Jenna Butler is the author of the poetry collections 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 travelogue Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard. Revery: A Year of Bees, essays about beekeeping, climate grief, and trauma recovery, was released by Wolsak and Wynn this fall. Butler is a professor at Red Deer College and farms off the grid in northern Alberta.
Interviewed by Nancy Pearson
Nancy Pearson (NP): Revery: A Year of Bees is a moving tribute to the pollinators that are critical to the health of humans and the planet. Facts about bees and beekeeping are so dexterously—and often poetically—presented that a reader can savour them almost like a narrative ‘honeycomb.’ Teaching is discussed at length in terms of your role as a professional educator, how you also learn from your students, and the lessons bees offer. I’m wondering who you hope most of all will learn from Revery?
Jenna Butler (JB): When I was thinking my way towards the book, I was wondering: Is it going to be a book that’s aimed at other beekeepers? Is it going to be a book that’s aimed at a reading public that isn’t familiar with beekeeping? Right off the bat, I kind of figured out that I still consider myself really new to the art of beekeeping. So, I thought it’s not going to be something where I’m going to tell anyone who is more experienced than I am anything that they don’t already know. I aimed it at a general readership that is invested in the land around them, that’s invested in what’s happening with climate change, that’s seeing it happen in smaller ways around them.
And as we were saying just before the interview, there’s smoke in the air from the fires in California [even in northern Alberta, where Jenna lives]. People who are looking around them and looking at the ways in which we’ve impacted our ecosystem in devastating ways and maybe struggling with that question of: How do you find hope when it feels like maybe your sense of agency is so small? How do you find hope? How do you find a way through? How do you take meaningful action in such a way that it feels like your action, what you are able to do, is enough? Anyone, basically, who feels that way, that’s the readership that I thought I was reaching out to. For such a small book, it took me a really long time because I was stuck in climate grief myself. I was sitting here going: How do I articulate what I’m seeing around me, what I’m living, what I’m experiencing, what I’m seeing in the world? While I thought that, while I was writing out towards other people, I was writing to myself as well. Trying to articulate that sense of hope and the need to keep taking these small, incremental steps in positive directions even though often it feels overwhelming.
NP: Revery is a compact memoir and I see it as having three main threads: bees and beekeeping being one; your experiences with off-grid farming in Alberta’s boreal forest as another; and grief. Each thread draws on and weaves around the others. I’d like to just tug on one of those threads—could you talk a bit about the theme of climate grief.
JB: Absolutely. That was one of the things I was talking about in the book, this whole idea of nostalgia—that system of mourning a landscape that doesn’t feel like home anymore, a place that doesn’t feel like home. It just feels like so many of us are right there. We’re looking at lands that we grew up in, or lands that we’ve travelled to, and places that have felt like home, that suddenly we feel distant from.
We’ve been working our farm out here for 15 years and we’ve been watching what’s happened. Even just over those short 15 years, we’ve been watching what’s happening in the boreal forest, in our county farther north. We’ve been watching the impacts of climate change and living them first-hand. That sense of nostalgia and that ongoing grief while you are living in an environment and seeing it shift around you. It’s really present. And, so, the memoir itself was my way of walking myself through climate grief, as well, and trying to come to some understanding of it for myself.
And, I guess, give myself that sense of agency back. Because when I started the book, I stalled out quite badly. Just thinking I wanted to write about the bees and a sense of hope historically, they’ve always represented this kind of crazy hope. You only have to look at a bumblebee and think about how it flies and think that that’s aerodynamically impossible! How does that sucker fly? And then when you’re thinking about save the bees, and you’re thinking about the changing climate and everything, you sit there and wonder: Is this the first time in history the bees don’t represent that anymore?
Writing this and considering all this was, for me, just that walking through climate grief.
NP: There is also another type of grief that is key to the memoir—your history of abuse. The rate of reveal is subtle. When the terrible story is exposed, it left me in awe of your personal strength and endurance. I really admired how you balanced your story of pain with that of what’s happening to bees and the environment. Could you expand on how you found that balance when writing this part of the book?
JB: It took me a while to process it because, weaving it in, I was very aware of the climate grief. I was very aware of my grief around saving the pollinators, saving our food supply, things like that. The personal grief was something I had not written about, really, up until Revery. It was not something I had spoken of to my family. It wasn’t something I had really spoken widely of to anyone. So, the idea of putting it out into the world was kind of terrifying. I think part of that articulation process of learning was how to talk about how you grieve the land around you and how you grieve even interpersonal connections. Like, we can no longer travel to see family members because of what’s happening with COVID, with the climate. Learning how to articulate all of that drove it home to me that it was becoming more urgent to be able to articulate what had happened to me. For myself and also to weave that into the narrative of the book because that’s how I came to beekeeping.
The person who abused me passed away part way through my writing the book. So, that was a big permission granting in a way. I gave myself permission to say, I’m the only keeper of what happened now. I’m the only keeper of those stories. My body is the only keeper of those stories. It’s up to me how I process them. And how I let them go. Part of that was weaving it into the book and letting it go and taking agency back for myself.
I struggled all the way through about how to introduce it, how to touch lightly on something that had the ability to turn the whole memoir into a really dark place.
NP: That’s what impressed me, too. It doesn’t become the main focus of the book, for me. The balance was so finely done, to my mind.
Hope is a key theme throughout Revery, from the epigraph to the final word. It’s almost like a toast to a cause and a call to action. The title of your previous book—A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail—suggests that hope is a recurring theme for you. Is that a fair comment?
JB: Absolutely. I’ve been reading lately a number of other writers and thinkers and critics who have been chewing on that idea of: Should we have hope, or do we get defeated by the notion of hope? If we can’t clearly see a way forward, do we then get defeated? And I keep coming back to that I think having hope and particularly in acting our hope, in small ways, is a way of giving us that sense of agency that we have, even if it’s within the scope of our own bodies, our own households, our own communities, we have small ways of making positive change. It’s not going to stop the wildfires in California. But what can we do ourselves in this moment? Otherwise, it’s easy to just keep thinking—especially in COVID time—on top of climate change, it’s just to keep thinking.
I’m always going to keep coming back to hope. In spite of maybe some better advice. There’s always that sense that hope is slightly naïve. But, also, to me, having hope shows me the path in front of my feet. Even if I can’t see very far, it gives me an indication of the path. Then I feel I have a sense of the way to go.