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Writer Urges Country Living, Country Eating

Carla Emery talks about what it takes to live off the land or dabble in gardening

RUMOR had it that Carla Emery doesn't do anything halfway. I learned this firsthand when the author appeared at my home, bleary-eyed after a long haul from Vermont. She'd already been on the road for five months talking up her ninth edition of ``The Encyclopedia of Country Living and was plotting four more months of book signings, press interviews, and reunions with readers before quitting time in Honolulu just before Christmas.

Book-tour binges are not unknown to the charmingly eccentric Ms. Emery. Back in 1977, she crisscrossed the country to promote an earlier edition of the same book with not only six children in tow, but also a goat, a turkey, a goose, rabbits, and to care for the children during TV appearances, a nanny. Now she travels comparatively light: just her bright and smiling 15-year-old daughter, her daughter's friend, and several copies of her book heaped in the back seat.

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Emery's revised 858-page tome (Sasquatch Books, $24.95, paperback) is no small feat. It's chock-full of homespun, home-tested advice for living - and especially eating - close to the land. Emery maps out the route to self-sufficiency with exhaustive sections on growing, harvesting, processing, preserving, and cooking one's own food.

But she doesn't stop there. Methods for slaughtering farm animals, building barns, trapping turtles, and even a guide to giving birth alone are included.

Emery doesn't expect that every reader will become a convert overnight. She hopes, however, that her book will get people thinking about the extent to which they are ``captive consumers'' and how by even growing basil on the windowsill they are cultivating their own food.

Much of her writing is inspired by her own experiences, but she has also gathered lore from others and deferred to more- experienced folks for sections on nuts, beekeeping, and pig farming.

For all its detailed data, the book is a good read even for those who only dabble in food-gardening; a chatty tone pervades even the most technical features.

Without being preachy, she nudges readers toward self-sufficiency in a way that suits them. For example, she writes: ``To have 365 days of independent eating, you've got to learn to eat what you can grow, and you've got to learn to grow what you want to eat. At first it will be hard, but stick to it.... If you're still living in the city and you don't have anything but dreams, try for fun buying only what you imagine you could grow - in a natural processed state - like whole grains, and see if you can learn to live off it.'' Most rewarding, she says, is ``the spiritual cultivation that work and austerity bestow.''

Emery, who has lived most of her life on farms in Montana and Idaho, fiercely followed the 1970s back-to-the-land movement. After it began to fade, she saw the need to help keep its ideas alive. For the past 24 years, while nurturing her expanding family (she has seven children), she also nurtured this ``baby,'' or as she calls it, her ``magnificent obsession.''

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Fortunately for Emery, the timing is ripe for a bible of self-sufficiency. A recent Loyola University (Chicago) study of United States Census data reveals that 880,000 people left cities and suburbs for rural areas between 1990 and 1992 - an increase over the numbers in similar reports from the last decade.

Emery says today's homesteaders are a different crop from those who were active in the 1970s.

``Numerically and culturally the '90s movement isn't as strong, and it's coming from a different place,'' she says, explaining that the earlier back-to-the-landers leaned to the left politically, but today they're more conservative, family-oriented, and religious. ``The old movement was experimenting with everything. This movement is moving away from what they consider worldliness or urban problems and also looking for a healthier lifestyle.''

UNITED States Department of Agriculture demographer Calvin Beale confirms a resurgence in rural living, but he questions whether those who are opting for country over city are really yearning to milk goats and raise earthworms.

``The rebound in rural and small-town growth is usually by people who want to live in this setting for aesthetic reasons,'' he says. He also points to at-home businesses run by fax and modem that allow for greater distance from cities as helping to fuel the trend.

No doubt, it would be Emery's hope that the fresh air, open land, and help cultivate in these folks a desire to connect with their surroundings. Without her ``set of directions'' as she calls it, they might not know how to start. With a glimmer in her eye, she says, ``They need someone to tell it to them just like a neighbor would.''

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