To the Woodlot
If it’s been stacked well, air-dried through a prairie summer, the round you place on the chopping block will be smooth and slightly fissured. It’ll have the resonance in your hand that forecasts a clean break: pop, down comes the splitter, and the wood sockets apart. If there’s spruce sawyer or carpenter ant in there, you’ll feel that, too—a lightness in the guts, something punky at the core.
I work with my hands, sounding, listening for what kicks back. It’s a skill I’ve learnt behind the splitting axe in the northern Alberta bush, and one I’ve found useful as a writer and woman of colour who is also a professor. Lots of hats. Lots of knocking, listening, navigating what comes back. Just as you develop an ear for the wood, how it’s weathered and what it carries, you develop an ear for the classroom, for the meeting room, the page. What you can and cannot say.
Writing opens like this for me, too. Sometimes I set a poem on the block and I know there’s something rattling around in there. Telltale entry wounds. I’m keyed to suss out whether it’s worth keeping, whether the edges are salvageable. The worst hits are the ones where you know too much is going on beneath the surface and the whole piece chaffs out on impact. It’s rotted for one reason or another. You hadn’t noticed at the time.
I listen for where the poem splits, line breaks opening, pinging apart like poplar. There’s not enough time in the day to get done the writing that I crave—I teach full-time because I support our family, and I love the work, but there is nothing left in me after nine classes a year. Out at the farm, I come at the woodpile with the splitter, a mission, and a -35C winter beating down the fence. At my desk, I greet the work as someone who has little to spare and needs to make each move count. Measure. Heft. Strike where you know the lines will be clean.
Jenna Butler is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion, and a collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge the of Grizzly Trail. Her current work includes Magnetic North, a collection of prose poems linking the Norwegian Arctic and the northern Canadian boreal, and Revery: A Year of Bees, essays about women, beekeeping, and international community-building.
Butler’s research into endangered environments has taken her from America’s Deep South to Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, and from Tenerife to the Arctic Circle onboard a masted sailing vessel, exploring the ways in which we navigate the landscapes we call home. A professor of creative writing and ecocriticism at Red Deer College, Butler lives with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on an off-grid organic farm in Alberta’s North Country.