We just learned that Carla Emery passed away on Tuesday, October 11th. We heard about it this morning, from an email response to a change of address we sent her. There will be a memorial service on Saturday, November 5 at Grace Chapel in Wilcox, Arizona. Her website has a brief obituary.
Below is an appreciation. Holly.
I first met Carla Emery through her handwritten and copious edits to the updated version of the 9th edition of her life’s work, The Encyclopedia of Country Living. My partner, Patrick, and I had just gotten a new job from one of our clients, Sasquatch Books, to typeset and lay-out the latest version of the book in 2002. I had never heard of Carla Emery, nor really even urban homesteading. We’d gardened quite a bit in Seattle, but after we moved to the Bay Area in 2000, we’d gotten a little adrift in the world. I know when I first saw the book, and started reading bits of text, in the way you do when you’re typesetting, my main reaction was “Freak!” It’s hard to admit, but true.
For those of you who have never typeset a book, some words on the process. With even the smallest, most straightforward typesetting job, you start with basically raw text in some form or another, usually a word document, and then you flow it into a composition program at that time we were using Quark Xpress. In that program you do things like set the italics and bold, and style the different heads, and address all the special cases, like sidebars, footnotes, and what have you. Then, once it’s all tidied up and looking like a book, it goes back to the editors, so they can look at it, and make final corrections, and tell you what styling changes they’d like. Then the typesetter gets it back and does all of that, probably cursing a bit to themselves about all the stuff it would have been nice if they’d mentioned the first time around. Then it returns to the editors again. In most cases, we’d get it back a final time, though more and more the final pass gets cut out. In any event, that’s the rough process. So any book you typeset, you spend quite a bit of time with, though not in the same way as when you read a book.
Country Living was anything but a straightforward job. First of all, it was a revised edition, so the text had been published before. But massive revisions were being made, and quite a bit of design change was happening. So we got, if memory serves, quite a pile of materials for first galleys. We got a crazily marked-up last edition, but also many inserted additional changes that Carla was busily making and sending along, plus new images, image location changes, and exhortations about the schedule. And this all for a 8.5 by 11 book of 886 pages. It looked to be a nightmare. But you know, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to us.
As we would go through the pages on our screens, and try to decipher Carla’s notes, and the editor’s notes, and the jigsaw-puzzle instructions for the text rearrangements, we would be captured by one little section after another, reading them aloud to each other. A simple line drawing of a pig with a big X on its forehead for where to shoot it when you were slaughtering it first aroused disturbed murmurs of dismay and nervous laughter, and then the next time around, a different kind of interest. A fluttering awakening of something in us that wondered could we do that? We started talking about what we’d read as we lay in bed at night, wondering about what she talked about and how she said it. So much of what she said resonated deeply in our cores. We believed in our own responsibility for our actions in the world and our impact on it, and had already started thinking seriously about food: Where does it come from, who grows it, how is it slaughtered, how does it get to us? Reading Carla, we started to really come to terms with how alienated we were from our food the very stuff that makes our lives possible. It started to seem ridiculous not that she could kill a pig, but that we could not.
Carla was a writer. She was obviously also a homesteader and a leader and a preacher, but in her heart, she was a writer. I’m not sure if she ever got anything besides Country Living published by someone else, and it took her a lot of mimeographed, self-made, hand-peddled copies before she got someone else to publish it for her. But she never gave up, and she poured her soul into that book. I remember so many little snippets from the narratives she would insert between information on how to give birth alone in the winter in a back-country cabin or how to preserve a surfeit of eggs. Like the stories of her road trips to speak about Country Living, with little money, a bunch of kids, and a lot of energy. Her late-night writing, done surreptitiously, with a former husband who didn’t approve of her ambitions. I remember my first reading of her list of how she got so much done with her time. She didn’t drink, or smoke, or stay up late. Each edition of Country Living had stories held over from previous editions, resulting in a layered and beautiful tapestry of a life.
Carla was Christian, which was something else I had trouble with when I first read her work. I was busy being a sophisticated left-coaster, and was a lifelong atheist, and I had my usual reaction of a sense of embarrassment for her that she should have this affliction. But as I read her words, I first noticed that her faith did not impede her thinking, and then that I agreed with a lot of what she couched in terms of her Christian beliefs. The importance of hard work, humility, and giving back, of caring for the land. I never actually read anything about going to church from her. Her faith seemed to be lived, and true. So something else she gave me was an opening, one that has allowed me to see past the stereotype I and many others hold, that all Christians are proselytizing fanatics, trying to get everyone to toe their line. With my newly opened eyes I started to see that, following a long tradition in this country, there are a tremendous, but quiet, number of Christians pursuing ecological, community-oriented work, to mitigate the terrible place we are in as a country and a species. I will always be grateful to Carla for helping me on my path to humility.
By the time we had finished work on the book, we had decided that we needed to have chickens, and started to further educate ourselves on the best way to house and deal with them in our little urban yard. We wanted a goat and a cow, but didn?ï¿½ï¿½Ç¨ï¿½Ñ¢t think we could pull that off in our half of one percent of an acre! We had also started to intensify and shift our thinking about our garden. We had taken our first steps toward becoming urban homesteaders. We have used Country Living so much to guide our work that I could not begin to communicate how important it is in our household. It is the keystone in our “lore shelf.” If I had to grab one book to save from disaster, hers would be the one.
Carla shone a light on a path that helped lead out of some serious darkness in our own lives, and has led us to so many other people who are aware of the mess we’re in, and are working, on the ground, day to day, to change themselves and the world for the better. I was recently reading something by another traveller on this road, and he noted that in preparation there is hope. This is the legacy Carla has given me: a return of hope.
I grieve. I will pray for her family and for all of us who learned so much from her, and took inspiration from her unflagging energy and spirit. I realize that I have lost one of my elders, in the deep sense of that word. I will work against the fear I feel right now, the fear I imagine one feels when one loses a parent: that I have not learned enough to go on without her. I will turn my energy instead to continue the work, and nurture her light in myself and others.