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Rural Revolution

The Pacific Northwest Inlander
May, 2005

by Sheri Boggs

All the farms I remember from growing up in North Idaho and Eastern Washington were not what you'd call stylish. In fact, what I do remember are blocky sofas covered in that ubiquitous mauve upholstery, copper Jell-O molds lining the kitchen walls and corny decorations with folksy sayings on them. Outside, the scrabbly ground gave way to barns and other outbuildings – dirty places filled with weathered old equipment, livestock and grimy, oil-smudged tools. These were working places – as sensible and sturdy in their proportions and appearance as Ma Kettle.

But there was beauty too – the delicious whoosh of being hoisted up onto my grandfather's shoulders for cow-feeding time, the handmade lace doilies on the backs of chairs, and more than anything, the way the windbreak – a long row of impossibly tall poplars – whispered and swayed in the late afternoon sunlight.

It's just that kind of humble and utilitarian loveliness that Mary Jane Butters — Moscow author/magazine editor/organic farmer/environmental activist and food manufacturer captures and interprets so well in her 416-page manifesto, MaryJane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook. Pictures of baby chicks, fresh-baked pies and kitschy dishtowels embroidered with dancing vegetables grace these pages, which are packed with more gorgeously photographed farm know-how than you'd ever imagine. Here are instructions for making your own wall tent, turning out a French seam, chopping wood, making a chilled chicken salad and even staying in a lookout tower.

It might seem like an odd assortment of inclusions, but not if you know anything about Butters' life. Born to a close-knit Mormon family and raised in rural Utah, Butters went on to become the first female station guard at the Moose Creek Ranger station in Idaho's remote Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Her love of the outdoors really flourished there, as did her first foray into organic backpacking food – a falafel recipe she invented and tweaked and still uses today. In 1983, she bought a five-acre farm – complete with fruit trees and a house built in 1905 – for $45,000. She married her neighbor Nick – whose larger farm bordered hers on three sides — then survived a fire that completely destroyed her house and founded an environmental group, the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute.

"I was talking with a literary agent in New York," explains Butters, who describes how her magazine, MaryJane's Farm, ended up in the hands of a woman featured in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, who then sent it to her agent. "And we were talking back and forth for eight months or more and he said, 'You need to write a book about your life.' Well that didn't appeal to me at all. I thought it over some more and realized that what did appeal to me was to take all the ideas I was pouring into the magazine and turn it into something bigger."

And bigger it became – Butters was offered a $1.3 million book deal from Random House subsidiary Clarkson Potter to write her Ideabook and an as yet unnamed second book. She came up with her seven sections — community, kitchen, gardening, sewing, make it, outdoor living and cleaning up – almost immediately and in the meantime continued production on her semi-regular magazine/food catalog. The food business has expanded (as a trip to Huckleberry's or the health food outlet of your choice will testify) with new products, new packaging and a strong new presence. Butters was able to refinish her vintage Mercedes – which really does run on home-grown mustard oil – in the same color as her favorite nail polish while working tirelessly on the magazine, her book and syndicated columns (some of which ran in The Inlander between 2002-2003).

Random House is banking on MaryJane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook to make a killing. The New York Times will run a teaser toward the end of May, and in June, the publisher is taking out a full-page ad. Butters' romantic, prettified vision of both what rural life can be and how regular city-dwellers can cultivate their own "farm of the heart" seems to be catching on in a big way. Looking through the pages of the Ideabook, it's hard not to want to buy a bit of land outside Spangle or Troy or Colfax and make a go of it.

Unfortunately, however, not all Butters' press has been positive. The New Yorker ran a less than complimentary piece on her and her endeavors last October and the Independent Women's Forum (a Web site where someone like Ann Coulter would feel right at home) has taken their share of potshots.

"I felt pretty violated to tell you the truth," Butters says. "They mangled my quotes. They took this picture of me that didn't even look like me. I went through a real crisis in faith by getting New Yorked like that."

In true farm-girl fashion, however, Butters is determined not to let the naysayers get the best of her. She's proud of the fact that the book was truly a homemade effort. She wrote the copy, took most of the pictures, and, together with longtime friend Carol Hill, did the graphic design for the book. Her desire to keep things local extends to generosity toward fellow farm girls and regional authors — for instance, the Farm Chicks (see sidebar) and Laurie Carlson, whose book Cattle: An Informal Social History points to how, for many pioneer women, owning a milk cow was one small step toward economic equality. She also encourages those with farm know-how, farm stories, farm recipes and farm style to come forward or to generate similar rural revolutions in their own communities.

"The book was a reaction to what I experienced when I wanted to participate in what someone else was doing. So often, I'd be really excited and want to contribute and would just sort of be — I don't know — shut out," she says. "What I'm doing here is conjuring up a place where rural people have a voice and a place for women to realize their dreams."