A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail

by Jenna Butler


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781928088080
Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn Publishers, Limited
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Pages: 142
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jenna Butler is the author of three books of poetry and ten short collections with small presses. Butler teaches creative writing and eco-criticism at Red Deer College. In the summer, she and her husband live on a small organic farm near the historic Grizzly Trail in Alberta's north country.

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Flipping the Switch: From the City to the Farm

WHAT MAKES US STEP AWAY from a stereotypical urban life? For some, perhaps it's a small departure: a handful of chickens in the backyard, a few raised beds for beans and greens or a rooftop garden if the condo building permits. For others, it's the whole hog: departing city life altogether for a different way of being. Either way, there's a shift that happens within some of us, and the desire for change – to be closer to the earth, our food and the seasons – becomes a necessity.

There's a moment when, no matter who you are, if you've been "dreaming out," something flips that switch. You make the transition from a life of what if and wouldn't it be great if to why not? And more importantly, why not now? No matter when that happens, it's a date that stays with you: the moment you granted yourself permission to have that life; the moment that everything changed.

Our moment came during the early winter of 2006. After months of driving isolated back roads outside Edmonton, my husband, Thomas, and I drew up at a single-strand wire gate on an early November evening. It was five o'clock and dark as the inside of a barrel. The day's exploring had taken us longer than we'd anticipated, and we'd gotten to the circled point on our map long after the sun, wandering toward the solstice, had set. We shivered our way out of the car and stood in the glow of the headlights, looking up at the weathered grain bin that marked the entrance to the property. Out of nowhere, a pack of coyotes began its evening chant. A great horned owl called in the deep woods, and a second one answered. Thomas squinted up at the metal bin, reading the paint. "Look at that," he laughed. "It's got your name on it." It was one of those old Butler bins. We paused and considered each other.

Like that, the switch flipped.

Why were we even out there at all, two lone figures on a snow-fringed township road in early winter? Like many people, we'd dreamed of having a little plot of our own, a small piece of land or a double lot in the city where we could grow our own food, but it had been a semi-formed dream. Then we moved to England for a year – my husband on sabbatical from teaching, me working on my Master's in poetry – and for ten months, we settled in the northeastern part of the country where my father's family hails from. There, surrounded by the small rural villages, intergenerational farms and large country gardens of my early childhood, I rediscovered that land with my husband, and we became aware of a desire to have something like that for ourselves. But, being stubborn and steadfast Canadians, we wanted to try to build a rural life back at home in Alberta, not in the tiny village where my grandmother lived. Beyond just the homing instinct, there was something about small-scale farming in a cold climate with a short growing season that appealed to us. The challenge beckoned.

Michael Pollan speaks of a formative moment "a few years shy of [his] fortieth birthday [...] when the notion of a room of [his] own, and specifically, of a little wood-frame hut in the woods behind [his] house, began to occupy [his] imaginings with a mounting insistence." Fiction writer and small farmer Barbara Kingsolver lists a number of practical reasons for moving her family away from an urban lifestyle, including being closer to extended family and loving the wild life spent outdoors. Mostly, though, she came to realize that her family's move emerged from a desire to be nourished by the ground they lived on: "[They] wanted to live in a place that could feed [them]: where rain [fell], crops [grew], and drinking water [bubbled] right up out of the ground."

For Thomas and me, both city-based teachers, both as prepared as we could be for an adventure of such magnitude, the thought of finding a piece of land to protect from development was deeply attractive. In 2005, when we came home from England, where any construction is years in the planning before spade is set to ground, we found that much of the best black-soil land immediately around Edmonton was being sold off for development. Industrial parks and suburbs were being built overtop of some of the province's most fertile farming belts. Knowing we couldn't afford even half an acre in those developments (and who wants to – or can – shell out a cool million for a lot next to an industrial park?), yet still wanting to purchase a wild space we could keep safe, we searched farther and farther afield. For a year and a half, our weekends were composed of very pointed road trips: the two of us in our small black Jetta, equipped with mugs of tea and a well-circled map, buzzing around the back roads amidst farm trucks and mobile drilling rigs and snowplows. We learned that the farther we got from the city, the lower the price of the land, but with those cost benefits came a host of new problems: groundwater so contaminated from nearby oil and gas wells that farmers could light their methane-filled tap water on fire, and muskeggy dirt that could suck a one-ton truck down during the spring thaw and not release it until freeze-up. Everywhere we turned, there was gas flaring and quad damage and quarters that had been logged within an inch of their lives.

Over the years, many people have asked us whether we came from farming backgrounds, and if that was how we knew to look for the right sort of land. There might be some farming blood in me – my father's side of the family has lived and worked in England's farming country for generations – but Thomas is a city boy, born and bred. To be honest, my biggest experience of farming as a kid was going to the annual Harvest Fair down at Fort Edmonton Park after we moved to Alberta. So when people ask me whether we knew something beforehand about farming, as though there's some secret skill set that allows certain folk to make the jump from the city to rural life with a greater deal of success, my answer is no. That's exciting and terrifying, isn't it? That means there's no magic pill for success, no easy way to go about it. Anybody with determination and knowledge can do a pretty decent job of getting back to the land.

Our decision to buy the piece of land that would become our small farm was one born in the bones. For me, it echoed with memories of the tiny farming community I come from in northeastern England, where some of my family still grows sugar beet and grain, and raises cattle. Although I don't recall much of the life I left behind in England, I've always harboured a deep-seated desire to find a piece of land outside the city to call home. Thomas, too, born in the Netherlands and raised in Edmonton, has always loved being outdoors; he's a devoted backcountry hiker and camper, and has hauled me up a fair number of mountains. We both love being out, whatever the weather. I can't help but think you're asking for trouble if you make a break from city life when you don't really like being in the country.

This means being able to stand up to everything the country throws at you: in our case, windstorms, lightning strikes, mosquitoes, flood years, drought years, raiding moose, slumpy peat soil and stinging nettles. I have dear friends who can't stand cramped city life but whose only appreciation for the country comes from running their snowmobiles through it in the winter. If that's you, all I can say is look for a double lot in the city and get your taste of rural living from having a big, beautiful garden, because jumping ship to a country property isn't going to be the answer if you only love the land at specific times of year. You have to want to be out, and then for as much of the day as there is light, especially if you're running a farm. When friends learned that we were living in a fourteen-by-six-foot truck camper for four months of the year during the first few years of the farm, they were horrified. "How can you survive in there?" they'd ask, looking at their own partners. "We'd kill each other!" The answer was, we were outdoors. Thomas built a huge gravel patio outside the camper, and this was our living room for those four months. Every day, we were out of the camper at dawn and in again only to sleep, or to escape the rain and have a cup of tea. The world outside, the world of farm and forest, became our everything.

What began as a practicality – we simply didn't have the money to buy close to the city – changed along the way into something more profound. We came to the idea that what we really wanted was to find a tract of land far outside the city that we could protect against future urban development, and that we could work with to ensure our own health and survival. We wanted a flower garden, a big one, and an orchard with beehives. A cabin, eventually, as a home. A large hayfield for growing crops, and maybe one day for growing the bales for a straw bale house. A spread of forest to manage sustainably as a woodlot. We wanted the good health that came from working hard outdoors in all weather. And we began to understand, as I suffered from progressively worsening allergies when eating conventionally farmed, store-bought vegetables in the city, that we needed to completely change the way we ate.

So, that November dusk in 2006, when we stood by the side of a small township road in northern Alberta's Barrhead County, an hour and a half's drive northwest of Edmonton, and listened to the owls and the coyotes, we were aware of a very real separation beginning to happen between ourselves and the city. The switch had been flipped. The land we stood on was relatively untouched, distant enough from oil and gas, and full of animal life. We didn't know what the ground would look like come summertime, and we realized that we stood at the base of a huge learning curve, but we were already sold. Somehow, over the next few years, we would find a way to make that land our home.

And truly, once doubting and worrying and hedging your bets are set aside, just committing to the decision to live closer to the land is most of the battle won.


Bug Off

REMEMBER WHEN I SAID that if you're planning to dream yourself a country life, you'd better be able to deal with everything the wilderness throws at you? It's the honest truth. And much of the time, what gets thrown at you is bugs.

We call our place Larch Grove Farm for the tamarack trees that fill its forest, but that first summer back in 2007, there was nothing recognizably farm-ish about it. Part of what attracted us to the land was its nearly untouched nature: it had never been clear-cut or used for cropping. The elderly couple who sold it to us as the final quarter section of a once-thriving family farm had used it as a hunting ground and midden for years, so we inherited a worn grain bin full of five-foot spans of moose antlers and a one-hundred-thirty-five-acre forest picked out in rusted snowmobiles, decaying upright pianos and ruined wagon wheels. And bugs.

We'd fallen in love with the property during the deep winter, but thank goodness we'd had sense enough despite our infatuation to get out the snowshoes and walk the land before entering into the purchase agreement. We learned pretty quickly that the same land that was home to great horned owls and a den of coyotes was also home to one hundred thirty-five acres of muskeg spruce forest and Labrador tea – in other words, not your run-of-the-mill farmland. The quarter we'd fallen for lies at the southern edge of the boreal mixed-wood region, a zone of white spruce, poplar, black spruce and muskeg swamps that runs right up to the far northern border of the province. Our farm is several miles off the Grizzly Trail, formerly the original Klondike Trail, a secondary highway that bisects the town of Barrhead and runs straight up into the North. It's beautiful country, a combination of rolling hills and deep peat bogs. Our quarter in particular (as we later found out from the hydrogeologist we brought in to conduct a groundwater survey) is home to both a prehistoric lakebed and a riverbed, and is at the bottom of a bowl of hills. All of that adds up to two things: first, because of the variable terrain along the Grizzly Trail, we're gardening in a frost hollow, one of the places most rural folk who know better run screaming from. Second, the peaty soil stays damp year-round. And that means – you guessed it – bugs.

THAT FIRST SUMMER, we pulled up by the grain bin after our ninety-minute drive northwest from Edmonton, intending to start a bit of clearing in the dead willow thicket near the run-down tool shed. Moments after we climbed out of the car, we were met with a cloud of mosquitoes that defied all our city-bred senses. Like everyone else in prairie cities across western Canada, we'd taken for granted the hordes of park workers with backpack sprayers and the low-flying fogging aircraft that took care of the mosquitoes in the public parks and river valleys. We didn't like the procedure, and I was always prone to bad allergies after the city had sprayed, but we didn't doubt that it worked. We'd never encountered mosquito swarms of this magnitude before, and they were hungry. Even after we piled back into the car some twenty awful minutes later, they landed on every closed window, buzzing after blood. It was Hitchcockian.

In true hobby farmer fashion, we decided to abandon ship and head out on a road trip to Vancouver Island instead – miraculously mosquito free. We came reluctantly back to the farm the next month to see if the bug problem had resolved itself. Astonishingly, it had. The peaty soil that turned the ground into a quagmire of marsh marigolds every spring had dried sufficiently in July's heat to become something resembling ordinary garden soil, though a little on the dusty side. The willow thicket was a mess of broken grey limbs and waist-high marsh grass, but compared to the previous month, it was relatively bug free.

We learned an invaluable lesson in those first two months at the farm: if we wanted to be able to work on the land and not be eaten alive, we were going to have to do some serious clearing. Not only was the willow thicket a major fire risk right there at the entrance to the property, but the boggy ground beneath it would be a perennial problem. As long as the soil was spongy and wet, we'd be greeted at the start of every summer with a bumper crop of mosquitoes.

And so the Summer of Mosquitoes led into the Summer of the Chainsaw. Well, not immediately. In true idealistic, back-to-thelander form, we who had been living amongst the pages of The Good Life and The Harrowsmith Country Life Reader decided to start clearing the willow thicket with our lone tool at the time: an axe. That lasted for a day. The first evening, after having spent hours ricocheting his axe off a springy, eight-trunked Bebb willow, Thomas presented me with his double-handed set of blisters and announced, "We're getting a chainsaw."

From an axe to a chainsaw, and from there to a secondhand farm truck and pull chains for stumping the next summer, we slowly nibbled away at the one edge of the property accessible from the township road. As the dead willow thicket came down, the ground dried and the lay of the land emerged, and we realized that the hordes of mosquitoes were a thing of the past. Not because we had changed the land enough to be inhospitable to them, but because more songbirds sought out the newly opened space of the farm garden to feed. Where once we had a handful of chickadees and woodpeckers hammering away on the dead willow, we now also had white-crowned sparrows, warblers and goldfinches, whiskey jacks and ravens. A broad-winged hawk moved in to raise her brood near this surprising new twenty-four-hour food mart, and she returned to the woods every summer afterward. The owls thrived, and dragonflies appeared seemingly out of the very air to help the songbirds keep the mosquito count down.

Farming, though, is a constant font of the unexpected. It was early June, university classes were over, and I'd already been putting in long hours in the farm's market garden, getting the early seedlings transplanted from cold frames to garden beds in advance of the growing season. Thomas was a mere four weeks off the end of the school year and actually looking forward to starting his two-month stint as an unpaid farm labourer, weeding said beds under my watchful eye. We were humming down the township road that dead-ends at our gate when something zinged against the side of the Jetta. Something else followed suit. Thomas slowed down, and in that instant, listening to the chitinous pings off window glass, we realized: grasshoppers. The front field, leased out by our neighbour to the farmers down the road, had been sown in wheat that year, and when we turned to the field, we saw that the just-forming stalks were alight with hoppers. It was an infestation.


Excerpted from "A Profession of Hope"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Jenna Butler.
Excerpted by permission of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE Flipping the Switch: From the City to the Farm,
CHAPTER FOUR Everything is Coming Up ... Weeds,
CHAPTER FIVE The Memory Gardens,
CHAPTER SIX Cartography,
CHAPTER SEVEN Cougar Country: Living at the Edge of the Wild,
CHAPTER EIGHT The Year of the Pond: Ecosystems and Adaptation,
CHAPTER NINE Bring on the Bees,
CHAPTER TEN Growing Food in Frigid Weather,
CHAPTER ELEVEN A Year of Farm Food: Community-Supported Agriculture,
CHAPTER TWELVE The Cabin Comes Home to Roost,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN Grow Your Own Home: A Cereal Project,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN Mishaps and Miracles,
CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Soapbox, Please: Mediated Spaces and Nature as a Speaking Subject,
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN A Fine Line between Loving and Leaving,
EPILOGUE Who Shall I Say is Calling?: A Eulogy to Place,

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