A place in the larger world:
An interview with Jenna Butler
October 17, 2023
“The keeping of bees,” Jenna writes, “is a blending of science and spirit; a passion that is, at its roots, an act of hope.” In her latest book, Revery — a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction — she invites readers into the rich and deeply moving world of beekeeping from her home in northern Alberta.
It represents only the most recent example of how she has traversed the globe as an author and as a scholar, bottling her findings in the form of the magic and wonder that comprise her books. It was a joy to encounter all of the above in this interview.
Jana M. Perkins, Founder of Women of Letters
Dr. Jenna Butler (she/her) writes, teaches, and grows in northern Treaty 6 by the Paddle River. She is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion; a collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail; and the Arctic travelogue Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard. Her book Revery: A Year of Bees, essays about beekeeping, climate grief, and trauma recovery, was a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award in Non-Fiction and a longlisted title for CBC Canada Reads 2023. Butler’s work in the environmental humanities has taken her around the world, including to Svalbard aboard an ice-class tall ship and, this year, to Oregon as a resident fellow for Oregon State University, Oregon Wild, and the Spring Creek Project. As a queer BIPOC writer and grower, she speaks widely on equitable land access, diverse community-building, and reciprocal ecological relationships in farming.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Jenna Butler: I was born in rural eastern England and lived for the first few years of my life in a tiny parish too small to be on any but the most local of maps. Life there was agrarian, simple, quiet, and deeply connected to the earth; these qualities sank into me and have stayed all my life. But rural England proved to be a complicated and unwelcoming place in the early 80s for a mixed-race family, and my parents left not too many years down the line. The land itself has always been at my core, though. Wherever I’ve been over the years, finding green spaces — parks, ravines, back alleys lined with dandelions and raspberry canes, and finally, our small farm in Alberta — has been a vital (and often fraught) act of grounding.
I grew up with a deeply creative mother and a wishing-to-be-creative father who surrendered their creativity in order to survive as immigrants. For my parents, work and security were precarious, and I remember them both putting in incredibly long, hard hours at difficult jobs to anchor our family. My mother had been sent away from Tanzania as a girl of fourteen, fleeing violence, and the feeling that life could be swept away in an instant underpinned childhood for me, my sister, and my brother. We grew up with astronomical pressure behind us, the weight of both our parents’ lost countries and our mother’s lost childhood, culture, language, education, and family. There was no question that we would do everything we could to succeed when our parents had given up so much.
Holding on to an unfurling identity as a writer in an immigrant family where creativity needed to be sidelined so we could survive was really, really hard. I became a writer in spite of how I grew up, instead of because of it — I suspect this is a common immigrant story, perhaps particularly so for immigrants of colour. People sometimes ask if I resent growing up in a way that held no space for creativity, and I really don’t. My parents gave up a lot to keep us safe in difficult times and places, and because of everything they gave us, I’ve been able to find my way to my own creativity. I take neither the sacrifice nor the gift for granted.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
JB: I was profoundly lucky in that, when I was nudged down the path to an “acceptable” career by my family, something that would earn money and allow me to support myself and help my family, teaching was waiting for me. It’s a career I deeply love, and alongside it (and, yes, often in competition with it) I’ve been able to lay my writing life. My writing life has strengthened my teaching, and in certain cases, my teaching life has strengthened my writing.
It’s only in the past two or three years or so that I’ve felt able to move away from full-time teaching to freelancing and more editing and writing time. That immigrant need to survive goes deep, as well as what I suspect is a common BIPOC experience of working twice as hard to go half as far. It was my body that finally made the decision for me, after years in post-secondary institutions as one of only a handful of BIPOC faculty, trying to keep my head above some pretty racist waters. I became seriously ill, the kind of illness that pulls the far end of your life much closer, and I realized, there might not be much time left to be creative in. I’m holding more space for it now.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
JB: I’ve been fortunate to have had some wonderful, caring mentors along the way in the form of teachers and other writers. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have had doors open to me in the way that they have done if it hadn’t been for these mentors, their trust, their knowledge, and their deep care, and for that — and for them — I will always be grateful.
The thing I didn’t have, and that I profoundly felt the lack of, was mentorship by other queer and/or BIPOC writers. In the spaces and times in which I was growing up as a writer, intersectional identities weren’t acknowledged; no space was held for us. I didn’t even have a BIPOC teacher until I was 25 years old, let alone a mentor with multiple identities. That’s a long, long time to wait and wonder whether the poems you’re writing, the stories you’re hearing in your family and community, the identities you’re breathing into, have a place in the larger world.
What task(s) do you start your day with?
JB: It depends entirely on the season. We live off grid in the bush, so everything we do is deeply tied to the time of year and to the weather. In the winter, one of us will get up in the middle of the night and start the car to make sure the battery doesn’t die from the deep cold (we routinely hit stretches of -50C during the winters). The other will get up again at five a.m. to lay the fire in the woodstove and put on the kettles for the day’s hot water and washing water, and to chase the night’s chill from the house. There’s less to do outdoors in the winter because the market garden isn’t in season and the dark comes down about 3:30 in the afternoon. I can usually carve out a few hours at my desk each day outside of the growing season, if I’m not teaching.
In the summer, the light comes up around four a.m., so we’re up alongside it to open the unheated greenhouse before the sun fries the plants. In this time of climate crisis, with increasingly extreme summer heat, we rise before dawn to get in a few hours of work in the cool of the morning, and we’ll take a break around noon when the sun becomes too much to bear. Then we’ll work late into the cool of the evening, sometimes as late as 11:30 or midnight, before it becomes too dim to get close work done.
Every day, regardless of the season, begins with several hours’ work at basic farm tasks; our life is very literally grounded in chop wood, haul water. After that, once the house is set for the day and we’ve looked after the garden or brought in the wood and cleared the snow, I can come to my writing desk. I enjoy the morning’s necessary routines: the tasks are so familiar, they’re a kind of meditation. By the time I sit down to write, I’m fully present.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
JB: Perhaps that would be the intimacies of living with a wood stove. It’s our source of heat, it boils all our water, and it cooks all our food. I spend a great deal of time canning, drying, and baking, and also sweeping the chimney, cleaning the stove, listening for chimney fires, and watching the weather to see how the stove will draw. Living alongside fire in this small way requires constant respect, but I wouldn’t give up that relationship for the world.
What question(s) are you currently wrestling with?
JB: What it means to be in reciprocal relationship with the land as someone from away, and what it means to build and sustain relationships with the land as we are more likely to be displaced as climate refugees; how to work with the land in such a way that we contribute to and support diverse ecosystems instead of depleting them; how to feed our communities (particularly our at-risk communities that have very little food security) in hard times; how to sustain and write realistically about hope, even in the face of all that is crashing down.
What keeps you going?
JB: The sun’s slow return in February. The scent of a birch fire in the stove. Sandhill cranes. Wrens rattling in the birdbox. Frost-sweetened carrots. Beeswax candles. Sticky green balsam poplar leaves in April. Earth under my nails. Rain on the tin roof. Canning food with friends. Deep cold. Community, always. The sound of the river in June. Listening to stories in hard times, in all times. Raven antics. The generosity of seeds.
How do you show kindness to the people you care about?
JB: Just about always through food. Woodstove bread or wild rose syrup, bags of carrots and potatoes, foraged greens or garden herbs or honey. Sometimes just holding space for friends to sit and rest with a cup of tea on a rough day, and cooking a meal for them.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
JB: Keepers of the Water is an Indigenous-led advocacy group that works with environmental groups and local communities in support of the water, the land, and all other living beings within the Arctic Ocean Drainage Basin. The group is focused on the concept that water is life, a sacred gift, and must be respected and honoured.
The Edmonton Urban Farm is a two-acre community farm located near the EXPO Centre. It is a teaching farm where students can learn about planting and raising their own gardens, as well as working with rabbits, chickens, and bees. It’s also a place where diverse groups of growers from around the world gather to raise food for their members, share community and special events, and create a sense of home.
We corresponded with Jenna over email in August. The text of our exchange has been edited for clarity.
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