Most of those who have moved off of farms are still working in the industry of creating food and bringing it to consumers: as cashiers, truck drivers, even the oil-rig workers who generate the fuels to run the trucks. Those jobs are all necessary to a travel-dependent, highly mechanized food system. And many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land.’

As Kingsolver adds, “There is no free lunch. No animal can really escape the work of feeding itself.”

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