Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

Fall Fun in the Pumpkin Patch

October 8th, 2011 by

It’s the time of year that frost sinks deeper into the ground and parents are looking for Halloween costumes that fit over snowsuits. ‘Tis also the season for carving fall pumpkins.

On a crisp Saturday I brought bright orange pumpkins to my grandchildren’s house to enjoy this autumn ritual. Elias, who is six years old, himself looked like a jack-o-lantern with his two front teeth missing. River, who is four, couldn’t wait to start carving with little tools that looked like mini-swords. And Aurora, who is nine months, found that her pumpkin was just the right size to pull herself up to stand – a feat she managed with a grin.

My son grew pumpkins in his garden, but like last year, they had to be rescued off the vine before freeze-up – even on a sunny windowsill, they didn’t turn orange until sometime in November. So by necessity, pumpkins for carving had to come courtesy of the grocery store this year.

We started by carving the top around the stem to make a lid and opening. Peering inside their pumpkins, the boys wrinkled their noses and said “Eeewww!”

These are boys whose parents rightly believe that dirt and sunshine are all necessary to become healthy, grounded human beings. The kids help Dad clean fish, peel carrots for Mom, and take out the trash. But to look inside a pumpkin was enough to make them both grimace with disgust. I laughed remembering how my son, two dozen years ago, used to gag as he pulled the seeds out of his pumpkin.

Elias steeled himself for the task and did an excellent job emptying his pumpkin of its contents. River enjoyed some help getting his gourd ready for carving. Aurora was relegated to the backpack so that her Dad’s two hands were free to prepare pumpkin seeds for roasting.

According to pumpkin-patch.com, every continent in the world except Antarctica grows pumpkins. The self-proclaimed pumpkin capitol of the world is Morton, Illinois, home of the Libby Corporation’s pumpkin industry. And the largest pumpkin pie ever made was over five feet in diameter and weighed over 350 pounds; it used 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 36 pounds of sugar, 12-dozen eggs and took six hours to bake.

It turns out the Irish brought the pumpkin carving tradition to America. The practice originated from carving turnips and placing embers inside to create a lantern. In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season, long before it became an emblem of Halloween

Brothers Elias and River are the whirlwind of the household – all motion, noise and joyous rumpus. But as they finished carving happy faces (no scary monsters please), the house grew oddly silent with their quiet concentration. The scent of roasting pumpkin seeds filled the house.

In the end, we lit candles to place inside their jack-o-lanterns and posed for photos. I had to laugh at the resemblance of the boys to their own grinning pumpkins. Next year, the gaps in Elias smile will have closed, River will be nearing kindergarten, and Aurora may well be talking. And these are the rituals of family that create the snapshots we hold dear as the years pass. One autumn after the next.

Happy Harvest to All.

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Mt. McKinley, the Chugach Mountains and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska;Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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