Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A life, 30 years in revision.

Carla Emery died yesterday of a heart attack, caused by a pericardial infection. Two weeks ago, she was sitting in my mother's house, telling us about her adventures at the Common Ground fair, making us laugh as she described how far her husband had to go to obtain coffee among the ecologically pure. And that night she stood up in front of a small audience of community gardeners and interested parties and talked about the urgency of producing food and fertility in urban and suburban communities. She talked about peak energy, and about the day when we may all be poor enough that the food we grow makes the critical difference in our thriving over surviving. I saw suburbanites who garden for pleasure make the turn into understanding how terribly urgent that work is, for themselves and their community.

I'm not someone who is inclined to lionize, nor someone who starts fan clubs, but if I were ever to have done so, I would have done it for Carla. It isn't that she was perfect - she wasn't. But she had a store of knowledge as wide as the whole world. She could tell you how to make a turkey sandwich - and start with how to hatch out the baby turkey poults, plant your seed wheat in the ground, save seeds so you could grow the nicest tomatoes, lettuce and sweet onion. And she'd get you all the way to making your own mayo from your own eggs, raising and grinding your mustard seed and baking the best bread you've ever tasted.

Does that sound too arcane? It is so much simpler to go buy the turkey, bread and mayo at the store, but she could convince a die-hard urbanite that there were compelling reasons for growing their food, and she never missed the most important one - taste! And she could tell you how to birth your baby safely alone, how to get water when your well pump broke down or your well went dry, how to can jam, shear your sheep, or pinch a penny. She knew nearly everything about how to make the things we have become dependent upon industrial production for, and what she didn't want to know, she wanted to learn. Both her curiosity and knowledge ran so deep you could never get to the bottom.

Those are such ordinary, domestic skills and virtues and so few people now have them. When she sat down to write her book 30 years ago, people were just starting to notice that the generation that knew those things was disappearing. Now, they are gone. Most of us were raised with the wealth to buy what we need and no need to know those ordinary skills, that so often were part of the lives of ordinary women. I know when I was younger, I was interested in what extraordinary people did, in the transformative power of the exceptional. But I've come to appreciate that those ordinary domestic skills are what make the extraordinary possible, and they can be executed with grace, courage and the most astonishing skill, and become an extraordinary art in themselves. Not everyone can write _Middlemarch_ or paint like Mary Cassat. And not all of us would want to pay the price in our family life and our energies that it would take to produce a great work of art. But all of us have to eat, to dress in clothing, to have clean water. And teaching people how to have it, how to get it, how to live well even in poverty and have clean, safe food and water is, I think, a greater accomplishment than the production of a piece of art fit best for the educated and priveleged audience. Thousands of people in this country and all over the world have more of what they most urgently need because she shared her knowledge.

Carla Emery was blessed with both the extraordinary talent of being able to teach others what they needed to know, and also with the ability to do all those things. I doubt Carla would ever have called herself a feminist, but she did more for women than most feminists could ever do, because she saw very early, back when feminism was still paying most of its attention to the lives of women who did unusual things, that the most basic, simplest skills were what mattered most, and were the most exceptional things of all. The ordinary lives of women (and men, but it was no accident this was called a recipe book), and the things they did to survive and thrive, raise their families and meet their needs were recorded for all of us, and valorized here, if nowhere else. Later, the ordinary lives of women became a trend. But Carla was there when poor women having children and managing to keep them healthy and fed, warm and loved was not considered either exceptional or an art. She, however, knew otherwise.

Look at the _Encyclopedia of Country Living_ carefully. She wrote this enormous book while bearing and raising seven children, while living the life she described, milking her cows and growing her garden. And she kept on revising it her whole life. At 66 years old, last week she stood up and told us about how she maintains her entire 8000 square foot garden by herself, with a shovel and a hoe. She produced enough food to feed her chickens (lots), rabbits, her husband and herself, and take bushels and bushels of produce to market. These are ordinary things - in the academic culture I took on, having babies and feeding them good food, and growing old gracefully and working hard are not the virtues to be rewarded. Why does it feel to me as though those "ordinary" virtues are rarer and more valuable than anything more exotic? How many of us could raise our children without the benefit of the grocery stores and the power companies? She told you how, because she was sorry to see the skills die, and afraid we wouldn't be able to get along without them someday. She was right.

I was lucky enough to meet her on the internet. A few of my recipes and suggestions are in the most recent edition of her book, and I was fortunate enough to help her with some editing. It was a book that explained so many things to me, and I was so excited to get to add a little touch of myself to it. And she was tremendously generous, both with her guidance and her energies. She let me and dozens of other homesteaders comment, critique, recipe test, and be part of her work. And then she came, and spoke to my CSA customers, my friends, my parents, and told them what she knew, all because she wanted so badly for us all to know what she did.

She was on the road, telling people about why and how to grow food and cut energy usage, for more than half the year. She and her husband Don covered thousands and thousands of miles in their old van filled with books on gardening and sustainability. It was grueling, and they didn't make much money, in part because she refused to charge people more than $100 to hear her speak. She'd stand up in an auditorium, a library, a church, in your living room, and tell you what she had to say and what she thought you needed to know, and then she'd do it again the next day. She was a missionary - because she really believed that the world would be a better place if others would just stop putting their faith in corporations and industrial production, and start growing a pot of basil and a few tomatoes, if someone would grow some grains and beans themselves instead of a lawn. And she was right. She told people this in the 1970s, when the hippies wanted to hear it. She drove around the country in a van filled with her babies and children, speaking wherever people listened. And at 66 years old, two weeks ago, she was still doing it, for the grown-up children of hippies (like me) and anyone else who would listen, because she was concerned for us in the face of rising energy costs.

I didn't host her at our house this year. It was too hard with the baby coming and my sister's wedding at the same time, and Grandma and Grandpa both dying - or that was my sad excuse. And she said of course, no matter what *she* produced while having seven children. I used to tell my husband that I want to be Carla Emery when I grow up. I wanted to be as strong, and courageous, and focused on doing right as she was. And I wanted to be as kind and honorable and smart and funny. I'm not her. I don't have what she has. But I still keep her in my head as the kind of person whose moral courage and knowledge, expressiveness and sheer desire to save the world was one what I would most like myself and my children to become.

If you pray, pray for her husband Don, her children and her grandchildren, including the new one on the way. And pray that in the times that come, someone with as much missionary zeal and energy will come our way and pass as much knowledge along. I know I do.

Shalom.

Sharon

12 comments:

FXGUY said...

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Whirlwinded said...

What an exquisite eulogy for Carla and a prayer for all we hold dear.

Rest in peace, Carla.

Becca Blogs said...

Hi there. Just found your blog via Knitter's Review. I am also a homesteader :)

I had the awsome oppertunity to host Carla while she was on her western tour, and also help with her newest book. Her death is a huge loss to the homesteading community.

Anyways, very nice blog.... I'll be coming back!

madcapmum said...

What a beautiful post. I never heard about Carla until her death, and now I mourn that my life was poorer for it. Thanks for writing about her.

Silvianne said...

I just came across a great gardening website called AtlGardening.com*. Not only does it feature articles for the gardening enthusiast, but has become a great gardening gift basket
resource for me in my landscaping effort. The webmaster of this site has recently added a book section that seemed to expand everytime I go there.
What I like about it is that I get instant access to the book and don't have to wait for the book(s) to arrive which of course saves me money.....no shipping charges.... in some cases. Great idea. I love it. You must check it out today. Let me know what you think.

IAMADOL said...

Thank you so much! Mama would have been so humbled by your words! You describe her so aptly. I miss her so much and it was comforting to know that others appreciated her time on earth as much or more than I did! Dolly

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