Two of the main characters in Animal Dreams have pursued studies very similar to those of Kingsolver, involving biology, agriculture, and ecology. By connecting ecology to biology and to agriculture, Kingsolver emphasizes that it is not only a politically but also a scientifically and an economically sound concern.
Two main plots drive the novel: Codi's search for a sense of purpose and belonging, and the Stitch and Bitch club's search for a way to save Grace from destruction. The destruction threatening Grace is either the pollution or the complete destruction of the river, which is their only water source. The plot of the story, therefore is intimately intertwined with the theme of ecology. As the reader is caught up in the plight of the characters, he or she must also become involved in the concern over the ecology of the region.
In a rural and agricultural setting, ecological concerns come easily to the forefront. The people of Grace depend on the land to live. The effects of river pollution are devastatingly visible in the fruit dropping, un-ripened, from the branches. Through Codi's role as a biology teacher, Kingsolver is also able to present a slightly more complicated biological account of ecology. In addition, through Hallie's role in Nicaragua, the global dimensions of ecology are underlined.
By connecting fertility to her other political concerns, Kingsolver both reduces some of the polemical elements of Animal Dreams and draws all readers toward agreement with her point of view. An attention to fertility in all of its myriad forms allows Kingsolver to direct a more general interest in fertility to questions of ecology and gender relations.
Most literally, fertility is the capacity to bear children. Thus fertility is signaled as a key theme when the novel opens with an emphasis on Codi's double loss of motherhood. Childbearing is essential for the regeneration of a community and for the continuity of its past into the future. The issue of fertility is not however simply a medical capacity to produce offspring. In order to be fertile, one must also know how to preserve life. Fertility can therefore be the effect of raising children but not bearing them, or of raising not children but animals. Where a community or a family is threatened with extinction, fertility becomes a key concern.
Although women bear the most visible signs of fertility and are often the most involved in its preservation, men are also essential to the process. Most of the activity surrounding childbearing and agriculture in the novel is conducted by women. In each case, however, one key man contributes to the process.
As the novel indicated in varied ways, the value of fertility reaches far beyond a woman's womb. Grace became famous as a mining town. Mines are established where the earth itself is fertile and produces precious metals. Such a vision of the earth corresponds with the Native American characterization of Mother Earth, fertilized by Father Sun. However, in reaping the benefits of one type of fertility, the owners of the mine caused another type of infertility. Although it is located in arid Arizona, Grace sits in a fertile valley. The water and soil combine to allow great pecan and fruit orchards to thrive. Literally, the nuts and fruits born by trees carry their seeds and help to plant them in the ground where they can sprout new trees. Fruit and nut production is part of the trees' reproductive cycle. Metaphorically, the bearing of fruit represents fertility in a plant. The use of the same word, to bear, for fruit and for children underlines the connection between the two processes.
The Native Americans stand in the novel as the paragons of fertility, able to cultivate in the same valley over hundreds of years and even worshipping Koshari, the kachina or god of fertility, as a key deity. Industry, on the other hand, is regarded as the principal threat to fertility, in the form of Black Mountain Mine. The revolutionary regime in Nicaragua also stands as a symbol of fertility. Its primary representative in the novel is not a president but the Minister of Agriculture.
Since almost everyone in Grace is related, in Animal Dreams family and community are one in the same. This is one of the most important lessons that Codi learns. It is as she learns the history of her family that she grows to understand her place in her community. Having a place in a family and in a community are essential to feeling a sense of belonging and purpose in the world. Like most other elements of the novel, women stand at the center of families. This becomes clearest in Loyd's description of the matrilineal Pueblo and Navajo systems, where property is passed from mothers to daughters. Although she shows the ways in which Anglo culture encroaches on Native traditions, Kingsolver also uses Native American traditions as the model of much her utopic portrayal of Grace. The community of Grace is also named after a group of women, and the family lines are traced back to their women founders. Although some men, such as Doc Homer, are able to carry on a family, this is done with great difficulty. The difficulties of a father communicating with his daughters in the absence of a mother, allowed the Noline family to become separated from each other and from the rest of the community.
Doctors help to preserve the fertility of their patients. By weaving a doctor motif, and particularly by emphasizing the role of obstetrics and genetics in the medical professions, Kingsolver adds emphasis to the fertility theme throughout the novel. The motif of medicine and doctors is found not only in the great number of characters who are doctors, but also in the preponderance of medical metaphors, especially in the sections narrated in the third person.
The medical professions, naturally, are relied on when someone needs to be saved. Working in emergency rooms, Carlo embodies this element of being a doctor. This is precisely the connection that makes Codi uncomfortable. She does not like the way that, as someone who has almost completed medical school, she is expected to be able to cure and to save people, which stems in great part from Codi's pessimism. She does not believe that the world can be saved, and so on a microcosmic level she does not believe that she can save any one individual person.
The motif of distance has both literal and metaphoric elements in Animal Dreams. Metaphoric distance exists between characters. It appears in an inability to communicate and especially to express love. In order to create metaphorically fertile community and fertile families, that distance must be overcome. The members of the community must talk with each other about the past and about their present in order to save Grace. On a literal level, Codi approaches Grace at the beginning of the novel and again at the end. While her first approach is tentative and uncomfortable, the second is permanent and joyful.
The Gracela sisters brought their peacocks with them from Spain when they first came to the valley that was eventually named after them. Like the Gracela sisters, the peacocks thrived in Grace. They stand as the symbolic reminders of the Gracela sisters, the uniqueness of Grace, and the connections between its inhabitants. Thanks to the peacocks, the Stitch and Bitch Club succeeds in publicizing the plight of Grace. The peacocks also symbolize the importance of making use of the past in order to preserve the future.
Codi and Hallie had one favorite afghan that they used to huddle up under together. The blanket stands for their connection. Codi uses it at the memorial ceremony for Hallie to gather the mementos that everyone brings. At that ceremony, Uda Dell reveals that she crocheted the afghan for the girls just after their mother dies, imbuing it with a new symbolism: the caring of the entire community for Codi and her family. Finally, Codi wraps everything in the afghan and heads off to bury it, just as she wrapped her child in her mother's sweater and went off to bury it. The parallel is emphasized by Doc Homer's mistaking of the one bundle for the other. As she plants Hallie's bundle in Doc Homer's garden plot, Codi symbolically perform a public burial of her unborn child as well. Using the afghan, which was her comfort as a young girl, she gives up her position as daughter to accept one as mother.