A Book That Will Change My Life

Cover of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Y...

Cover via Amazon

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, borrowed from a dear friend, has sat on my bookshelf for an embarrassingly long time. At the time, I just wasn’t all that excited to read about what I should or should not do regarding my eating habits. During the interim, however, my whole relationship with food changed, I lost 80 pounds, and gained infinitely more energy, so when my friend Lorna suggested I take that book to read on my recent trip to visit family in South Dakota, I agreed. She said she would loan me her copy but she didn’t know where it was. That was when I ‘fessed up to having her book; fortunately she wasn’t angry with me.

It’s true, what they say about the right book falling into the right hands at the right time. It’s February, with a few weeks left before the planting-seeds-indoors time begins here in New Hampshire. My husband and I have time now to plan for growing a vegetable garden this summer, for the first time in perhaps 14 years. When my children were very young, I planted rows of peas, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, and even carrots, and there are photos of Geoff hefting a huge zucchini, and picking peas. So I come to this decision armed with the knowledge of how much work it can be, especially during the harvest times. I’m excited about the chance to once again put up batches of tomato-apple relish, and freeze ratatouille to be enjoyed later in the year.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has worked its magic on me. It’s not preachy at all, although I’m certain I was not ready to read it those few years ago. It’s enlightening at the very least, inspiring for certain, and definitely worth talking about. Kingsolver, whose other literary accomplishments include The Poisonwood Bible, and The Bean Trees, wrote this memoir of her family’s one year commitment to take charge of where their food came from, which includes delightful adventures and histories of certain foods as well as the disturbing story of where most of the food available in the US comes from and how it’s processed.

All of Kingsolver’s references are listed in the book, and there is also a web site, http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/ where you can find recipes, links, and more information. Some of the factual information in this book is important for everyone to know, so here are some excerpts that I found particularly notable.

  • Thinking about where all of our food comes from? It is winter in New Hampshire, and yet I can buy almost any variety of fruit or vegetable at my local grocery.  On page 5: “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles . . . Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food.”
  • Can it really make a difference if I choose local or organic food? On page 5: “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That’s not gallons, but barrels.”
  • What do American farms grow, anyway? On page 14: “ . . . 70 percent of all our midwestern agricultural land shifted gradually into single-crop corn or soybean farms, each one of them, on average, the size of Manhattan. . . U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980. . . . Most of these calories enter our mouths [as] high fructose corn syrup, lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum. . .  Soybeans also become animal flesh, or . . . ‘added fats.’” Kingsolver expands this idea as part of the reasons why we have an obesity problem in our country.

You may be thinking now that this book is all doom and gloom, and it isn’t, really. But the information about the state of our food industry is important for us to know about – and I, for one, had no idea that it was as serious as it really is. This part of the book was the hardest to read, and I did put it down for a few days just to let it rest in my brain.

Kingsolver also reveals that while our nation’s farmers were pretty much forced into limiting their crops, the top seed producers were working hard to gain control of whatever they could grab; “six companies now control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales” (51). Even smaller, trusted seed houses such as Johnny’s is forced to obtain seeds from these sources. “Garden seed inventories show that while about 5,000 nonhybrid vegetable varieties were available from catalogs in 1981, the number in 1998 was down to 600” (52).

These companies also have patents for genetically modifying seeds. These genetic changes include such qualities as shape conformity for convenient packaging, how long they will remain “fresh” (albeit flavorless) during shipping, and even the ability to stay alive when the field is sprayed with Roundup, which kills the weeds.

Ewwww!

There is good news, though, in the form of several organizations which have come together to exchange and save heirloom seeds. Vegetables grown from heirloom seeds have been handed down, sometimes for many generations, and have the best flavor and other qualities – that’s why the seeds have been saved. The Seed Savers’ Exchange, Native Seeds/SEARCH, North American Fruit Explorers, Slow Food International and Slow Food USA are all working to keep these heirloom varieties growing! This link http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/Resources2.html will take you to all the resources listed in the book.

And let’s not forget about Fair Trade foods, such as coffee. Fair Trade is an indicator that even though the food may have been imported from distant lands, the local farmer will benefit from the purchase and the food has been grown under healthy, self-sustaining conditions. Local farmers, wherever they live, need all the help they can get!

Probably there are few families prepared and able to eat only locally grown food. But now that I’ve read this book, I shall be much more supportive of local sources. It may be a challenge to change old habits but the thought of where “regular” food has been and the genetic modifications made to it is simply horrifying.

And I’m starting, in March, with a few packets of heirloom seeds.

Life is good.

It’s All a Frame of Mind

My lack of blogging in recent weeks and months has weighed heavily on my mind, and I’ve been trying to figure out why it is now so darn hard for me to come up with ideas of what to write about. During the last school year it was practically magical how each week, there would be a great idea, just hanging there in my brain. Now? It’s just not happening that way.

I fear that now, since I spend most of my waking hours at home, my brain isn’t being offered those glimpses into situations and conversations that were the fodder for my blogging. And it is true that my activities now are more inwardly focused, quiet. It’s a big lifestyle change! I have a lot to learn about how to “be” retired, but  I’m not just hanging here like a lump, really! I traveled to Florida a week or so ago to spend a few days with my sister — the 80 degrees and sunshine did much to help my fight against the New Hampshire winter blues that I inevitably feel come February. Next week my dear friend from Canada is coming to visit for a few days, and when she leaves, I’ll fly to South Dakota for a delightful visit with family (and grandchildren)! Wow — I’ve been busier than I realized.

It’s all a frame of mind, I think. During the last year that I taught, I held blogging at the front of my brain, and so going through the days my brain would land on a situation or experience and “bookmark” it as a good topic to write about. I’ve not continued to do that, especially now that I’m concentrating on writing a poem every day, which is a much more introverted and personal mindset.

And so I shall share a recent poem with you. I drove to Massachusetts to visit my brother this past Monday (gosh, do I ever stay home?) and as I returned to New Hampshire it was dusk. Here’s what happened:

Soaring 

This evening as I traveled home,
a living haiku
danced before my eyes. 

There must have been a hundred geese
flying north
                  in a collection of chaos
that included a couple of loose strings,
halves of a V,
each disconnected from its partner.

Then, from the back, one goose flew
fast and strong,
faster and stronger than all the others
until he was at the very front of the pack
with some distance between him and the next in line.

My road curved away from this sight
and I lost the view.
Turned a corner and saw them again:
           Five large formations
       undulating, north bound geese
         round the bright full moon
 Life is good.
photo from flickr.com: sunset geese by Scorpions and Centaurs

It All Comes Back to Poetry

My book is published!

Big news today! I have taken care of all the details and can now let everyone know that my book has been published and is available for purchase! Called Every Story Has a Beginning, Middle and End, the book is a collection of nineteen poems I wrote as a reflection of the nineteen years I taught at the school in my town. You can preview it and order a copy online by clicking on the title link above.

The writing was mostly done over the span of many years, and the topics include poems about students – “War, Personally,” for example, was written about a student who was killed in Afghanistan. There are poems about the things I taught – “Current Events” and “Teaching About Vietnam #1,” poems about the things I learned – “Remembering 9/11”, and poems about the things I hoped for – “I Know What’s Best For You.” Putting the book together was fun although getting the formatting right and getting every page exactly the way I wanted it to look was “a challenge the size of Wisconsin” (quote from a former student’s graduation speech).  It was a great learning experience, I’m happy with the finished product, and I’m already thinking of what I’ll write for my next book.

I do have a young adult novel in my brain that I’m starting to work on; I think it will require a pretty long gestational time, though, since writing narrative is not something I’ve done much. It will be partly historical fiction so I have a lot of research to do. For me, the poetry comes naturally, and I’ve considered writing my novel in verse, but because of the framework/structure I’ve planned I don’t think it would work. I may use verse in the flashbacks, though. Once I get going we’ll see what happens – I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, my New Year’s Resolution to write a poem every day remains successful! I have even managed consistently to quiet the inner critic’s voice; I don’t expect that every poem will be good, and I know that some are just plain bad. But that’s OK – all of them could become fodder for new poems later on, and I think I’ve written a few that are pretty good already.

One thing that I believe poets need to do is read other people’s poetry, and so this week I’ve read I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou, and Let Evening Come: Poems by Jane Kenyon, both borrowed from the town library.  I particularly like the title poem in this collection, which you can read here. I also checked out Kenyon’s The Boat of Quiet Hours; her poems truly resonate for me. She lived in a New Hampshire village not far from my own town, and her topics embrace the everydayness of life in New Hampshire. Some titles: “Taking Down the Tree,” “The Blue Bowl,” “Staying At Grandma’s,” and “Finding A Long Gray Hair.”  For me, her work is thought-provoking but not esoteric, inspirational but not preachy.

I have a dear friend, a sheep farmer among other things, who always says that given enough time, every conversation will eventually come back to sheep. I guess I feel that way about poetry. Given enough time . . .

Life is good.

On Being a Life-Long Learner

One thing I enjoy in my new retirement is continuing to serve on the school district’s Professional Development Committee. Representatives on the team include staff from each school in the district, a school board member, assistant superintendant, and one community member. That community seat is now mine! The PDC has two main charges: first, to manage the state’s Department of Education teacher certification process. The other is to plan and facilitate training opportunities; thus, we sponsor a Common Workshop Day each March. All teachers from the whole district are required to attend and each year’s program includes a keynote speaker and a large assortment of workshops usually organized around a theme.

For a number of years now, I have been a presenter at about every workshop session on these days. I find teaching colleagues to be fun, and I’m willing to put myself out there even if I’m not the one with the most expertise – I’m OK with telling people that I’ll find the answer if I don’t already know it. This week we met to finalize all the workshops, and we realized that we were missing some key topics, including writing instruction. I volunteered to rearrange the sessions I had planned in order to take one on in writing instruction.

As I thought about it today, though, I think I will offer up a preamble to my content on that day. In the past year I have learned more about writing than I ever learned while I was employed as a teacher of writing. Writing blog posts on a regular basis has given me far greater understanding of the common advice we teachers hear from published authors consistently: “If you want to be a good writer, then write. Write every day.”  I now understand this on a different level than I knew it before. The best thing teachers can do for their students is to have them write — every day. It doesn’t even have to be “fussy” writing — have them write in journals, with or without topic guidelines. It’s the daily experience that matters. And while students aren’t going to be as self-correcting as I am, they will still be able to recognize improvement, and success leads to more success. At the very least they will be more able to produce more writing more easily, and in less time. I think teachers should write every day, too, but I also know that teachers are already overbooked and overwhelmed — which is why I am only now practicing that song.

Through writing the blogs, I have learned how to be more succinct, how to manipulate sentences to make them better, and how to be better able to recognize and toss out the parts that aren’t good enough, no matter how fond of them I might be.

And since this January 1st, I have learned even more. I made a resolution this year, to write a poem a day, and so far I’ve been successful. Because I love to write poetry, this resolution was not a chore, something I need to do to be a better person. This practice has been fun, and I look forward to it. But what I’m learning is that the actual daily routine has enabled me to be more easily in touch with metaphor and deeper meanings. It doesn’t even take a lot of time – some days it’s as much as a half hour, and other days it’s quite a bit less than that. My goal is not to win any awards with knock-‘em-over, top quality; my goal is to write every day, and sometimes I walk away with a first draft that goes nowhere. But sometimes I walk away with a surprise that makes me smile.

Today was one of those days.

The hardest part of my daily practice is coming up with a topic, so this morning I thought I’d write about how I really need new hair color because my gray roots are way too noticeable. I seldom think of titles first, but when I sat down at the computer the title of this one popped into my head instantly: “My Roots Are Showing.” Suddenly there was a flash of lightning in my head and I knew that the poem would seem to be about my family heritage, and then at the end I would twist it around to be about my hair. I had been looking at old family photos recently, and images of my grandmother and aunts had stuck in my brain. The poem itself still needs some polishing, but that’s OK – just having that great idea made it a good day.

My Roots Are Showing

The days are long; when I get up in the morning
I wonder about all the years gone by
so quickly.
Did my grandmother think this, too
as she went through the work of ages passed?

I look like my grandmother,
and aunts as well, certain characteristics
handed down through all those years.
Pictures declare it.

It shows in my gray
hair, like my grandmother’s before me.
I will fight this passage of time,
cover these roots,
keep myself young.

It’s the daily habit that makes that kind of thing happen. Words are powerful instruments, and the more we practice the better we get. Just write – a page a day of journaling, or whatever comes into mind. That’s the best writing instruction I have to offer. There is a connection between the pen/keyboard and the brain, and regular exercise will keep the writer fit.

Life is good.

We’re Home!

This is where we went on our Great Adventure! We followed a mostly counter-clockwise route.

We arrived at home about a week ago, and man we were ready. Here are the final numbers for Our Great Adventure:

  • 79 days
  • about 11,000 combined miles on RV and car
  • 20 states
  • 11 national parks
  • about 4,000 photos (which I am editing and culling)

It has taken us until today to unpack the RV, clean it out, and get it winterized. It still needs a good wash on the outside and a new coat of wax, but it’s cold in New Hampshire now, so that might have to wait until spring.

I still have a lot of thinking to do about all the places we saw and all the things we did on our trip; I know I didn’t write nearly often enough while we were on the road. I am clearly not a vagabond writer! I think I could do it if I were anchored in one place, even if that place was not home; but traveling takes a lot of energy and there simply was not enough to go around as we journeyed all over this great country. Being on the road for about three months was amazing, though, and it was worth the sacrifice of not writing.

Once the calendar pages neared September, it was fascinating to see how the make-up of visitors in campgrounds and national parks changed. Families disappeared, predictably of course, as back to school brought people home. Now we saw older couples, most of whom traveled with dogs (as do we). There were no more tents, and very few small-sized RVs. Our camper is one of the smallest ones made, and we were dwarfed by the huge rigs, like tour buses, many towing vehicles painted to match their rig. We were now among the “full timers,” those brave people who have sold their homes to live freely on the road. We have always talked about maybe doing that one day, but now we know that our little rig is much too small for permanent occupancy.

We bought our little camper – it’s 21 feet long – in 2001, just before my son got married in South Dakota; it was slightly used and a great deal. We knew he would be living there permanently, and so it was a sensible way for us to make sure we would be able to afford to travel out there and visit on a regular basis. But the approximately 100 square feet of living space – and only 25 square feet of that is available floor space (which  means if we want to pass one another going fore or aft, we have to squeeze way over to the side to allow for that passing space) — can be a challenge, especially when you add two dogs, albeit small ones, to the mix. Newer camper models have sections that slide out, adding a considerable amount of valuable floor space, but we bought ours just before that feature was commonly available. We’ve done a little bit of renovating, changing the fixed table and two bench seats into a U-shaped seating area with thicker cushions that are much more comfortable to sit on and a table that stores away when not in use. It works for us, but three months is about as long as I think we could manage.

Full-timers, though, have made much more of a sacrifice than I think I could make. I need a home base. I need my books, and my garden. I need my friends and my church. And most of all, family. I need my family, and that’s what makes the whole thing hard, having family in such distant places.

We are thinking that next summer we’ll just go to South Dakota and park there. For as long as we can. We can do short trips from there – we didn’t go to Yellowstone this summer because it’s not terribly far from western South Dakota, and we so want to spend a bit of time in Cody, Wyoming, where they have the Buffalo Bill Historical Center which houses several museums including the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Draper Museum of Natural History, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the Plains Indian Museum. The Center is now affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.  There are other places we want to re-visit as well, and having the Black Hills of South Dakota as our home base is a great plan.

How ‘bout that – I’ve only been home for about ten days, and I’m already planning our next adventure!

Life is good.