New Era American

Emmy Pickett

World Builder
Somewhere in California or Montana

Imagined America
May 29, 2023


Where are you and where are you from?

I'm somewhere in California. Or in Montana. Honestly I prefer to keep some of privacy in my life so let's keep it at that. Recently, I was working with an organic farm as a creator director. It was figuring itself out under my direction alongside the owner. That farm grows avocados and exotic caviar limes in a culinary garden. We have a strong animal program with horses, cows, goats and chickens, but we're not breeding to sell. I call it a gentleman's farm. The reality is when I go to Montana and see my seventy-year-old aunt caring for an entire ranch by herself in a -40 degree blizzard, and it's like nothing to her… we have something different.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing you for a long time. You've always had a natural instinct for the West. How long has your family lived in the West?

I'm Southern Californian. Recently, I was talking about hunting with somebody and I said, “You know, in California, I never really knew we had a hunting culture.” And they said, “Well, I'm a Californian, and I'm a Central Coast Californian. I've grown up hunting my whole life.” Beach towns that are away from agricultural areas have a certain perspective. When you move up the coast in California — and I'm now in the Central Coast mostly because of the farm — you start to see agriculture and ranch life. And so that's a very different world.

I always had a sense of mystery around my family in Arizona, which was tied to ranching, cowboy culture, and blue collar roots. In that family, there was also a lot of drug addiction. I was a young girl with ambitions. Basically, I was like, I don't want to be like them; I went to Yale and was very much in this “Save-the-World” liberal mindset, but I couldn't quite find my footing. I was never going to be the person to get a "real job;" I was going to create a job for myself. I always felt independent to burn my own trail somewhere. I don't know if that's something passed down by families or if, you know, a soul is just sort of born feeling this search for some meaning that you can’t find within institutions. Ultimately, that is cowboy code. You stand on your word and you look out for one another. You do what you have to do. You ride for yourself and those people that you respect.

On the one hand, the United States has this crazy conception of government, that we are the greatest country in the world. And on the other hand, the soul and the mythic imagination of Americas says fuck the police, fuck the state, fuck the sheriff.

Well, my other family lives in Montana, and when I went to Montana, I felt a feeling of grit and of powerful nature. You have to be smart and resourceful to make it out there. I really like to test my own capabilities and get dirty. My family there lives near the same valley as Virginia City, which is now an old ghost town. It was once the Western town that birthed the vigilantes. Sheriffs and troopers actually formed from the vigilantes — the truth is, they are intertwined. There’s a symbol from the vigilantes, “3777”, and nobody really knows what it means, but it’s written on every sheriff’s badge. The number used to be carved on doors, as a warning. Some think it’s the dimensions of a grave. That Western mentality, which sometimes is extremely brutal, is very much at the heart of our country.


What is your favorite thing made in America?

My family. Well, my maternal great-grandmother is from Mexico. My great-grandparents were immigrants on both sides of my family. But, my family and my hat and my tools: they’re all made in America.

You mentioned your Klein tool bag and your Stetson. Show them?

For my birthday, I want to get proper tools in here, but I'm growing, you know. Right now I have this laser level, a gift from the owner of the ranch. I like my tools even if I don't really know how to use all of them yet.


What is your craft? What medium do you work in?

That question is hard for me to answer. I’m a world builder. Right now, I’m Creative Director of a ranch-– helping people connect to the world that is the ranch. I’ve been a director of film and photography, but I really build worlds.

Whether that be in the imagined world or an “inspired-by” world, or building worlds to help us reconnect to nature—the ultimate designer. I’m a director, but engaging nature and people who are the department heads, all to create this world of love. Being a Creative Director of a ranch is like being a film director, but instead the medium logically consists of a farm and an outpost that will be a restaurant — it's a space for people to connect with nature through food, community, and commerce. I start with the land and work my way out. I have big aspirations in participating in the agriculture community, ranching, farming, or even horse breeding.

I think we build our own world. You know, in the choices we make in building our worlds and telling our personal stories. Ironically, with my story, I don't feel like I created it. I just live low. In my own approach to worldbuilding and storytelling, I don't actually like to force an image or narrative — I want to capture it naturally. With the photography that I do, especially film photography that captures imperfection, I'm not editing. I’m documenting and seeing the story that exists in the image that I hold. I see both the sunshine and the stormcloud.


What is your calling?

Freedom. Whether it's through this ranch project or someplace else, I definitely find myself wanting to participate in the agricultural community. I have that bug, and that is definitely tied to the American Dream. When you think about what is valuable, it's things that make you feel free. The American Dream is about freedom. For me, the ultimate freedom is the freedom to feel connected and uninhibited by city life, by rules. Reaping what you sow, right? This is one of the areas in our country that allows people the physical space to think and feel free and connect with nature, which ultimately I think is the key to happiness, finding a reminder that you as a human are also nature. That is the way to stay healthy and happy.


What games are you playing and what games are being played on you?

I just have this feeling that I'm not playing, but I'm winning.

Are you playing a game with freedom?

No. I don’t believe it is a game. There's no intention to play any game because I've already been born here; I’m already in the game. I am staying out of the way and listening and learning the game. It’s strange to feel that I'm responsible for my life, but also know that it's bigger than me.

Do you think some people fetishize and mistake what freedom is in agriculture or the ranch? Because on the one side you create these beautiful images. They're almost of a dream world. And on the flipside, you could imagine that some people might mistake the meaning of them, and maybe they think, “Oh, all is well in agriculture. We're totally fine.” The American Wild West Horse Dream is still alive and well. But the margins are thin, the risk is high, it’s very hard.

I see the sunshine peeking through that storm cloud. Life being hard is the game. And some days, something makes you smile. So if you are a lover of life, you see beauty in that juxtaposition and the necessity for both.

I’ve taken some hard pictures of life at the ranch, like lambing. Recently, I cared for an orphaned baby lamb and fell in love with him. I bottle fed him out of a beer bottle, so I named him Hops. That was my first mistake, naming the lamb. I fell in love with Hops like he was a dog. We would hang out in the house. Then one day I had to help them band his balls.

You castrated him?

Yes. The babies are separated from their mothers. There is chaos. Hops was screaming in pain like he was dying but then the next day, he was fine.

So Hops didn’t die. Phew.

He eventually did. He was harvested and shipped off, but I wasn’t there for that.


What do you know now that you wish you had known ten years ago?

Just striving for happiness in the physical world is the illusion.

It all comes back to some sense of spirituality, which is why I can have a sense of humor about darkness. The human experience comes from the way our bodies communicate to us about our emotions, through the physical senses. A physical sensation tells us you're in pain and this and that. And you think, without training, that if you’re in pain, you will suffer forever, blah, blah, blah. You hold on to the pain. When you take away the illusion and start to see the invisible of our experience, you can gain real wisdom. So when you are talking about knowledge, for me, the knowledge comes in what you can't see.

Was there an event that lifted the veil, for you?

Breaking up with a partner and then being “alone.” At first, there's fear and solitude. And that itself is the first illusion, that when you’re in solitude you're actually not alone. You have your greatest blessings. And that's where you can find spirituality. That's where you can purify your heartbreak and discover what you stand for. For me, that solitude was a pathway to wisdom.


Are your neighbors worthy of your love?

There is an idea that “love” has to be something that is giving you something back. The idea that you give love to get love. As I become more spiritual, I’ve gotten to feel like the universe is written in your favor. So when you encounter people that you don't really like or love, they teach you anyway. It still is pretty self centric, our lives. At the end of the day you're on your own journey. And at the end of the day, everybody and every animal, every tree you encounter is teaching you something. And so you love your journey. You're going to love who you encounter on that journey.


Has there been a “vibe shift” in America?

I remember watching this documentary called American Portrait: The Story of Us, Told by Us on KPBS. Every episode was a different big moment in American history. It felt cyclical. I don't think that collapse is necessarily doom and gloom. A lot of times, it's essential to discover something new, from the weaving loom to the computer chip. In America, we get so myopically focused on the problems of today and do not realize that these are probably the same problems we've always had. I'm just along for the ride, because I know at some point it goes down and it comes up.

There’s a generational theory of history called “The Fourth Turning” popularized by Steve Bannon that says history is divided into “saecula” of 80 to 100 years, in which there are four “turnings,” or phases. The fourth turning is the collapse. The first turning that restarts a cycle is the rebuilding of institutions and values out of collapse, resetting the paradigm for the next cycle. Right now, we’re in a battle for the values of the next hundred years. What values would you want it to inscribe? What should the battle be between?

My battle is that I don't want to be controlled. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s what we're not facing in America that answers where our values need to lie. The values need to lie in the emotional and spiritual support and education of people, rather than an obsession with the material world.

We have a problem with mental health. We're such a young country, so focused on the physicality of the American dream that we haven't actually created open and inclusive enough discourse to understand what it is to be a human. And to be a human is both physical and emotional. And we've just forgotten the emotional part. That to me is like the biggest battleground, one I would stand on.

Your People

Who are your people?

Warriors and lovers. Cowboys. Perhaps this is why I think our biggest battleground is an emotional war. There's a reason why I like warriors and cowboys, right? There's code. Actions speak louder than words. You live by example. When people see something in you, they usually come to you to ask a question. And that's when you are able to be a guide. It's about going through the human experience, learning these things, leveling up your emotional understanding and your wisdom, and then being a guide to younger generations to help guide them into the human experience. So for me, right now, I think I'm on the path.

I just want my ranch, and I want to meet my cowboy and have a beautiful family.

Up Next

David Noel
Huntington, West Virginia

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