“Having something to say is more important than guessing what people want to hear.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver, spoken at the Floyd County High School auditorium, September 16, 2006
The line of people waiting to meet the acclaimed author, Barbara Kingsolver, wound from the school library table where she was signing books, out through the library door, into the hall, up the stairs, and into the school lobby. At the close of her talk, I rushed from my seat like a single woman determined to catch the bouquet at a wedding and discovered the fast track to her table. It involved a first stop at a book sale table, set up by the owners of Floyd’s independent bookstore, noteBooks. After purchasing a copy of “Small Wonders,” I was ushered into a much smaller line that dovetailed with the longer one.
I’m happy with my personally signed copy of a book written by Barbara Kingsolver, but the book I really wanted wasn’t for sale. The one I’m most interested in is the non-fiction one that she read from that evening, called “Animal, Vegetable, and Magical,” due out in May.
Barbara, who grew up in rural Kentucky, was recently living with her family in Tucson, Arizona, but living in Tucson – which she referred to as a “space station” – made her nervous. Everything that sustains life has to be flown or trucked in, she told us. She estimated that each item on her family’s dinner table that wasn’t grown in their garden probably traveled “Fifteen hundred miles” to get there. The water in Tucson, brought in from other places, is called “borrowed water.” “Like a keenex,” she joked, “do you really want to give it back?”
So, what does a person do when they know the oil companies are at the Arctic Preserve door with drills, and that the food on their family dinner table is part of the reason why? With a degree in biology, a history of environmental activism, and a background in journalism and science writing, Barbara decided that the subject of her next book would revolve around an experiment, one that would involve her whole family. They would get all their food from local sources. In order to pursue what she called “food choices with family values,” she and her family set about to move to a farm in Southwest Virginia, which is how her new book begins.
As a speaker, Barbara is engaging, articulate, and comfortable in her own skin. She’s also funny, so much so that my husband referred to her talk as stand-up comedy! I don’t think anyone in the audience that night will forget the scene Barbara read, the one about the family-farm turkey that came-on to her husband. The hilarity of the “turkey hokey pokey” story was preceded by an account of the state of commercial turkey production, in which commercially raised turkeys not only can not reproduce on their own, but because they are bred to produce the maximum amount of meat and are top-heavy, they can’t even walk without tipping over. Barbara’s reading illustrated one of her strongest strengths as writer. She knows how to take a disturbing situation and educate her readers about it in a humorous or otherwise entertaining way. In the case of using local food, there’s nothing to protest or boycott, “doing the right thing is fun!” Barbara said.
In telling the story of her family’s experience living on local food, Barbara’s youngest daughter Lilly figured in. Lilly has an egg business, and because she was the subject of some of the passages read, towards the end of her talk, Barbara invited Lilly on stage. The audience cheered Lilly on, as though they had a vested interest in the success of her egg business, a business that Lilly hoped would eventually allow her to make enough money to buy a horse. “Did you get your horse?” one woman asked during the question and answer period. “Not yet,” Lilly answered.
A lot of us in the audience understood the experiment that Barbara and her family had taken on, either because we were from a local farming tradition, or because we moved to Floyd years ago for the same reason Barbara and her family had moved. Since the back-to-the-land movement of my generation, which started in the late 70s and brought so many of us to Floyd, interest in the sustainability of using local food has grown. As I looked around the auditorium, I saw the familiar faces of neighbors, homesteaders, market gardeners, wild-craft herbalists, and those involved any one of the several Community Supported Agriculture Farms in Floyd. I couldn’t help but smile as I imagined our collective chickens, gardens, and goats.
It turns out that Floyd and Barbara Kingsolver have a lot in common. The Harvest Moon, which started as a small health food coop over 20 years ago and is now a large two story building on a sprawling lot, was hosting a major event on the day of the evening that Barbara spoke. It was a Slow Foods Event, called “A Taste of Floyd,” where an array of locally raised and grown foods could be sampled and purchased under a canopy of colorful tents. It was not a coincidence that Barbara’s appearance was scheduled on the same day as “A Taste of Floyd,” and, in fact, Harvest Moon staff members have reported that Barbara did indeed attend. She may have also attended Floyd’s first Country Fair, part of an annual Homecoming and Harvest Festival in recognition of the county’s 175th year anniversary, where homegrown fruits and vegetables, canned goods, baked goods, jams, jellies, and pickles were featured and competed for blue ribbons.
Apparently, Barbara liked what she saw (and tasted) in Floyd. She began her talk that evening by announcing to the crowd, “I really love Floyd.” Considering the filled auditorium and the reception the audience gave her, it was obvious that Floyd loves Barbara right back.
Post Note: The donated proceeds from “An Evening with Barbara Kingsolver” are earmarked for the expansion of the Floyd Jessie Peterman Library. Special thanks go to Floyd’s “Friends of the Library,” and in particular Mary Stratton, for inviting Barbara to Floyd, and to Barbara for loving libraries enough to accept the invitation. Read more about Barbara’s trip to Floyd at this Loose Leaf post entitled “Advice from Barbara Kingsolver.”