Jenna Butler - Tempered by Beauty
What/who inspires you?
So much. The light, constantly. This time of year, the sense of it turning, incremental gains first thing in the morning and at sunset. The land. Cranes in the spring. Fire season, living on the edge of it up north in the boreal. Departure season and stasis. The deep cold.
Working with our bees. They teach me so much, constantly, about holding a space of quiet, about letting go. You need to come to a place of calm to work with bees, and when you’re stung, as you will be at some point, you have to be able to release instantaneous anger and pain, or you’ll have the rest of the hive to deal with. The bees teach how to hold things lightly. I still have a lot to learn.
The creative folk who seek to live in ways that bring the beautiful, the contemplative, into the everyday, whether with their art or with their hands. The ones who use their work to find paths through so much of what is unlovely in life, who use their words to arrive at places of ceremony and celebration. Joy Harjo. Mary Oliver. Claudia Rankine. Lorine Niedecker. Wendell Berry. Phyllis Webb. Marilyn Dumont. It’s a long list; it’s constantly growing.
How has the process of seeking beauty changed you?
It is constantly remaking me. There is a lot that isn’t beautiful in life. I see from the perspective of one brought up in a (relatively) safe country who has the benefit of an Anglicized surname…but I am also a woman, and coloured. There is a lot that is not beautiful in the everyday: racism, confrontation, threat, harm. I have worked hard for a career in academia, a place that is still very uneasy with the stories of women and of minorities of all backgrounds. It’s not yet a place for us, though we keep trying, though we are always driving forward.
The same can often be said for the world of writing.
And so I’m constantly seeking beauty, because without it, I would lose heart. I see it in my students, looking for a place for themselves in a world that is shifting at an astonishing pace. I see it in the partnership I share with my husband, someone who has been living in a mixed-race relationship with me, and all of the good and bad it has brought us, for the past sixteen years. And I see it in the land we are so deeply connected to, the home in the north we’ve built with our own hands. There’s a lot of beauty out there in the boreal, many things to hold up against hurt and loss. At the end of the day, I don’t know whether seeking beauty has changed me so much as tempered me, if that makes sense.
Describe a moment in your life when you were in the presence of beauty.
Morning, late April, about the same time every year. The first sunny stint of days when you can be certain in your bones that it’s spring, that winter’s kicked off at last. And as the morning heats up, eight or nine o’clock, the sandhill cranes drift in out of nowhere and start to circle above our cabin out on the land. They’re hundreds of feet up, but their calls reverberate down into the boreal clear as anything. In the cabin, out in the market garden, wherever we are, we put down what we’re doing and watch. There’s a wildfowl lake a couple of quarters over, and the cranes, coming and going in spring and autumn, always mass in the air over the land we call home. When they appear on that first really warm day, it’s hearing summer arriving at the edges of your consciousness. You know something has shifted.
How did you find your subject matter?
It’s in my skin: the stories I carry, the stories I don’t yet know, of my family, of my mother’s history, where her people came from. It’s in the stories of the people I talk to out in the world: I’m drawn to narratives of travel, change, loss, and home. And it’s in the land where we live, that truly found us, when we arrived at the end of a dead-end road on a pitch-black winter evening, and knew at once that we’d found the place where we would stay. Everything I write comes down to how we find our place in the world when we’ve lost it or had it taken from us, and have needed to find our way back. It’s a very old story.
What are some things you do to keep beauty in your life?
Walk. Listen. Play. Think. Tinker. Plant. Create.
What is beauty?
Maybe it’s what you make of things, where you find them.
Jenna Butler is the author of three books of poetry and a collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of Grizzly Trail. Upcoming works include Magnetic North, a travelogue linking the Norwegian Arctic and the northern Canadian boreal, and Revery: A Year of Bees, essays about women, beekeeping, and international community-building.
A professor of creative writing and ecocriticism at Red Deer College, Butler lives with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on an off-grid organic farm in Alberta’s North Country.