Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Living La Vida Local

Lately I've become fascinated with stories about people who, for whatever reason, challenge themselves to spend some period of time--typically a year--doing something that most Americans would never think of doing. The most recent work I've read in this genre was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (the primary author's husband and older daughter, respectively). The "Hoppsolver" family resolved to spend one full year eating locally. With a few exceptions (such as grains, olive oil, coffee, and spices), everything they ate came from their own county in rural Virginia. Much of it was grown on their own small "farm," which, though zoned for agricultural use, offered less than 4,000 square feet of tillable space thanks to the steepness of the surrounding hills. Over the course of a year, the family grew everything from early spring chard to enormous blue pumpkins, not to mention more zucchini than any four people could eat or give away. They also raised their own free-range turkeys for meat, and Lily, the younger daughter of the family, raised a flock of chickens and started her own business selling multicolored, free-range eggs at $2.50 a dozen. Everything they couldn't grow themselves came from their local farmers' market or from other area growers they knew personally.

I can relate to the reasons that inspired the Hoppsolvers to move across the country from Tuscon to Virginia just so that they could live off their own land (or at least the land of their immediate area). I've been known to shake my head bitterly in supermarket produce sections over bins of nectarines on sale for $1.99 a pound in the middle of February. Nectarines are a summer fruit, and to me, it seems just plain wrong that it's possible to buy them so cheaply in the middle of winter--shipped all the way up from the southern hemisphere, burning up petroleum and belching out greenhouse gases every mile of the journey. It's probably akin to the frustration I feel when stores start putting out their Christmas decorations before Halloween has even come. It feels disrespectful to the season to push it out of the way to make room for something else that's supposed to be more important. I like to honor the cycle of the seasons, enjoying each thing in its proper time--like strawberries, which around here come in around May. I appreciate strawberries more when I have to wait for May to enjoy them--and conversely, I appreciate May that much more because it brings the strawberries.

So I can see the benefits of eating the way Barbara Kingsolver and her family did (and, to a large extent, still do). Yet at the same time, I can't really imagine myself ever undertaking this challenge. I'm too fond of too many foods that the Garden State just can't provide. Sure, I could do as the Hoppsolvers did and make exceptions for bread flour, pasta, olive oil, chocolate, raisins...but how long could this list get before I'd have to draw the line, or else admit that I wasn't truly eating locally?

The thing is, before I read this book, I thought I was actually doing pretty well in the areas of buy-local and do-it-yourself. Maybe I don't routinely make my own cheese like Barbara Kingsolver (we tried it once, but it's a messy process, and it ends up costing more per pound than the supermarket stuff), but we do bake our own bread, grow our own tomatoes, hang out our wash on the line. We're certainly doing better than the majority of Americans at treading lightly on the earth, and also at living with appreciation for what the earth gives us. We don't buy the $1.99 nectarines in February; we wait until they show up at the farmers' market in July. So do I really need to feel guilty about the fact that, while waiting for the fruits of summer, I enjoy winter oranges shipped up from Florida?

Truthfully, naah. I don't really need my life to be 99 and 44/100 percent pure. If I can even get the percentage above 50, I'll be fairly pleased with myself. After all, if the perfect really is the enemy of the good, then I need to allow myself some imperfections if I hope to succeed in approaching my ideals. I can accept that I'll never truly reach them, but at the same time, I can admit that it's getting better, a little better all the time.

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