Barbara Kingsolver to Accept Duke LEAF

by Bill Chameides | April 8th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Author Barbara Kingsolver
Author Barbara Kingsolver accepts Duke’s LEAF award from Dean Chameides.

Post updated 4/20/2012.

This weekend, I’m especially looking forward to Saturday. The writer Barbara Kingsolver will be on campus, and I will be presenting her, on behalf of the Nicholas School, with the LEAF award, in recognition of her Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts.

Barbara is a renowned novelist, essayist, poet and short-story writer. She is also, in a word, extraordinary.

You don’t have to take my word for it: Writers Digest named her one of the 20th century’s most important writers, and in 2000 she received our country’s highest honor for service through the arts, the National Humanities Medal. The list goes on.

You can also judge for yourself. Here are two writing samples, the first from her debut novel.

“And she was right. Toward the end of March [the wisteria vines] had sprouted a fine, shivery coat of pale leaves and now they were getting ready to bloom. Here and there a purplish lip of petal stuck out like a pout from a fat green bud. Every so often a bee would hang humming in the air for a few seconds, checking out how the flowers were coming along. You just couldn’t imagine where all this life was coming from. It reminded me of that Bible story where somebody or other struck a rock and the water poured out.” (The Bean Trees, Harper Perennial: 1988, pp. 113-114)

And here’s a snippet from one of my favorite Kingsolver novels which sets up a primary metaphor: “moth love.”

The spiraling flights of moths appear haphazard only because the mechanisms of olfactory tracking are so different from our own. Using binocular vision, we judge the location of an object by comparing the images from two eyes and tracking directly toward the stimulus. But for species relying on the sense of smell, the organism compares points in space, moves in the direction of the greater concentration, then compares two more points successively, moving in zigzags toward the source. Using olfactory navigation the moth detects currents of scent in the air and, by small increments, discovers how to move upstream.” (Prodigal Summer, Harper Perennial: 2000, p. 68)

The themes of the natural world’s rhythms and cycles and humanity’s sometimes uneasy but profound relationship to the Earth and its species (including fellow human beings) are ever-present in her work. Most of us read Kingsolver for the story and the music of her prose, but we get a lot of insight into the ways the natural world works in the process.

LEAF Award Recipients
2013: Author Alexander McCall Smith
2012: Writer/filmmaker John Sayles
2011: Writer Barbara Kingsolver
2010: Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne
2009: Filmmaker Robert Redford
More on the LEAF

A Short Bio

Born on April 8th — happy birthday, Barbara! — Barbara grew up rambling through the woods in her native Kentucky and entered college on a full scholarship in classical piano. She ended up switching to biology, and went on to earn a master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Her dissertation was on kin selection in termites.

But another calling beckoned and she began to write, and are we fortunate she chose that route. She has given the world an extraordinary body of work. As mentioned above, my personal favorite is Prodigal Summer, with The Lacuna (Harper, 2009), about a Communist witch-hunt which I alluded to in this previous post, a close second.

One of the reasons I’m so taken with her writing might be that science, one of her first loves (and obviously one of mine), is never too far from the page.

“I’ve worked as a scientist in fields ranging from economic botany to human physiology,” Barbara explained in an interview. “Natural history is my avocation. I use my academic training in my writing all the time, particularly in the way I approach and research a novel. (I think of it as a dissertation with a better plot — and permission to create data!) But Prodigal Summer was especially rewarding in this regard, because I was able to work in wonderful nuggets of biological info like the keystone predator concept and the Volterra principle.”

Other notable books include the bestselling The Poisonwood Bible (Harper, 1998), the tale of a missionary family in 1950s Belgian Congo who get caught up in the country’s political turmoil as it moves toward independence, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (Harper Perennial, 2007), a non-fiction bestseller — co-written by her husband Dr. Steven Hopp and older daughter Camille — about her family’s commitment to eat only food produced locally. (See end of post for more titles.)

The Musicality of Her Prose and Environmental Creds

In writing about Barbara, it’s hard not to let her own words do the talking. Here’s another example from a 2010 article she wrote in National Geographic’s special issue on water:

“Water is life. It’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world, a precarious molecular edge on which we survive. It makes up two-thirds of our bodies, just like the map of the world; our vital fluids are saline, like the ocean. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

In addition to being a great writer, Barbara is a staunch environmentalist. And, as you undoubtedly know if you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she walks the talk. The book chronicles her family’s life on a small, modest Virginia farm, as they grow and raise their own food, and actively participate in their community. Dr. Hopp, Barbara’s husband who teaches at Emory and Henry College, runs a small locavore restaurant nearby.

For all these contributions and more, the Nicholas School is thrilled to honor this extraordinary, compassionate writer with the LEAF — an annual award given to an artist whose work has lifted the human spirit by conveying our profound connection to the Earth and thereby inspiring others to help forge a more sustainable future.

As the citation in
her selection put it, “[Kingsolver’s] ability to interweave themes of human struggle and the search for meaning with the larger, timeless drama of life and death in the natural world, remind us that we are but one facet of a complex, and extraordinary planetary system, a system whose trajectory will ultimately determine our own fate and thus one which we must value and steward.”

The ceremony, which will include a reading by Kingsolver, starts at 2 p.m. this Saturday, April 9, in Page Auditorium. A number of free tickets are available through Duke’s box office. Watch a video of the event below.

However you are able to join us in this celebration, I highly recommend at the very least you pick up one of her many books and dig in. Reading her is reward in and of itself.


Other Books by Barbara Kingsolver

In addition to the titles listed above are the novels Animal Dreams (Harper Perennial, 1990) and Pigs in Heaven (Harper Perennial, 1993), the short-story collection Homeland and Other Stories (Harper Perennial, 1989), the nonfiction works Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (Cornell University Press, 1989) and, with photographer Annie Griffiths Belt, Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands (National Geographic, 2002), the collection of poems Another America (1992), and the collections of essays High Tide in Tucson (HarperCollins, 1995) and Small Wonder (HarperCollins, 2002). Visit her site for her full bibliography.

Barbara Kingsolver Receives the 2011 Duke LEAF Award
With musical introduction by NC musicians Jon Shain and John Currie

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