The Fascinating Life of the Late Carla Emery, Author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living

Carla Emery dedicated 32 years to writing one book, and remained a tireless advocate of self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship until her death in 2005. This is her story of inspiration, life on-the-road, celebrity, and legacy.
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Nov. 29, 2012 - PRLog -- Carla Emery grew up on a sheep ranch in Montana and was educated at Columbia University. In the early 1970s she settled on a 115-acre farm in northern Idaho as a wife, mother, home schooler, goat-keeper, gardener, writer, and country living instructor.

Originally entitled Carla Emery's Old Fashioned Recipe Book and produced on a mimeograph machine in the living room, The Encyclopedia of Country Living is Carla’s life’s work. The book launched its author to the forefront of the back-to-the-land movement, through which she cultivated a large and loyal following across the country. She remained a tireless advocate of self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship until her death in 2005.

The following quotes from Carla are excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Country Living, 40th Anniversary Edition:

The original idea for The Encyclopedia of Country Living was inspired by a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine, gifted to Emery by her mother-in-law for Christmas in 1969. Shortly after, she started compiling an ambitious 12-page table of contents for what would become the original title, An Old Fashioned Recipe Book.

“I wanted to put into one work everything someone would want or need to know about family food production. I wanted it to be a complete reference, an encyclopedia of information and skills, a practical resource anyone could use.”

“I was also trying to preserve the precious knowledge of an older generation of homesteaders—knowledge that was rapidly disappearing as that generation passed on.”

After writing the table of contents, Emery figured she could write the book in two months, and placed an ad in Organic Gardening, resulting in 250 orders.  

By March of 1971, realizing the book would take much longer than anticipated, she decided to ship out the first installment to the subscribers, with a promise to send subsequent issues as she finished them. By the end of the same year, she shipped the second two issues to the original subscribers, plus 200 more, then took a two-year break.

After going back to work on the book in late 1973, Emery finished a complete first edition and with the help of a friend, went to work on self-publishing by mimeograph.

In March 1974, the Moscow (Idaho) Public Library organized a collating bee in an empty apartment at an old folks’ home to put together the mimeographed pages of the book. Emery stepped into the assembly line to collate a copy for herself, overcome with emotion.

“I clutched it to me, turned, and walked back out the door alone, so full of feeling I thought I’d burst. Just up the hall I found an empty laundry room, went in, and closed the door behind me. There I knelt down, crying with gratitude, and talked to God and thanked him.

There was more work to be done, hauling boxes to the post office. So I went back to the collating place, and things just took up again as if nothing spectacular had happened. Only my heart knew better.”

In May through December 1974, Emery took her children and went out every weekend to town fairs, arts and craft fairs, and country fairs throughout Idaho and Washington, sleeping in the car with her children at night.

“It’s a very special way to make a living, and there’s a warm camaraderie among the folks who live that way. They took me in as a sister and began to teach me the things I so badly needed to know: when the big, good shows were; what you had to do to get into them; the fine points of just where to put your table to catch the best crowd flow; how to hawk your wares; and how to get along with management.”

Her most successful event that season was the 1974 Fremont Fair in Seattle, where she ran out of books and had to start taking orders, assisted by strangers who urged her to take a break while lending a helping hand with her kids. She made $1000 that weekend.

“That night the children and I slept in a motel, and we all had showers and reveled in our comfort."

The fair season was so busy that Emery and her kids were only home one weekend in eight months.

“Sometimes I got home and felt like bawling because it all looked yellow with dryness, deserted, and rundown, as if nobody lived there. Here I was out telling everybody about the great country life and raising your own food, and there wasn’t anything in my own cellar but the green beans, turnips, and peas I’d put up during the first part of the summer. But then I’d think about how people had come up to me and told me about the first garden they ever had, or their new home in the country and what a joy it was to them, and how my book had helped them. Then I’d feel good, and I’d tell myself I’d have a milk cow and garden again for sure the next year.”

By January 1975, the media was interested in her story, and she spent months on the road with the kids—nationwide—doing radio, television and newspaper interviews, eventually leading to recurring guest spots as a “comedic country-girl” on The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the late 1970s.

“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.)”

In February of 1978, the Mike Douglas Show flew Emery down to L.A. for an appearance in exchange for a hefty paycheck, with one condition—she couldn’t bring her children. She did the appearance and experienced the most luxurious treatment yet, after which she abruptly decided to end the television career.

“When I got home I told Mike it was all over for me, that what I wanted more than anything else in the world was to be a good mother and a good wife and to practice what I preached. I pulled the plug on the whole career thing and let it run down the drain.”

After the kids were grown, Emery went on the road to promote later editions throughout North America, with an increase in speaking engagements in 1999 as interest in the book was spurred by the Y2K crisis and preparedness movement. At these rural community events and fairs, she greeted longtime readers, who were often surprised and delighted to actually meet her in person.

“I think of this book’s readers as ‘my people’. They’re my readers, at least, the people who live my (our) dream in all its tawdry chicken-plucking day-in-and-day-out fine print. They’re the people I’ve worked my writer’s lifetime to serve. I want to touch these precious, truly beloved readers—real beside me at last. So we clasp hands across the table. Or, if they look like huggable sorts, I come around the table and put out my arms, and we hug each other with genuine feelings of love. I know that a particular reader is someone who already knows me well and cares about me. She or he’s the person I’ve worked so long and hard to serve, visualized in my mind’s eye, talked to as I wrote and wrote and wrote this book over the lonely days, months, and years. Those meetings with loving readers are always a beautiful experience—my reward! Then I know that it’s all been worth it. And I’m again astonished, and humbled, to discover that a mere book can mean so much to people. The job of writing is indeed a special one. And the work truly is greater than the workman!”


Containing more than 2,000 recipes, and more than 1,500 mail-order sources, Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living, 40th Anniversary Edition (Sasquatch Books; October 2012; $29.95) is the essential resource for country living, modern homesteading, growing and preserving foods, and cooking from scratch. Whether living off the land in the city or the country—or anywhere in between—this is the complete, practical guide to living well and living simply.


The Original Manual for Living Off the Land & Doing It Yourself

Carla Emery October 2012 • $29.95 • 928 pages • Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-57061-840-6
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