Standing in Novella Carpenter's garden, it's easy to think she could accomplish anything. A committed urban gardener, she's transformed a vacant lot adjacent to her West Oakland home into a thriving oasis.

But there's one thing Carpenter admits she couldn't fix -- a troubled relationship with her father, who spent much of his life off the grid and away from his family.

She spent years trying, and she writes about it eloquently in her searching new memoir, "Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild." Writing the book raised myriad issues for Carpenter, 41, who teaches urban gardening at University of San Francisco and whose previous books include "Farm City" and, with co-author Willow Rosenthal, "The Essential Urban Farmer." The journey to connect with her father unearthed beliefs she didn't even know she had, about marriage, childhood, parenting and herself.

Over tea -- lemon verbena, fresh from her garden -- in the home she shares with her boyfriend, Bill, and their 2-year-old daughter, Francis, Carpenter says her dad -- a homesteader who lived in a makeshift cabin in the Idaho woods -- was absent from her life more than he was present.

Carpenter knew that he frequented the nearby town of Orofino, where she was born. But in October 2009, she got a call saying her dad had gone missing. She decided to find him and mend their relationship once and for all.

She started the journey with "a vision" of reconciliation -- and a plan to write a book about the experience.

"I thought that if only I could make contact with him, we'd go bow hunting and fly fishing, and we'd bond in the woods," Carpenter recalls. "And then I'd write this awesome, uplifting book about fathers and daughters."


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The reality she encountered was quite different. It had been years since she'd seen her elusive dad, and after several attempts, she found him scattered, forgetful and erratic. She wondered if he was suffering from dementia.

If "Feral" describes her dad, it also applied to Carpenter's childhood. She was 3 when her parents split up, and supporting Novella and her sister fell to their mother. While mom worked, the girls roamed free, foraging for berries and mushrooms in the Idaho woods and, once they'd moved to Oregon, harvesting oysters on the coast. As a teen and young adult, Carpenter lived on the edge; at one point, she was homeless and hurting.

As an adult, her feelings about her dad were complicated -- an unsettling mix of love, loneliness, longing and rage. Still, they maintained a slender connection, through phone calls, letters and emails, which he addressed to her as "Sweets" or "Babes." But it wasn't the relationship she craved.

She began to suspect she'd inherited her father's traits; if she didn't know him, she thought, she couldn't really know herself. By that time, she was living with Bill; they were trying to conceive a child, but she distrusted her own capacity for parenting.

"A lot of that stuff just came to a head," she says. "I bred goats for years, and I could see traits that my goats would pass on. It wasn't just udders or physical stature. It was demeanor, personality. This book explores those things -- what happened to my father? Was he always this way? What happened to him in the past that I didn't know about?" She learned he'd had a difficult childhood. He'd served in the Korean War and told her he was suffering from PTSD. She began to see the good traits she'd inherited from him: self-reliance, and a love of nature.

Today, Carpenter's childhood memories sit better in her urban lifestyle. "It's kind of the same thing," she says, "just a different setting. I'm farming in the city instead of out in Idaho."

She reduced her livestock, selling her goats and rabbits (she still has five chickens and two beehives). She's also helped her dad move to a motel in Orofino. She pays his rent and checks in with him often.

And she wrote "Feral" -- not as she'd originally intended, but with greater insight. "It doesn't wrap it up in a tidy package," she says. "Once I realized I couldn't write the book where we're bonding in the woods, I knew I could write a more honest portrait -- one that's not heroic."

Still, she says, it was her own parenthood that changed everything. "I was fearful," she says. "But now that I have Francis, it's like becoming human. I look at people with babies and I finally understand -- how much work it is, and how much you love them. Really, it's the most intense love feeling ever."