Credit: Steven L. Hopp

A Whetstone to the Spirit: An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver

'The Poisonwood Bible' author on mothering, farming, ecology, and life

Barbara Kingsolver’s first article in Orion appeared over twenty years ago, and she’s remained a steadfast voice in our catalog since then. We recently sat down with her to reflect on the coming of spring, the practice of wonder, and the work that inspires her.

Martha Schubert: I started reading your work in my early twenties, before I became a mother. My kids are grown now and I have spent most of my adult life providing support and advocacy for young families, as a mother-to-mother peer counselor, community farmer, and teacher. What wisdom do you have to share with a younger generation of parents who are raising children right now?

Barbara Kingsolver: I’m reluctant to give advice to people I’ve never met. Every relationship is unique. I can only say what’s worked for me as a parent, and to boil it down to its essence, it’s this: I trust my animal instincts. Regardless of our myriad plans, we’re hardwired for reproduction. Pregnancy is the most natural of processes, not a medical condition, and parenting follows from there. All this hard work is baked into us – to give ourselves over completely to that small being. To nurture, support, and hope fiercely for the best. Culture and conditioning have taught us other priorities, and obviously I’m glad humans have projects beyond parenting. I’ll fight for a woman’s right to choose not to be a mother. But once we’re on that road, it’s helpful to listen to the long chain of DNA that got us here: you’re an animal. Get the brood outside. Model the behavior you want, but let them play. Make things together. Let them try hard tasks, even if they fail. Confidence comes at the end of the rocky path, not the paved one. Remember your job is to become obsolete. Success isn’t keeping them in the nest, but teaching them to fly away.

Remember, also, that animals with helpless, altricial young require enormous parental investment from at least two caretakers, usually more. Apes, coyotes, scrub jays, giraffes – it’s a long list of species whose rearing involves multiple parents, grandparents, aunts, or older siblings. Ours are the most altricial young in the kingdom; the notion of human parenting as a solo act is bizarre. Our collective culture has agreed that gender roles and genetic relatedness are negotiable, but the shape of a healthy family is not. That child needs to be passed among many nurturing hands.

MS: And what advice do you have for young people trying to find their way in this fractured world?

BK: The same: it takes help. Life has always been perilous; flight from the nest is the riskiest part. It’s normal to feel scared, with no idea where you’ll land. It’s unhelpful to think about people watching you, making judgments. Better to keep your eye on the ones who’ve gotten someplace you’d like to be. They can show the way.

MS: What can we learn from other beings about caring for each other in all phases or life?

BK: We can learn that our nation is an abject failure at support networks, especially for its non-wage-earning members — the young, elderly, and infirm. Where other countries subsidize first-rate child care and elder care, we have an ethos of self-reliance and the weirdly truncated modern nuclear family expected to take care of its own. Add longer lifespans into the mix, and you’ve got a train wreck. Working the triple shifts of our own jobs, kids, and parents who need help, feels impossible, because it is. We’ve painted ourselves into a uniquely civilized corner where your teenager and reflex-impaired father can wreck the family cars in the same week, and you feel like YOU have failed. There are no models for this in the animal kingdom, or in other developed nations, because it’s maladaptive. The great American myth of independence rests mostly on the backs of women, and exhorts us not to complain because we are “having it all.”

MS: As the northern hemisphere heads towards spring, would you talk about your garden and describe some of the things that you are excited to plant this year?

BK: I’m excited to plant everything. We vow every fall that our garden next year will be smaller. And every year, it isn’t. We love so many things that can only come from our garden. Our favorite tomato varieties – Jaune flammé (for roasting), Principe Borghese (for drying), Indigo kumquat, Japanese Trifele, Black Krim (just yum) – cannot be bought. Nor does our grocery store sell fresh edamame, or cardoons, or Pimientos de Padron, or Chioggia beets, or haricots verts. Or dark red sunflowers; don’t get me started on the flowers. We have our own line of sweet potatoes we’ve bred for ten years to thrive in this microclimate. I don’t need much in life to be happy, but scarlet sunflowers and perfect sweet potatoes are on the short list. Now we’ve also blocked out a little section where our 6-year-old grandson plants all his favorite things. You can see our predicament.

Our farm is an Appalachian hollow, about 80% deciduous forest, 20% garden and pasture. Our farmhouse was built in 1904, and the land has been farmed continuously since then. We grow food here because we like the products and the process, and because we believe land like this should feed people. It’s a precious resource. We’re surrounded by good agrarian neighbors, mostly younger than we are, who all help each other out when someone travels or needs extra hands.

In addition to our persistently large garden, we keep a flock of laying hens and a herd of Icelandic sheep. We chose Icelandics because they’re hardy, good mothers, good foragers, good producers of both meat and wool. The most sustainable use of farmland like ours, which is too steep to plow, is grazing animals. Our freezer is stocked with meat raised solely on solar power, fed by deep-rooted perennial grasses that sequester carbon. This is regenerative agriculture.

Also, my family and friends all wear sweaters, socks, hats, or gloves made entirely from sun, grass, my sheep, and me. As a knitter and fiber artist, I manage my flock for wool quality and color; ours is a beautiful mix of black, brown, silver, and white animals. We take about 75 pounds of wool each year to a solar-powered mill to be spun into yarn. Even for a serious knitter, that’s more yarn than I can use, just as our garden sometimes produces more food than we, our families, and friends can consume. We have various ways of getting the extra into the community.

As a person who makes her living at a desk, living inside my brain, I appreciate the literal grounding of farm work. I need the physical rituals of hoeing and pulling weeds, and I love the marvel of creating new life. Tending seedlings is a sweet, coddly kind of work, but then comes the morning I have to run to the barn to untangle stuck triplet lambs in utero and pull them out hale and hearty. A scary, thrilling kind of work. All of it makes me feel alive, and some of it makes me proud to be here. It probably makes me a better writer, both in terms of material and stamina.

Farming is hard work, obviously, and it’s not for the sentimental. I feel reverence for the life of a glorious beet, the tomato ripening on the vine, the ram lamb bouncing in the pasture, and I give them all the best possible season here, knowing I’m eventually going to eat them. It’s the biological deal. We love our trees, then burn them, or use them as furniture. Living inside my own food web, being a party to it without the luxury of denial, hones my appreciation for the flat-out miracle of existence. It’s like a whetstone to the spirit.

MS: What places and spaces inspire you?

BK: I think inspiration can be a choice. In every possible circumstance, I choose wonder. I’m amazed every morning that I get to sit at this desk and write stories for a living. I’m amazed to look up from it and see the woods outside with its parade of deer, wild turkeys, and the occasional coyote, against a backdrop of trees that are a miracle themselves. Always out there breathing, making oxygen for us, even if we’re the kind of neighbor that burns them for firewood.

I also love to travel, and am especially thrilled to see different tracts of wilderness that are still thriving on our planet. A lot of us spend our best efforts trying to reclaim what’s damaged, imagining and working to fend off the dire outcomes of humanity’s mistakes. To spend our hearts without filling them up again is a dangerous economy. So I go to the wilds to repair my soul. Earlier this year I spent several weeks in Patagonia, a vast, unpeopled land where I walked trails among rheas, guanacos, and pumas. I watched pumas eating guanacos. A wilderness big enough to support a healthy population of 200-pound predators: that is a wonder.

And now that I’m back at my desk, I’m inspired again by these mountains. Glad to be home.

MS: Wonder is one of those words that I want to swim with! It is a common word that I think is taken for granted, often used to express curiosity and sharing a root with “wonderful,” but I often think the survival of our species depends on people actively cultivating a sense of wonder.  Would you please say more about what kinds of things can provoke people to open their eyes to wonder and why “wonder” can possibly influence a shift in cultural behavior that could impact the chances of our species’s survival?

BK: For most of my life I’ve watched cynicism rule as a prevailing fashion. What’s cool is to be the most worldly, seen-it-all sophisticate in the room, surprised by nothing and disappointed by everything. From “whatever” to “obvi” to “welcome to my world,” this attitude has been curated through the decades to the current moment, in which progressive people are required to catastrophize and claim every misery on earth as our own. If we confess to happiness or optimism, we risk being judged as foolish or, worse yet, indifferent to someone else’s pain.

I have somehow never managed to be cool. I can’t learn a thing from listening to myself, I’d rather watch, listen, prepare to be surprised and embrace joy. I value empathy, of course. It’s probably the main reason I write and read fiction: for the experience of living other lives, feeling their joys and heartaches. But to claim all those sundry aches as my own, to the point of crippling my hopes, is appropriation and also a cop-out. Pessimism doesn’t change the world. Seeing the bright possibility on the horizon, and declaring it real, is the act of faith that can get us there.

Among the scholars who study such things, it’s well known that on average, conservatives are happier than liberals. I think we’re seeing a deficit of wonder in many well-meaning hearts. I live in a deep red part of the country, and while I don’t vote the same way as a lot of my neighbors, I love and admire them for the joy they take in family, community, and spiritual celebration. We don’t judge each other here for unabashed happiness at the sight of a baby or a great meal or a bright blue bird in a hayfield. Maybe your mind jumped straight to: “that baby born to a dim future… the bluebird threatened by climate change… that meal when others are going hungry…” Which is as useful as our mothers once shaming us to eat, because children in China were starving. I always thought, “But I can’t mail it to them, can I?” We have to be allowed to rejoice in our own lives, to appreciate the value of life in general. We’ll work to save what we love.

MS: How do you reconcile the tension between ecotourism and the protection of wild spaces? How do we give people access to enjoy a sense of wonder, while balancing what often seems like local people’s fight to keep their communities void of the negative impact of tourism, or the need to respect sacred sites or use local resources found in wild spaces?

BK: The good news is that information is available, and people are thinking about the impact of their travel. We can offset our fuel use, and stay in lodges that use solar or hydro-power. But even more, I’m encouraged by a growing awareness of humans as a part of their ecosystems. The old model was to put a fence around a piece of wilderness and declare it off-limits to its previous inhabitants; this is both inhumane and ineffective, as it practically necessitates poaching. A more thoughtful approach is to support people living in beautiful, fragile places with the development of resilient ecotourism that provides them with livelihoods to replace more extractive uses of their habitat. Sustainable, educational tourism offers an incentive to protect native forests and wildlife, rather than burning and eating the last of it for lack of choices. I’ve studied and written about successful models of this transition happening all over the world, from the Yucatan to the Congo.

Sacred sites are a different matter, and should be respected, full stop. Some people get it, others just won’t. Tourists kept climbing Uluru (formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, in Australia), for example, for decades after it was understood they were picnicking and urinating on the local people’s cathedral. I got to visit during the year that site was finally returned to the Anangu people. They pulled the chain off the rock and stopped the climbers, offering instead the chance to hike the perimeter of Uluru with a person who revered it, and could explain how its every crease and outcrop told stories. Some information was private, not to be photographed. Certain sections of the rock were not to be seen by men, or by women, so for those sections of the walk, my husband or I needed to look away. I’m still thinking about that — a rock that tells intimate stories. It was a far more spiritual experience than climbing a giant rock. But people can only know what they’re taught. In a culture that fundamentally rewards conquest, we have to retrain ourselves to a different way of seeing the world.

Travel is a costly privilege in many ways, but I also believe it can be worth its weight in the gold of expanded hearts and minds. Travel and right livelihood have been connected for me since childhood, when my father took us to live in various remote places where he donated his skills as a doctor. By “remote,” I mean no school, no electricity. Then we’d come back to rural Kentucky where I could have a hot shower and a carbon footprint. It’s an education like no other, and I recommend it.

MS: What is the most interesting non-human being that you’ve spent time with?

BK: Earlier this year in South America, I got to visit the oldest tree on the planet. It’s a giant Fitzroya cupressoides, southern cousin to California’s redwoods, that was recently dated at 5400 years old. The Chilean National Park Service is taking good care of this elder, only allowing a handful of visitors each week (you make your appointment with the tree online), and it’s quite a hike to get there. When I reached its feet, I burst into tears. No human thoughts are appropriate to existence on that scale. I could only picture fires and earthquakes and pyramids and empires rising and collapsing, so much noise, while that tree has stood quietly in its canyon. I’m still vibrating from my communion with this giant life. Survival on that order can help you believe in a future.

MS: What are you reading these days?

BK: I always have a lot going at once. At this moment, in the fiction department, it’s Even As We Breathe, by Annette Sanooke Clapsaddle; Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; and a galley of Lee Smith’s upcoming novel Silver Alert. For nonfiction, oh lord. Without even turning over the piles, looking across my desk I see Mountain Nature by Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, Nikole Jones’s 1619 Project, and an extremely thorough guide to fireflies by Lynn Frierson Faust that Rick Powers gave me. I also see Landings by Arwen Donahue, a gorgeous farming memoir I’m rereading before I interview the author. And there is a stack of screenplays I’m working through, as homework for a film project. And some knitting magazines. “Reading” takes many forms in my life. My one rule is poetry before sleep, and tonight that will be Sharon Olds.


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Barbara Kingsolver is the author of more than a dozen New York Times bestsellers, including Demon Copperhead and The Poisonwood Bible. Her body of work has earned the National Humanities Medal and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize.

Martha Schubert is an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) elementary guide who has worked in Montessori classrooms in Northeast Ohio. For many years she ran a small-scale sustainable farm where she grew herbs and other garden produce for the family-run Art Farm Community Supported Agriculture program and local restaurants. She spent five years living off the grid outside of North Fork, California, before returning to her native Cleveland, where she lives with her husband and their two children. Martha holds a B.A. from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and a M.Ed. from Loyola University Maryland.