A poet and her husband write their own story while living off the grid
photography by Cory Johnn
The trees on either side of the narrow gravel road are thick and tall. A meagre stream flows beneath a small bridge. The area has been short on water for weeks, but the drought hasn’t dulled the green leaves – they rustle in the wind, ironically mimicking the sound of running water.
After a turn, a smaller path lined by wheat fields ends up in a forest where Jenna Butler and her husband, Thomas Lock, wave from a few feet away.
They have a market garden in the midst of the trees, they explain as they push through the dense growth. Poplar, spruce, aspen and willow trees, along with saskatoon bushes, provide shelter from the heat, the wind and even insects, creating something of a secret garden for growing onions, tomatoes, potatoes and peas – all protected by an eight-foot fence with trenched chicken wire along the bottom. Rabbits, coyotes, moose and deer live here, too.
“We wanted to be far enough into the trees to avoid any [pesticide] drift from the fields because we follow organic practices. But they are already starting to creep in,” Butler says, poking her foot at a small poplar that’s sprouting on the outskirts of the garden’s fence.
In late 2006, Butler and Lock bought this piece of land from a couple who had also owned the surrounding acres. The idea was to create more self-sufficiency, living more simply off the land while sharing some of the wealth with others.
“We’re looking at closing loops,” says Lock. “Growing our own seeds, and the majority of our food, for example. We’re so horribly dependent on stores. What if someone were to pull that away from you? How many people could deal with that?”
They started out like modern-day settlers, clearing the bush with axes and their own steam rather than that of chainsaws or a backhoe. Decades of history were evident in the remains scattered over the land – an antique piano sat among the trees, several wagon wheels littered the ground and there was a grain silo full of moose antlers. Initially, the previous owners visited often, telling passed-down tales of prospectors who once came through on their way to pan for gold.
Butler and Lock wanted their ventures to give back, helping preserve a piece of land rich in history, rather than just taking from it. Two years after buying the land, they started delivering boxes of vegetables to Edmontonians; they had 15 families on the roster before having to suspend the program due to flooding. Butler especially benefitted from growing their own food – in the past, she had experienced ill effects from eating store-bought fruits and vegetables, believing it was likely pesticides creating the reaction. Now, she’s added many foods back into her diet that she once couldn’t tolerate.
Butler has written several books of poetry and has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities, including MacEwan University and the University of Alberta. She runs Rubicon Press, which publishes chapbooks of poetry; she sits on the board of NeWest Press and she has received numerous literary awards and grants.
And now, her most recent book, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail – to be officially released at LitFest this month – is comprised of 18 essays and speaks to the everyday challenges and triumphs of living on their farm, close to Barrhead.
Butler has always been interested in how people view the lands on which they live. She has held writers’ residencies in the United States, Ireland, Spain and the Arctic, where she wrote about landscapes and people’s connections with them. She has taught writing workshops in rural Italy to university students immersed in a different culture for the first time. And she has presented at conferences in the U.S., Spain’s Canary Islands, the United Kingdom and Canada, speaking on the relationships people have with their homes.
Exploring her own relationship with her own newly purchased land was a natural step – but she had some encouragement. After signing the deed, Butler started sharing her experiences and photos on social media. That’s when a publisher with Wolsak and Wynn reached out to her, and suggested Butler write a book chronicling the journey. So, Butler got to work. But the book is more than a collection of stories about life in the countryside – her present-day experiences are as important to her as stories of the past.
Both Lock and Butler come from far-off lands with histories far different from Alberta. Butler was born in England, and Lock spent some of his childhood in the Netherlands. They lived together for a year in the United Kingdom while Butler was completing her university education. Afterwards, Butler was teaching in Canada, but would travel frequently to England while completing a PhD in creative and critical writing. Butler says Canada felt the most like home, though, and they wanted to create a new history on their new piece of land while connecting with the stories of its past.
Few places feel as welcoming as the tiny cabin just a few steps east of their garden. An axe is standing upright on a log, ready to split the wood that the couple uses to fuel the cast-iron cook stove inside the one-room space. It’s modest, but luxurious when compared to the truck camper where the couple lived for the first few years. Now, they sleep in a small bunk overlooking the sitting and dining area, shower outdoors by a tree and use an outdoor composting toilet. Meanwhile, their electricity is generated through a solar array. Their light comes from homemade beeswax candles and a small flashlight that runs on large batteries that can be recharged off the solar panel. They have plans, as well, to install a larger solar array that will have the ability to produce more power, along with a solar hot water heater for winter showers.
It sounds very Swiss Family Robinson, but there are a few distinguishing differences. They also use cellphones – powered from their car battery – and laptops. Most significantly, they both have outside jobs because it will take time for the farm to be self-sufficient.
Butler is a professor at Red Deer College, where she teaches creative writing and ecocriticism, aiming to look at analyze nature literature and how it portrays environmental concerns. Lock teaches Grade 1 at Edmonton Public Schools. Their goal might be to live more simply, but things are fairly complicated these days, with both travelling extensively while working double-time. There are no complaints, though.
“I find the physical, outdoor work very rewarding,” says Lock, while Butler nods in agreement, adding that they try to limit their use of phones and computers to their outside work and for writing.
They work hard during the days, but when the sun goes down, they power down, too. It’ll be hours before that point today, though. The sun is bright and warm overhead, but the trees add moisture to the air as Butler walks through the garden. One side of the garden is full of vegetables – peas, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes – while the other side is a tangle of buckwheat that Butler calls a “cover crop,” planted in hopes that it would help build the soil back up after a severe flood a few years ago. While the land is in a great spot for growing food, it’s not immune to the elements, Butler explains, pointing out a tree that succumbed to the trauma of first a flood and now a drought.
One year, neighbouring fields were so full of grasshoppers that the county declared the area an agricultural disaster zone. Neighbours were surprised to see Butler and Lock’s patch was largely unaffected.
“Because of our shelter belt, it kept the bugs out. And maybe because it was a bit more organic, and we have more of the predators kicking around too,” says Lock.
The goal is for them to eventually live here full-time.
Butler is standing so close to the beehives at the back of the garden that they swirl alarmingly close to her uncovered head. But the docile Italian honeybees are as relaxed as she is, slowly buzzing beyond her into the nearby fields. Butler and Lock have started making candles from the wax, and would eventually like to harvest the honey.
They also have plans for raising trout in a dugout and expanding their greenhouse to lengthen their growing season. Mostly, they’d like to share their experience with more people – creating an artists’ retreat on the land while expanding their solar array to generate more electricity and self-sufficiency.
After walking the perimeter of the garden, Butler and Lock sit in what they call their living room – a grouping of lawn chairs on a stone patio overlooking the vegetables. The sun is right overhead, spilling over the patio umbrella in waves of heat. Butler admits they even sit out here in the winter, but far less often – partly because of the cold, but mostly because they’re not here as much.
During the school year, Butler explains, she only can travel out to the farm on the weekends. During the week, she engages students in conversations about ecocriticism and, come Friday, she makes the three-hour trek back.
“You feel like a bit of a hypocrite with the driving. Like, you can live low-impact, but if you have to drive close to 300 kilometres once a week, you know, it’s not quite reconciled yet,” she says. “Once is the farm is self-sufficient, we’ll be able to put down roots.”
Already, the couple spends as much time on the farm as possible. And while Butler continues to occasionally explore diverse landscapes, she’s always happy to come home.