In the warmer months, author Jenna Butler will often walk the gardens of her northern Alberta farm, Larch Grove, harvesting wild roses. “The petals,” she writes, “layered in a clean jar with the remains of last season’s honey poured over top, will resurrect the full decadence of summer on our morning toast through the winter months.” It’s just one of many exquisite anecdotes found in Butler’s memoir Revery: A Year of Bees, a finalist for this year’s Governor-General’s Literary Awards in the non-fiction category. On the line from her off-grid cabin at the farm, the poet, essayist and writing instructor spoke to The Globe and Mail about life as a beekeeper.
You were a finalist for the Governor-General’s Awards. What did it mean to you to be recognized in that way?
It was amazing. I got to be on this incredible list with writers that I’ve read for years and admired. It was just such a privilege. It’s a little book – Revery is only slightly over 100 pages. It came out in November of 2020 – it felt like pitching it off into the pandemic. Farewell, little book – good luck. I had hopes for it, I think as you do for any of your books. But I also realized everyone had much higher priorities at that time. So, to get on the finalist list was huge.
You open Revery with a quote – “attention is the beginning of devotion” – from the poet Mary Oliver. How did that speak to you as you were documenting your life as a beekeeper over the course of a year?
The book started out being primarily about the honeybees. Then, as we started keeping the bees, we couldn’t help but expand our awareness out to all the wild bees – and realize that even though there is a lot of work being done on the wild bees in Alberta, there is still so much we don’t know. So, it’s that idea that close attention to one thing acts as a doorway to open your attention to all things. It seems to be the way things work out here on the farm. It’s hard to focus in on one thing without seeing how it plays into everything else. It deepens our sense of responsibility to place.
You write in Revery about how keeping bees fosters a sense of hope and well-being.
When you think about honeybees, you think about that sense of hope – how they turn a summer into sweetness for the winter. It seems kind of miraculous, magical. But then you look at the flip side of that hope. How can you not? We’ve been reading for five or 10 years now about how the bees are being impacted, mostly by colony collapse disorder. The exact cause is still kind of nebulous – it’s this multipart ailment. Then you add to that climate change. There is hope – and we all have to find that sense of hope for ourselves, as much as for the bees. But we have to be aware of that impact that we’re having on the world.
There’s a beekeeper saying that you write about – “tell it to the bees” – that I wanted to ask you about.
It’s an old beekeeping practice. It’s happened for years, and it happens across cultures. The bees become a part of your world, your everyday life. We go about our business here in the summer and the spring and check on the bees – they are close enough to the house that you can hear if anything changes. Telling things to the bees becomes part of your practice if anything in your life changes, particularly if it has to do with the people who visit the hives. It came about because if one of the beekeepers died, or someone in your family, you would go out and tell the bees. For us, it just becomes part of visiting the bees and telling them what’s going on. It makes you realize that you are part of something, instead of all of something.
Beekeeping is also an exercise in emotional self-regulation. What happens when you are stressed and interact with the bees?
My husband and I live in this off-grid cabin, 800 square feet. My husband is sitting up in the loft and I’m sure he’s going to laugh to himself as I’m talking about this. He is the most Zen person and he works with the bees and they are all chill around him. But then me – I think it’s also that I am a trauma survivor. They really are sensitive to your energy. They read your energy. You have to become fluid at letting go of the day. I’m aware of it right now. And this past summer, having been diagnosed with breast cancer and waiting for all the tests to confirm it. One thing I haven’t mentioned to a lot of people is that one of the first ways that I knew that the tumour we discovered is cancerous is the reaction from the bees. The bees wouldn’t come anywhere near me.
You write about the history of people turning to bees for healing. As you undergo cancer treatment, are you drawing on the experience of communing with your hives?
I am. It’s interesting that I am going through treatment during the winter, while the bees are socked up in the bee cozies. We just had a foot of snow the other day, so they are buried under the snow. They are shut into their internal world in their hives – we can’t open them up now until the spring. I am very aware of going inward on my own journey. I am aware of them out there as I go into my own world. There is a kind of comfort, knowing that they are out there. They are figuring their way through the hard season – just as I am.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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