Jenna Butler is an Albertan poet, essayist, editor, and professor. She is the author of six books and the recipient of several national arts awards, including a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Award, three Canadian Authors Association Exporting Alberta Awards, and a recent longlisting for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Internationally, her work has been shortlisted for the Salt and Bridport Prizes (UK), and the High Plains Book Awards and Foreword INDIE Awards (USA). As a board editor for NeWest Press, she has edited over thirty books of poetry and fiction in Canada. A woman of colour interested in multiethnic narratives of place, Butler teaches creative and environmental writing at Red Deer College and runs an off-grid organic farm.
Yvonne Blomer is an award-winning poet and the author of the travel memoir Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur, and three books of poetry. She is also an editor, teacher, and mentor in poetry and memoir. Yvonne served as the city of Victoria’s poet laureate from 2015-2018. In 2018, she curated and created a show of environmental ekphrastic poems in response to Robert Bateman’s art, the result of which is the collection Ravine, Mouse a Bird’s Beak (Nose in Book Publishing, 2018). In 2017, Yvonne edited the anthology Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Caitlin Press), with poets responding to their connection to the Pacific from the west coast of North America, and as far away as Japan and New Zealand. Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds is the second in a trilogy of poetry anthologies with a focus on water. With thanks to the BC Arts Council for financial support to work in Assisi, Italy.
Since our co-written piece was published in Understorey Magazine last fall, we have continued to email and chat online and with each other via video technology, which freezes constantly, to keep expanding our project “Field Notes: Desire Paths, Women, Land and Body.” With the incredible world-shifts due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, our conversations have also shifted. In these excerpted emails, we discuss where we were a mere eight months ago–Assisi, Italy–and where we are now. We edit a new piece, so comments go back and forth in relation to it. We marvel at how life in a pandemic is very much all Field Notes, desires, and desire paths held while we keep ourselves and each other safe, and worry about friends and family nesting all over the world, or out fighting for others’ safety and health.
If we could trace the paths of airplanes,
carbon emissions etching the blue.
What surfaces in the body: PCBs, exhaust.
Glyphosate wilting the bellows of our lungs.
We move through it all: 18th-century smog,
21st-century extinction. We walk the path, a benediction.
Walking and the way it heals. Camino,
the body coming home to the land.
And what the land wants? Sweet rain.
Moonlight. Pull of gravity on core, on seed.
I Come Home to Another Season (Barrhead, Alberta)
We went overseas in the generous light of July—solstice just barely past, days in my northern Alberta home lingering long and rich through to midnight. The darkness never truly darkness, but an ombré of sorts, black shot through with peacock or plum, the satsuma curve of sun. Now, home again but with the old rose stone of Assisi behind my eyes, I find everything changed.
How fast the daylight slips when it’s made up its mind to go.
Incremental thefts: balsam poplar headed with gold at the start of August, the willows running ragged and wild. Crowberries picked over by bears, and in the morning, the pond a black mirror under a thicket of mist. Late summer has given us the slip, has passed us over, along with the sandhill cranes creaking their way south like the slow unfolding of windmills.
They say the boreal will not survive the coming years, the warmth of the south marching its way northward. Already, I see the needles of the muskeg spruce gone burnt with too much water, these endless summer rains. When I cut willow for tea, for the bitter painkiller in its white inner bark, I can’t help but notice how much of the tree has given itself up to rust, its leaves an unkempt spackle. I am not from this place, but the boreal has been my home almost all of my life. This great sweep of forest, so generous with its gifts, is drowning, its roots submerged in the peat. And it’s burning, overburden of brush easy prey for a careless cigarette. Everything is out of balance, tipping wildly.
In the never-come summer
In the rising marsh
In the floodwater river
In the winters harsh
In the sunless months
In the still-green grain
In the hay-bloated cattle
In the endless rain
In the land-keepers robbed of
The place of their birth
In the boreal flooding
A dirge for the Earth.
The forest teaches me again and again that I don’t know much. It’s a lesson that makes me want to learn more, to try to fill the gaps, but one that also stresses humility: as much as I can learn, there will be more and more that I still don’t know. The boreal teaches on a daily basis about letting go of pride and staying open. It inspires a fierce love for these great green lungs.
I don’t know if this deep connection to land is one reserved for women; in fact, that’s something I fight with, the idea that women have to be innately nurturing, to have some inborn connection to the land. Many of the male farmers around me are devoted stewards of the places they’ve grown up in, and even as they know them by heart, they are aware that these places are being reconfigured by climate change. So perhaps the humility isn’t uniquely female, but the concept of being a land custodian, or, let’s face it, in North America, a land “owner” (as a coloured woman, no less!) is fraught. It’s very, very complicated. I care for this land with all I have in me and make the best decisions I can to keep it safe … but at the end of the day, this continent is rightfully the home territories of the Indigenous peoples, and my name is there alongside my husband’s on the deed to this quarter. Ownership is deeply problematic for me. That’s what I was getting at earlier, in the reference above to being a coloured woman. Fifty, a hundred years ago, I and others like me would have been considered property. We wouldn’t have been able to hold title to land, much less our own agency. And here I am, running this much-loved farm and holding a piece of land that is part of someone else’s history.
Here I am, having travelled home at a time when the boreal I love cannot stand much more by way of temperature change caused by emissions.
Coming home is always welcome, but it’s so tangled, too.
Patched by Jackie Partridge
Spiders and Rain (Vancouver Island, B.C.)
The season here begins to shift as cool damp inhabits the late summer night. Some might say Victoria always carries that rainforest touch, but summers are getting hotter and drier, and even in the winter last year, I barely recall wet days.
Tonight, cool air shivers through the house, setting the spider’s webs, newly formed in every corner, quivering. Thieves steal into the garden, creep across vegetable beds and dewy lawn, overripe fruit and trees made bare. Bandits’ clawed feet leave evidence in loose soil. Later, sentinels return what has been taken—nibbled fig on the lawn, web across the laundry line, and a siren’s wail echoing across the city. Sheltered here, I am under Garry Oak, under cloud and damp, I am waiting for the sun, catching it the way beach glass does in a green glimmer. In a way, I welcome these furred bandits. Why take more rights than I’ve already taken to ground and trees and what grows despite my watering or my neglect.
What scientists say of the Boreal, they say of the Ocean. Great Pacific with its dying fish and dying orcas, starving nursing mothers and death up and down the oceanic food chain. Heat and acidity. And the vanishing sea birds.
My footprints follow my own earlier footprints through tidal dunes. If only this were our mark on the land: a footprint that vanishes, washes away, with the coming tide. Out and out, the water still only up to my shins. Long-leafed seaweed rushes in, forms islands my son swims through, his hands walking the sand: laughing human-crab hybrid.
Small fish. Blue,
blue as sorrow too and
blue August sky, clear blue.
Blue with the edges
cut away for a mountain.
Mountain cut away for a
thinning glacier. Blue
blue as a river, blue
as doubt which is also
a river. Blue. Evening’s
slow sigh of blue and
night’s clear night of it.
Recently, a long flight from Venice to London to Calgary and a drive home. Jenna north to the boreal and me west to the coast. After Italy’s protracted human footprint where change occurs on already changed land, I find the widening of the highway through the Rockies an offence.
We have been contemplating Desire Paths in Italy, and what is path but someone’s footprint creating a route through. I am no longer sure I can keep putting my feet down. But how often women have hidden their path-making from the world, all we know of some is the signature “Anon.”
And so, I hold two beliefs, as we all do here in the Anthropocene: I have a child, though I believe the population of humans should go down. I travel, have travelled, though I fear this travel is one of the worst things we can do. I buy toilet paper and take the offered toothbrush from the dentist. I try to make a name for myself and know this too is a way to mark a path. Perhaps this path is “preferential,” the way rainwater creates paths in limestone, or I set footprints in sand. Perhaps I should desire an interior path only, or move toward a more quiet, un-re-mark-able way.
Sky scoured by heat haze,
fields seared August gold.