What tending bees taught an Alberta author about dealing with pain and hope

Jenna Butler spoke to Edmonton AM about her breast cancer diagnosis and how writing her book Revery: A Year of Bees continues to inspire her outlook of life.

'They always seem to find a way through ... they do find a way to navigate and to shift'

Jenna Butler at her farm in northern Alberta working with her bees. The author's book, Revery: A Year of Bees, is based on her experience as a trauma-survivor tending to bees. (Yasmin Butler)

On Oct. 14, Alberta author Jenna Butler learned her book, Revery: A Year of Bees, had been short-listed for the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction. 

The following morning, she underwent major surgery for breast cancer after being diagnosed a month earlier.

"On the one hand, you're going, 'Wow, I'm so glad to see the book finding its audience," she told CBC's Edmonton AM on Friday. "At the same time, it keeps you grounded, because as a person you realize you're into the fight of your life."

Her book, published in October 2020, was inspired by her experience bee-keeping and how that experience helped her deal with trauma.

Writing about these tiny, winged creatures continues to influence her outlook on life, she said.

"They always seem to find a way through," she said. "Right now, they're really being pressed by climate change, they're being pressed by colony collapse disorder. They do find a way to navigate and to shift." 

Butler and her husband have been running a diversified, organic farm for the past 15 years in Barrhead, northwest of Edmonton. Five years ago, they introduced bees to the farm.

"[It] was kind of a logical extension of what we were already doing," she said.

Tending bees gave her pause to reflect on what they represent in terms of grief and hope. 

"Working with the bees has given me the sense that my own life is changing in ways that I don't really have a lot of control over, but I do have the ability to navigate and shift in these small ways," she said. "So in that sense, they're still giving me hope."

Butler and her husband Thomas Lock tend to their bees. (Yasmin Butler)

Butler turned to bees as a trauma survivor. "It's something that I get into just a little bit in the book," she said. 

As someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, she has a complicated relationship with pain and grief.

She noticed how on one hand, bees are emblems of hope, they pollinate and bring in nectar to survive colder months, but they are also a swarm of stinging insects inside a hive. 

"If you want to work with the bees, you want to work with the benefits of the bees. You have to learn how to let bad things go. You have to be able to drop a bad energy day to go into the yard and work with the bees," she said. 

"So it was really useful as a trauma survivor." 

Now those same lessons are repeated to her as she begins chemotherapy. 

A colleague pointed out how her cancer diagnosis was taking place around the same time bees shuttered for the winter.

Both she and the bees are driven inside themselves, trying to survive something that they can't control. 

"I thought that was kind of a nice comparison," she said.