By Jamal Ali
Jenna Butler is a poet, professor, essayist, and organic farmer. She teaches Creative Writing at Red Deer College. She is the author of a new travelogue and poetry collection, Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard; an award-winning collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail; and three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion. Butler was born in Norwich, England. Jenna immigrated to Canada with her parents in the early 1980s. Jenna grew up within Edmonton’s vibrant literary community, but always possessed the desire to return to life on the land. Two decades later, Jenna and her husband began to build Larch Grove, their off-grid organic farm and artists’ retreat, on a quarter section near Barrhead, Alberta. In this interview, Butler talks about life on Larch Grove, her experience as writer in residence onboard a sailing vessel, “Antigua,” in the Norwegian Arctic, and poems from Magnetic North.
JA: What is life like on Larch Grove, your off-grid organic farm and artists’ retreat in Alberta’s North Country? Can you share your experiences?
JB: Our life at Larch Grove is closely tied to the seasons in a way that
is not necessarily true of our time in the city. The weather and the light dictate when everything can happen: spring is sowing-out time, after the last night frosts; summer means long, long days of work in the garden and fields with the late northern evenings, and it’s also the time for ongoing harvest of wild and domesticated food plants, and canning; autumn is the season for preparing the following year’s firewood and getting our home ready for the cold months ahead; and winter is the season of staying warm, resting, tracking on snowshoes in the forest, planning the coming year’s projects, and working our off-farm jobs (we are both teachers). Because we are off grid on the farm, the pace of our days is dictated by the amount of available sunlight for the solar panels and the power stored in our batteries. Cloudy days mean a much closer attentiveness to how many appliances we have plugged in, and switching from electric lights to candles where possible to conserve power. Because we also harvest or haul our own water, we are very careful to monitor our use in the house and garden so that we don’t take more than is sustainable.
People often comment that our life on the farm is a life that requires constant attention, and that’s true! I don’t think we’d have it any other way; that attentiveness keeps us present to the land we work with. We heat and cook with wood, and that requires attention to the wood stove in the form of (constant) chopping and hauling wood, and feeding the fire. We dry, can, and freeze much of our food, and that means keeping up with the garden through the growing season. And we work primarily with hand tools, so that requires us to use growing techniques that minimize weed growth in organic ways and allow us to more simply and efficiently keep up with tending the gardens. So, absolutely, it’s a way of life that requires more attention to everyday tasks that we wouldn’t think twice about in the city (turn on the thermostat and walk away!). But there’s something comforting about throwing the strength of our bodies behind a task, and about giving daily work the time it needs for completion. It re-dignifies the work of our hands and allows us to be present with the world.
JA: In 2014, you held a position as writer in residence onboard an ice— class barquentine sailing vessel, “Antigua,” in the Norwegian Arctic. Can you reflect on your experiences? Would you describe this experience as “novel” for a writer in residence?
JB: It was a surreal journey in so many ways. I’d prepared ahead of time as much as I could have done, but being there in person and interacting with the land impacted me in ways that I’m still processing. It’s one
thing to read about glaciers calving with the increased heat of climate change, but it’s another thing entirely to listen to them through the long, bright Arctic nights. I’d watched as many films on the Arctic as I could lay hands on before my trip, and read widely, but I was still floored by the tremendous evidence of human impact on the land. Everywhere we went, we picked up garbage from the beaches. It had floated thousands of kilometres to wash up on Spitsbergen. That, more than anything else, drove home to me exactly how deeply we impact other places around the globe through our actions, our choices, and our consumption.
Living in very close quarters onboard the ship was also something I hadn’t expected to impact me so deeply. I made some wonderful friends with whom I’m still very close, but as an introvert, the cramped spaces of the ship meant that there was no place to go to be alone or to recharge. I mean, you’re on a ship in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and the closest land is peppered with polar bears. It’s not as though you can just get off and go for a walk when it strikes your fancy.
It was definitely a novel experience, and one that I am tremendously grateful for. I’m still walking with that landscape today, still journeying with some of the things I saw during that trip, and the things I felt. Voyages like that one are as much emotional and internal as they are physical and external.
JA: The following lines in your poem, “Night,” page 20 of your poetry collection, Magnetic North, Section 1, stuns my imagination: “Night is non- existent, circadian cranked to overtime. No twilight, / no dusk, no dawn.” How did you feel in this setting with respect to the above-mentioned lines from your poem? Was it overwhelming?
JB: It was absolutely overwhelming, but in the sense that we dropped into this 24-hour daylight for a few short weeks and then left again. I think it was the sudden change that struck so hard; when I left Canada, although the days were long leading up to the solstice, we still had a few hours of darkness at night. But when I arrived in Longyearbyen, the light was up
to 24 hours a day. That sudden shift was jarring for most of us on the voyage. There’s something about going very rapidly into constant daylight that disrupts the rhythms of the body. I found that, although I managed to sleep for a few hours every night, my body never felt as though it achieved deep rest. By the end of the trip, I had tremors in my hands.
At the same time, though, the bright Arctic nights afforded amazing opportunities to observe the land in solitude. There were many nights when I popped up on deck at two or three in the morning and watched the sea birds or the whales, or listened to the glaciers calving and the ice creaking. I don’t know that I’d choose to jump from dark nights
to 24-hour light again in such a sudden way, but I wouldn’t be averse to being in a northern location again and experiencing the full progression from the dark of winter to the light of summer.
JA: The lines in your poem, “Afloat,” page 51, Section 4 provokes deep thought: “Day Twelve: a sheltered bay where we hike melting permafrost, boots / filling with water that has not been water for eight thousand years.” What do these lines reveal about the impact of climate change in this polar environment?
JB: There’s so clearly an impact. Climate change is happening everywhere —witness the increasing unpredictability of global weather events and
the growing number of climate refugees around the world. The Arctic is widely considered the canary in the coal mine for global warming, and that’s what I witnessed in Svalbard. The glaciers, calving constantly. The permafrost squelching under our boots when we made landfall in the
Zodiacs to go hiking. The flooding of the Svalbard Seed Vault a few short years after our voyage. And then I came home, and four years after my Arctic journey, my husband and I had to move our entire farm from one end of the quarter section to the higher ground at the other because our county was experiencing horrible floods for the second time in five years. What the Arctic showed me, more than anything, was how interconnected these climate events are. I heard the glaciers constantly calving when we were onboard the ship, and then I went back home and the Fort McMurray fire happened. California and B.C. burned. Our farm flooded. And there are so many stories like this—the impacts are felt all over the world. Everywhere, these links.
JA: In the title page of your poem, “At the Face,” page 71, you quoted John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist, author, and environmental philosopher: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people
are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wildness is a necessity.” What are your thoughts on this quote in relation to your poem, “At the Face?”
JB: I saw that quotation by Muir in an exhibit at the museum in Svalbard, and it made me think, people everywhere are tied together in this deep desire to connect with the land in a meaningful way. I was thinking in terms of North Americans, particularly, where we live these high-octane, ridiculously paced lives that are widely recognized as having some of the most detrimental impacts on physical and mental wellbeing in the world. But the fact that the quotation was there, too, in an exhibit in Norway, spoke to this global desire to get out of our own heads, our own constructed spaces, and reconnect with the land that lies at the heart of everything. In “At the Face,” I’m breaking down some of the many, many ways in which that human/land disconnect happens: disrespect, lack of understanding, this strange need to create hierarchies, the devaluing of deep knowledge of land and place. In the poem, I’m playing with the ability of glaciers to reflect major environmental events in the particulate captured in the ice (ash from volcanic eruptions and so forth). When I was crafting the poem, I started thinking, well, if glacier ice can reflect an eruption that happened a thousand years ago, what if it could reflect specific human-created events, too? Industrial catastrophes. Wars. I used the poem to explore the increasing human impact on the land, and in the back of my mind, I was thinking, What will the future glacier ice reflect, if the glaciers are in almost constant recession and melting at this phenomenal rate? Will people in the future be able to see anything of the past reflected back at them?
JA: The opening line in your poem, “Song to the Boreal,” page 90, Section 1 is powerful: “I return home craving the forest.” With respect to the poem’s opening line, and the poem as a whole, can you describe the transition in your journey from the islands of Svalbard to your home in Alberta’s North Country?
JB: It took a long time to come home. The physical journey itself was relatively short, about a day and a half of solid travel from Svalbard back home to the Alberta boreal. The emotional journey took a lot longer. It’s probably cliché to say that Svalbard broke me open, but it did, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, and my gratitude to the land that set me on a journey of some pretty deep emotional work when I’d come back home.
Two things stood out to me on returning to Alberta, and they were things I tried to reflect in “Song to the Boreal.” The first was the deep reverence I hold for the land I live on, the gratitude I feel to be there. The second was how intrinsic the connections are between all these places —Svalbard, the northern boreal, the Pacific Ocean—everywhere, they’re all linked. It’s common sense, but perhaps it doesn’t come home to us in quite so visceral a way if we’re only seeing the impacts of our changing climate somewhere else. But when we’re away, and then we come home again and see the same impacts, even though they might manifest in different ways, we start to draw long connections. In “Song to the Boreal,” I returned home craving connection to the space I knew, but also drawing threads of a larger connection with me across the Atlantic. The poem became a way of greeting and thanking the land I live on, and also of seeing powerful commonalities between this land and Svalbard. I came home again, but it was with an entirely different awareness and a renewed desire to walk with integrity in the place that I live.
Jamal Ali enjoys reading his poems at Single Onion Open Mic poetry events held every fourth Monday of the month at Good Earth Cafe located on 1502 11th Street SW in Calgary. For the month of May 2019, Jamal was the feature poet. It was his first feature.