“It’s almost December,” writes Jenna Butler at the beginning of Revery, “the days dimming rapidly toward the turn of the year. Up here in the boreal forest of Alberta, the low sun clears the horizon and noses into our market garden at around nine o’clock in the morning. It spends much of the day skimming just above the thick fringe of black spruce, willow and paper birch bordering our small farm, offering a few welcome hours of light to the house and our winter-wrapped garden.”
You can hear the poet in Butler’s writing voice, each word chosen with care. You can also hear her fierce love for the small organic farm that she and her husband steward in the midst of boggy muskeg and forest in northern Alberta. And her love for the colonies of European honeybees that provide honey and beeswax to sustain the couple through the long northern winters, plus offer instruction in resilience and community.
“On a day like today, the small warmth of the sun along the hayfield shelter belt counterbalances the air temperature just enough to get the bees stirring. As the sun reaches its height in the early afternoon, they spell each other on cleaning flights from the hive, short bursts into the late November air… . It’s a precarious dance with no margin for error: fly too far or too high, and the cold will seep into their tiny bodies in a way that the meagre warmth of the sun cannot counter.”
Revery is an intimate and compelling look at the cycle of bees and seasons on Butler’s farm, and what they have to teach us. It is threaded through with keen observations about how farming can fit into the surrounding wild lands rather than obliterate them, the peril of climate change, and how women are changing Alberta’s honey industry—an agricultural economy that once excluded them. Butler also writes briefly of her own history of severe physical and sexual abuse, and how working with the honeybee colonies has allowed her to face her fears and accept her broken and resilient self, and the crises of the larger world.
“Ultimately, though, the bees are wise teachers, if I can just calm my stressed-out self during the warmer months and sit in the old plastic chair in the bee yard long enough to listen. … On the days when I feel deeply low, fighting to pitch the insignificance of my individual actions against the vastness of climate change, remembering the improbable flight of June bumblebees or admiring the tenacity of a winter-wrapped hive reminds me that maintaining and supporting these relationships with the bees and this piece of land that supports us all, everything I can do now, is enough.”
As Butler considers how she and her husband can balance their impacts on the land with their need for the land to support them, she also considers the interactions between her imported honeybees and the once-teeming numbers of native bees that pollinate both wild and domestic plants. Everything is connected, she observes. And those interrelationships are key to the health of the land and we humans. In that interdependence, she finds hope.
Revery is a beautifully designed book, but it is Butler’s luminous and discerning prose that places this volume with other classics that closely observe a place and its inhabitants—including Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge and Henry Beston’s Northern Farm—giving us insight into what it means to be fully and powerfully human in a turbulent but beautiful world.