I live in a place that 'doesn't exist'
Emmy Award winner Sara James lives on a bush block that doesn't show up on Google Maps, nor does the dirt track that services it. Photo: Getty Images
Back in manhattan, Sara James was one of the leading TV reporters in the US and the go-to girl at NBC. She was the one chosen by the network to be its chief reporter on the ground, in the thick of the action when the big news stories broke, and she occasionally filled in as anchorwoman on the Today show for Katie Couric or Ann Curry.
And now, where does she live, this all-American, square-jawed dynamo? Well, if you take the Calder Highway north from Melbourne, peel off at the Sunbury-Gisborne South bypass, tootle down a narrow road through farmland, then on to a dirt road that runs along a ridge, and go as far down that road as you can, that's where you'll find her. The Emmy Award winner lives on a bush block that doesn't show up on Google Maps, nor does the dirt track that services it.
Once she overlooked Saks Fifth Avenue from her swank 49th Street office, now she works at a rough-hewn table at the end of a house with an aspect over the Wombat State Forest. The power suits and high heels have been pushed to the back of the wardrobe, jeans and Blundstones now very much the order of the day. James lives here with her Australian husband, Andrew Butcher, two daughters, Sophie and Jacqueline, their golden retriever - and a dozen or so chickens.
Going bush ... Sara James (pictured). Photo: Eamon Gallagher
The story of James's metamorphosis from TV hotshot to Aussie bush mum and Keeper of the Chook Shed can be traced back to a New York Press Club dinner in 1994. She and Butcher got talking - she liked his honesty, innocence and accent, and laughed at his naive questions about US politics - and over the course of a year, a full-on cross-cultural, urban-power-chick-meets-Aussie-farm-boy romance began to blossom.
Butcher grew up in Muckleford, a tiny town in the middle of Victoria that boomed during the 1850s gold rush but hasn't done a lot of booming since. He'd worked his way up from 17-year-old copy boy in the Canberra bureau of the Melbourne Sun to a senior reporter at the organisation. Yet, in many ways, he was the antithesis of the stereotypical journo: he was teetotal for a start, rarely swore and was the very model of restrained common sense. He'd later become News Limited's senior vice-president of corporate affairs and communications in New York, reporting to Rupert Murdoch himself.
When, in 1998, the couple decided to marry, they chose not Manhattan for the big day, but Bert and Bev Butcher's beautiful property at Muckleford. Never had so many New Yorkers descended on a speck-on-the-map Victorian town (population: 1106) for one weekend.
Butcher and James returned to New York to start a family, and Sophie was born in 2001. But their lives were turned upside down in 2004 when their second daughter, Jacqueline, had a seizure at two days old and fell into a coma, leaving them fearing the worst.
After exhaustive testing and a struggle to find the right anti-epileptic drug, Jacqueline's seizures were finally brought under control and her condition stabilised. She was ultimately diagnosed with complex epilepsy and an intellectual disability.
Jacqui's ongoing health problems forced James into a dramatic reappraisal of her priorities. Every-thing that had previously mattered in her working life - getting the big assignments, scooping her rivals - became incidental and insignificant.
"It was a very traumatic time for everyone," says James. "Dealing with something like that completely changed my centre of gravity; suddenly there's a whole different set of things you think about. Not just Jacqui, but her big sister, Sophie, and how she was coping."
When Butcher grew tired of New York after a decade there and raised the idea of coming back to Australia to live, James travelled to Melbourne on a reconnaissance mission. She wanted to find a school that catered for Jacqui's special needs, and a home she was happy with.
Every line of investigation about the best school for her daughter led to one place: the Port Phillip Specialist School in Port Melbourne, a facility for special-needs children that uses dance, drama, music and visual arts to help them better learn literacy and numeracy skills, and prepare them for life after school. (The school has so impressed James she has just written a book about it, titled An Extraordinary School.)
butcher had shown his wife an aerial photo-graph of a property that had caught his eye, north of Melbourne. All she could see in the picture was a roof, surrounded by hectares of trees and bushland. She tried to conceal her horror.
"I'm an urban gal and for me to function, I like to have people around me. That's why I didn't want to be too far from Melbourne," James says.
But when she travelled down that dirt road, feeling slightly unnerved by the isolation and the eerie quiet, she realised the rolling hills, white railing fences and grazing thoroughbreds reminded her of Virginia, where she grew up. And when she took a look at the house and garden, and saw the rosellas and grass parrots flying in and out of the trees, she was won over. "I was just smitten by the wildlife: I never tire of it,'' she says.
Wombats trundle over the back lawn, a koala was last week perched on a bough of a eucalypt in the garden and one night recently James turned on the porch light to discover a kangaroo looking at itself in the window.
Butcher has set up his own PR firm in Melbourne and occasionally retreats to his man-shed at home to pat his 1970 electric-blue Ford Mustang or sharpen his chainsaw, and complete his reboot after 10 years in Manhattan. James is in the middle of a reboot of her own. With the girls now 11 and seven, and healthy and thriving at school, she is returning to journalism, and has begun freelance reporting for NBC.
In a shed on their property, a soundproof booth - with foam on the inner walls and scraps of red carpet lining the outside - has been knocked up so James now doesn't have to file dispatches to NBC from a cupboard inside the house with a blanket over her head. She says the network's technicians back at the Rockefeller Centre reckon the sound quality is pitch perfect, without having any idea that she's speaking from inside a small box bordered on one side by the Mustang and the other by the chook shed.
By working part-time, James can balance having a career with being a carer for Jacqui: "We're trying all the time to better understand her condition, and figuring out how best to meet her needs."
She often wonders at life's vagaries: when she was starting her journalism career in Virginia almost 30 years ago, who could have guessed she'd end up living in the Australian bush where she's learnt the difference between the varieties of parrots, rosellas and lorikeets?
"It's been a dramatic change," says James. "Sometimes I'm a bit shocked by it myself."
And, with that, the chief of NBC's central Victorian bureau gathers up a bag of chook food, picks her way through the puddles outside and heads out to the chicken coop - the one right next to the home-made studio with a direct line to New York.
From Good Weekend