Long before ever stepping foot on the seven acres my husband and I ended up buying in the Columbia River Gorge, we were armchair back-to-the-landers. While improving my gardening skills in backyard beds in the city, my primary go-to books were Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer and Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. Carla’s book was particularly loved—not only was it chock-full of information, but her writing style and personality were infectious. Dozens of times, I would go to look up a specific thing and end up reading for a half-hour.
The Encyclopedia of Country Living was a major influence when I decided to write Get Your Pitchfork On!. At first, I had no intention of trying to compete with it, or the dozens of other back-to-the-land books. But once my husband and I actually moved to the country, I realized that there were 21st-century gaps in Carla’s book. There were also swaths that were quaint but unnecessary, unless one were really signing up for primitive living. Which we were not.
None of this diminished my respect and love for The Encyclopedia of Country Living. And I’m not alone. The Internet is home to hundreds of tributes to Carla, from both before and after her death in 2005. It pains me that I never got to meet her.
However, I have the good fortune of knowing someone who did—Roberta Dyer, co-owner of Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon.
Carla began her publishing legacy in the early 1970s with a notice in the back of country-life magazines, advertising An Old-Fashioned Recipe Book. She immediately received responses and was a little taken aback because, well, she hadn’t written the book yet. She sent her investors the part she had written with a promise that she would continue to send chapters as she finished them. And so The Encyclopedia of Country Living (its eventual title) began—as a serial publication.
Carla typed out the manuscript and mimeographed the pages at her dining room table. Each chapter was printed on a different color of paper. She bound it with plastic-coated copper wire. Her friends would come over and help her hand-collate the monstrous editions.
Roberta met Carla because Carla had filled her family’s station wagon with thousands of mimeographed, hand-collated and -bound copies of An Old-Fashioned Recipe Book and started driving around the country, trying to sell them and get on television. At the time, Roberta was a book buyer for the popular retail chain, J.K. Gill. When Carla arrived her office, Roberta wasn’t sure what to make of her.
“She was all country,” Roberta recalls. “She practically had a calico dress on.”
While it wasn’t an act, Carla was media-savvy. She had gone to graduate school in New York before meeting her first husband, Mike, and moving to Idaho with him to start a homestead and a family. She brought her kids to promote her book. She once drove a goat (pygmy, I can only assume) to New York and, Roberta heard, sat in front of Gene Shalit’s office at The Today Show and refused to leave until he would talk to her. He did.
“I was impressed with [the book] because it was this thick!” Roberta holds her finger and thumb far apart. “It contained every tiny little bit of country-living advice that she had experienced; she just wrote everything down. She did her laundry in a washtub in the back yard! She was so tenacious.”
J.K. Gill carried the handmade copies, with their purple ink and mimeograph smell and copper-wire bindings. Roberta referred to her copy when she was canning and, like I have, found herself reading the stories.
Because the book was written in so many stages, it covers a vast swath of her adult life. In some sections she has two children, in some seven. In some she and Mike are working together on a project. In some, she has divorced him.
On our land, I referred to Carla’s book every time I turned around. How do I build a gate? How do I grow rutabagas? When a quail flew into our patio door and died, I whipped open The Encyclopedia of Country Living to figure out how to dress it.
I wrote myself notes so I would remember specifics in addition to her advice.
“[Carla] made me think differently about things,” Roberta says, “like she didn’t believe in washing clothes very much, and she sort of welcomed hard work.”
Every once in a while, Carla would return to J.K. Gill with her long hair and her outdated dresses to sell more books. This was a time when hippies were prevalent, so having long hair was not that outlandish. But Carla was not a hippie; she was a pioneer.
“I think [the book] was picked up by Bantam because it was the popular thing, the back-to-the-land movement, but she was not after that herself,” says Roberta. “They sort of turned her into a goddess of that movement, but it wasn’t her interest. She was very practical.”
After three years of entrepreneurship, Carla had a proper publisher; now she could go back to Idaho and live her life instead of marketing it. But there was no denying its momentum. Bantam printed 200,000 copies from 1977 to 1981 in six print runs.
Even a published book has a life of its own; Carla was constantly negotiating with first Bantam, and then Sasquatch Books, about rewrites, indexing and illustrations. She welcomed feedback from her readers, and even included much of their input in subsequent editions.
As time went on and Carla’s audience grew, she never lost sight of what made her happy—self-sufficiency on the land.
“I was born and raised in a small town,” says Roberta. “[Carla] was the genuine article.”