|Carla Emery, author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living, has been on the road spreading her message about self-sufficiency and community sufficiency for four years. Jane Lamb photo.|
By Jane Lamb
As MOFGA members know, dedication to the environment and a sustainable lifestyle can sometimes take one in bizarre directions, but seldom on a journey as winding and varied as Carla Emery’s. Emery, who spoke at a November meeting of the Knox County MOFGA Chapter, has – in the course of 30 adventurous years – homesteaded, appeared on all the major 1970s TV talk shows, raised seven children, and written a 900-page compendium of practical information, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, now in its ninth and most polished edition. For the last four years, she has been living out of her van, staying with local hosts as she takes her message all over the country like a wandering bard of old, carrying the latest news from place to place and constantly adding and revising as she picks up more data from her listeners.
“My standard presentation evolves constantly,” Carla told me in an interview shortly after the November meeting. “Just in the last two days I’ve learned more.” After a talk in Portland, a road crew worker told her that toxic wastes were mixed into paving tar. Earlier, she had learned from a pretzel company mechanic in Ohio that the plant’s heavy metal powder waste goes into cement. Farmers in Eastern Washington reported becoming ill from “toxics,” as she refers to toxic wastes, that are mixed into fertilizers. Carla noted that federal guidelines allow industries to get rid of toxic wastes by selling them to fertilizer producers. Heavy metal paint residue from aluminum can recycling goes into road salt and thence into run-off water, she has also learned,
“The media basically avoid bad news, especially in regard to food,” Carla maintains. (She worked her toxic waste horror stories into “Trends in the Nation’s Food Supply,” one of her basic topics. Her other is “How to Grow the Greatest Garden of Your Life,” which she conceded would have been redundant to the MOFGA crowd.) She regards herself as a kind of underground news reporter, trying to get the big picture. “I have a love affair with the truth,” she proclaims in her passionate style. “I try to hear it from more than one place, to get information first or second hand. If it’s in print I’m interested, but I don’t repeat it until I’ve heard it from somebody in person. One thing I do not quote is official statements by company presidents. I would get it from the janitor first.” When she learns that someone she at first believed is not true – like the story that Indiana law forbids slaughtering more than one animal of a species for family use – she quickly makes the correction.
Emery believes that when people have the facts they will be inclined to act on them. This faith drives her mission to take the knowledge she has gained directly to small audiences everywhere, in a valiant effort to counteract the effect of TV, which she calls “a powerful, hypnotic medium. It’s incredible when you stop and think that 50 million people are watching the same five o’clock news, getting programmed with the same information simultaneously, for the profit of advertisers and opinion shapers. There’s no point at which I would say, ‘It’s impossible. I give up.’ It’s very difficult but [giving up] is just not how it is.”
Constantly devouring information has been a way of life for Carla, who calls herself an “encyclopedist.” When she was 12, she began reading such non-fiction classics as Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. She describes her seven years of college – three of pre-med, a little world literature, history and political science and graduate work as a China specialist – as “a wandering path, because I was never sure what I wanted to be. I just wanted to know.”
Birthing a Book
She relates matter-of-factly to her post-college career: ”Then I got married and had seven children.” She was 30 when her first was born in 1970, 40 when her seventh arrived. Those 10 incredibly eventful years also produced seven editions of her book,which began as An Old Fashioned Recipe Book, inspired by a gift subscription to Organic Gardening. Carla, who had grown up on a farm, had so much information to offer the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s that she never quite finished one edition before another was in the works. She began the table of contents in 1970 and advertised the book that November in Organic Gardening. She had thought she could finish it in two months, but subscribers had to wait until the following March for the first issue, which included chapters on herbs and home industries. The second edition came out in December of 1971, two months after the birth of her second child. And so it went. Among several informal world records her book has set, Carla notes: ”First author in history to have had three babies in the same 4-1/2 years during which she gave intellectual birth to a 5-pound book.” The first seven editions were mimeographed and bound with plastic coated copper wire; the largest numbering 936 pages.
“When people ask me, ”How many books have you written? I have to answer, ‘All my life I’ve written one book. I just keep trying to get it right,’” Carla says. “Twenty-five years is a long time (ninth edition 1994), with a lot of vicissitudes, but I kept coming back to the book, gathering information, incorporating it. It’s considered a basic reference book in the field of family food production.” She goes on to list statistics: 950,000 words; 400,000 copies in print; over 1,500 recipes, garden to table style, “so you can go right to the [listed] food and it will tell you how to cook it, can it, freeze it, dry it, root cellar it, save your seed.”
The book covers every edible plant that is grown, whether in southern Florida or northern Alaska, telling how to plant, grow, harvest, reproduce and use it. Animals topics that are discussed include poultry, goats, cows, bees, rabbits, sheep and pigs. The 250 mail order references need continual updating, Carla says. “For every subject I figure what I’ve written is just an introduction. If people want to get in deeper, I tell them the books they can read, courses they can take, magazines they can subscribe to, organizations they can join.” Encyclopedic the book may be, but Carla’s clear instructions, conversational style and the personal anecdotes that are woven into the text make it absorbing reading.
Carla challenges audiences with a handout that asks if you could live like your great-grandmother – everything from making soap to milking a cow to getting along without electricity – something a lot of people would like to have known more about last January. She herself has had to meet many of them, living in the country, the city and in between, growing her own food, eating out of the grocery store or even the food bank. “There was a point in my life when I tried to do a lot from scratch, “ she says. “One was to create old time recipes for gelatin from chicken feet. But I’m just as interested in the cutting edge of modern technology and renewable energy as in old time ways of doing things. I’m interested in sustainable agriculture. Traditional, pre-petroleum agriculture was obviously sustainable. It lasted for thousands of years. There are also wonderful contributions of modern times. If it’s nonpolluting, I’m for it. I also like technologies that support independence, Jeffersonian democracy. If people own a little bit of land and grow their own food, I think it makes for a strong society.”
The Road to Stardom
During one period in her life, Carla tried to grow as much of her family’s food as possible. “I was doing pretty well. Then, unfortunately, I finished the book and the book took over my life.” Copies were produced cottage industry style by enthusiastic workers and volunteers. “At one time we were the third largest employer in Kendrick, Idaho, population 500. The lumber mill was the biggest, second was the seed company and third was The Living Room Mimeographer. That’s what we called it.” After the first burst of mail-order response, sales declined and debts piled up. Better marketing became essential. Carla began attending local craft fairs. When that market soon became saturated, she discovered the big fairs on the Pacific coast. She loaded the car with books and kids and headed over the mountains every weekend. That was the beginning of a four-year climb to national recognition. During the heady days of the back-to-the-land movement, everyone wanted to know how to make it in the country. The books sold like hotcakes and the media picked up on the excitement. Interviews with local radio and TV stations were squeezed into slack times at the fairs.
By 1974, Carla was getting exhausted making the trip from Idaho to the coast every weekend, hauling books and kids, always the kids. “I would never be parted from my children,” she reflects with a touch of wistfulness. (They’re all on their own now, the two youngest in college, the rest scattered across the country. She sees them “when she can.”) She decided, then to go on longer trips, leaving her husband, Mike, in charge of the ranch and the rebellious milk cow,.which was more than one person could handle. She was tom between the necessity of keeping up book sales to meet expenses and coming home to a neglected farm, a disturbing dilemma when people kept coming up to her exuberant over the great country life they’d created with her instructions.
Nevertheless, with a promise to herself to have another milk cow some day, a press agent booking interviews and a red and white van for the kids to sleep in, she made her first trip to California. She and Mike bought a 386-acre ranch and planned to build a School of Country Living. In 1975, she and the children, whom she home-schooled, left for a 4-1/2 month tour of the entire United States, promoting the book and the Country Living school, which had its first session that summer. The following year she sold the rights to the book to Bantam, which financed the second session of the School for Country Living.
The school was always teetering on the brink, Carla says. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a flash flood that wiped out the whole operation – gardens and animals. “Two thunder clouds converged over my property. It was a complete act of God. God was saying, ”You don’t have to struggle with this any more. It’s OK to give up.” She had been doing the media circuit for four years and was conditioned to smile whenever a camera was pointed at her. “I was walking around looking at these terrible, devastating scenes,” she told me with a sigh. “An AP photographer was following me around. Every time he lifted the camera, I would smile. I’m sure it was phony.” After a couple of hours, she spotted a muddy, bedraggled little rabbit hopping around. She picked it up and cuddled it. She’d forgotten about the photographer as she reflected on her loss. “I never saw him snap the camera, but he said, I’ve got my picture,’ and turned and walked away. That’s the picture AP ran coast to coast.”
For four years Carla toured the country, appearing on Good Morning America, the Tonight Show, To Tell the Truth, Mike Douglas, Donahue. She traveled with voice over for her demos of making bread, cheese, butter, noodles. “My last trip around the country, I traveled with a little Saanen goat named Angel, a turkey and a goose and always my children, ages a few months to ten.” She had acquired one more baby during those years. ”I was becoming a popular, sometimes paid, performer with my comedic, country girl routine,” she wrote in the autobiographical section of The Encyclopedia of Country Living. “Actually, I didn’t so much deliberately set out to be funny, as that’s just how it happened. I was generally late and had no time to get nervous, and I’d have my baby in my arms. I always had my baby.” Meanwhile, her husband ran errands for Living Room Mimeographer. “Mostly the gals did the work. I had a secretary and an office. They did a good job of running the show without me,” she says. She was still responsible for that production, even though Bantam had brought out a commercial edition.
Back home from her longest nationwide tour, she kept getting calls from the Mike Douglas show to do another TV spot. The hitch was she couldn’t bring the children. She didn’t want to be separated from her baby, but finally she gave in. She needed to make money! When her plane landed she was met by a chauffeur who drove her to an elegant hotel where she was conveyed to a huge suite and left alone in its emptiness. Later, as she waited, professionally made up, to go on stage, she overheard the interview in progress. A famous actress, asked how she would live her life differently, said she wouldn’t have any children. (She had five.)
Carla was chilled to the bone. When she got home, she had made her decision. She told her husband her celebrity life was over. She wanted to spend the rest of her days with him and the children, being the best wife and mother she could. Her seventh child was born a year later. Then her husband got sick and required several expensive operations, Mt. St. Helens blew up and times were hard. Eventually Mike got better, the kids were healthy and she was thinking, “It’s going to be all right” when Mike left her. She no longer could be the best wife she could so she concentrated on being the best mother. About four years ago, the last three children under her roof told her they were leaving home. She asked herself, “Who am I now? What do I do with my life now? I had really lived for those children.”
Carla says she has gotten past the bitterness of losing her husband. “When Mike asked for his freedom, by default I also received the gift of mine,” she wrote in a diary entry recorded in her book. On the opposite page is a photo of a laughing young woman in a summer dress, seated in front of country props. Perhaps it’s one of those “phony” media shots, but it looks genuine enough and not very much like the Carla who spoke at the MOFGA meeting, a tall, reserved woman with a small, tentative smile, wearing a heavy sweater and long skirt, her still-brown hair pulled back in a pony tail.
Not only had she lost her husband, and in a sense her children, but her readership, as well. The back-to-the-land movement she knew 20 years ago seemed to have given its final gasp. The media turned their attention elsewhere. Bantam Books had let the Recipe Book go out of print and all rights were returned to her. People still wrote and wanted copies, so she began selling a copier-produced eighth edition by mail order. In 1992, Sasquatch Books in Seattle asked for permission to publish a new commercial edition and she began editing again. The ninth (and current) edition came out in 1994.
Four years ago Carla went on the road again to promote the book. “I ended up sleeping in a car in North Carolina, practically broke. Then the Lord began to show me. I think in those times of complete brokenness, we become the most teachable.” Her voice rises as she continues. ”We’re most open to radical new ways of living that we would have rejected out of hand before. Now I’m doing what I do and love it. My financial needs are met and I never dreamed that my old age would be so full of adventure and useful.“
If the country’s trendy love affair with country living is over, Carla has found the core group out there (as MOFGA people know) who really want to know what she has to tell them. Flower gardening has become almost a national obsession, but Carla points to the 2% increase in vegetable gardening as well. ”When they come to hear me, they’re going to hear about vegetables, because that’s the only thing I know about,” she says. They’re also going to hear about home schooling and, after all these years, a second book, Secret, Don’t Tell, about modern and ancient mind-control technologies.
After a disastrous attempt at a staffed home office, Carla has established a “virtual” office, a desk and phone at a small press in Michigan, where she calls in regularly to check for book orders and other messages. Having traveled all over the country, she has friends and acquaintances everywhere. State coordinators and individuals book her talks and demonstrations.
Besides her two basic talks, mentioned above, Carla offers workshops on home schooling and writing. Her all-day writing workshop is the only one with a fee: $20 a day per home-school family; $200 a day for a public school presentation. Her most recent venture is a newsletter, Truthquest, which will appear three times a year. The first issue, dated November 15, 1997, arrived in mailboxes in March. It describes and lists prices for the video and audio tapes now available of her two talks, as well as two new sets: The Story of My Life, and Secret, Don’t Tell, print copies of both books and several by other authors. She also offers The Garden Parade Coloring Book and Sewing Instructions, MOFGA’s own fund raiser, and recently had to order more copies from Beedy Parker.
Does Carla Emery ever miss the home she once had, or long for a home base at some time? No, she told me. “Everywhere I go, people take good care of me. I enjoy wandering, and there are personal reasons why I do it. God willing, I will die in my tracks. It’s a funny thing about home. It’s really a very primitive kind of instinct. When I’m really tired and need to stop, my mind goes to the word ‘home.’ I’m going home and home is where? Maybe the car is going to be it that night. When I’m at your house, I’m home. I tell people I live on the road and they say, ‘Oh, you’re homeless?’ I say ‘No. I’m multi-homed.’ I have many homes.” She almost never sleeps in the car any more. When she books a talk, she asks, ”Will you give me a place to stay, set me a plate at the table? Usually that’s fine.” Only rarely, on a long drive, does she stop at a motel. “I’ve been on the road long enough so that in a lot of parts of the country there are people whose houses I’ve been to three or four times. They are really becoming dear friends. So sometimes I kind of time my journey, knowing that if I’m in Pittsburgh tonight, I’m going to stay with Rita.” More important to Carla than a place to sleep is getting the facts she seeks with such dedication to the people who need them ”I think of myself as serving in God’s truth department” she says.
To contact Carla Emery for talks or to order her publications, call 616-655-2010; fax 616-657-7363; or write to her at 37402 Red Arrow Highway, Paw Paw MI 49079-9311.