Jenna Butler. A Profession of Hope (Wolsak & Wynn 2015).
Subtitled Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, this collection of essays makes a fervent argument for small organic farming, even as far north as the Southern edge of the Boreal Forest, which is where Butler & her husband, Thomas Locke, decided in the early 2000s to buy a small lot of land & woods & turn it into an organic farm garden. A Profession of Hope is Butler’s memoir & meditation on the work (& deep pleasure) that went into this profoundly optimistic operation & on the deeper meaning of doing so in an age of mechanical food reproduction.
A fine poet, Butler writes of both the wonders of their patch of woods & slowly cleared garden & of the often incredibly hard work that has gone into turning it into a market garden where the two of them hope to live & farm (at the moment, both are teachers, she at the post-secondary level, he at a primary school, which means that during a good part of the year they commute every weekend from Edmonton or Red Deer to the Barrhead area about an hour & a half drive north of Edmonton, where they pitch in on all the various & difficult bits of work it takes to keep even as small a farm enterprise as theirs going).
Over the years, they have slowly expanded their gardens, encountered all kinds of wildlife they hope to offer a place to live in their woods & around their now fenced in garden & (after some years of ‘living in a fourteen-by-six-foot truck camper for four months of the year’) lovely log cabin. As Butler argues throughout, they are doing this both because it feels right & good for them personally & because they believe in the necessity for those who can do it to expand the organic farm movement in order to help the planet, all its living inhabitants, survive humanity’s ravages of the natural world.
As a city dweller who is also a friend, & one of the lucky people who was able to subscribe to their ‘community-supported agriculture (CSA) food box program’ for a few years before flooding wiped out a whole summer for them (& will be back on it again very soon, I hope), I both support their work & recognize that I could never do it. A Profession of Hope is full of delightful tales of success, & failure, of high hopes & the ways in which a recalcitrant nature can dash them, but never fully. Butler makes her case warmly & brilliantly, saying that ‘there’s a very specific love that drives us out here, that makes us want, more than anything, to be able to enrich our lives and those of others by working with this land, taking just what we need from a small corner while safeguarding the rest as a wild place for future generations.’ But she is wholly aware that such an effort is not for everyone, & tells city people like me just how poorly we would do in their place, unless we have their powerful desire to be there, in what, in one of these lovingly connected meditations, she calls ‘a place that always exists, as it does on this June evening, half in the real world and half in imagination,’
Reading through A Profession of Hope, I found myself delighting in Butler’s rich & delicate descriptions of the varieties of animal & vegetable life they encounter on their land, her lovely evocations of the landscape, the sky, & especially the very changeable weather, as well as her often slyly comic representations of the many trials & tribulations any such adventure, & their creation of their farm is certainly that, will encounter. The thing is, they are in it for the long term, & they not only believe in the importance of what they are doing, but it gives them the greatest pleasure to continue their almost utopian project – living on their little farm provides a spiritual sustenance they thrive on.
This is a short book, yet I’ve barely touched on all the various aspects of their life on the farm that these essays separately take up. Throughout, Butler writes with a poet’s perceptions & precision, as in just about every paragraph in the chapter ‘The Birds’: ‘The real stunners make their appearance in late April and early May, bringing the warmer summer weather with them, brightening the garden with flashy plumage and fluting calls. We see goldfinches only occasionally, so sunflower yellow that we almost doubt our eyes, and so shy that we’re more likely to witness the feeders swinging in their wake and just an afterimage of gold.’
A Profession of Hope is, then, both a delightful & sobering series of glimpses into the many ways of trying to create a space in which to work with the land to feed at least a small portion of humanity – in a time when, as she argues passionately: ‘Our every interaction with an increasingly threatened environment needs to become one where we meet at an interface. . . . We can’t take back the damage we’ve inflicted, but with effort, I do believe we can change it, as long as we are willing to give up our notion of being at the top of the power pyramid. Let’s face it: things are dire, and there is no hierarchy in this struggle for survival.’ Even the most city-centred readers will find much to delight in & to learn from in A Profession of Hope. An emotional & thoughtful argument for learning how to care for the land, it belongs on the same shelf as the ecological classics she refers to throughout.