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

A Book as Old as Dirt

June 4th, 2014 by

Years ago, at Powell’s Book Store in Portland, I happened upon a used book called The Wise Garden Encyclopedia. Its weight wasWise Garden lr substantial but not unwieldy and it felt good the way some books do, to hold in my hands. In small type on glossy paper, with a smattering of excellent pen and ink illustrations (but poor quality photos), the book held a cornucopia of in-depth gardening facts and advice. While the original copyright had been 1936, this edition heralded from 1965. The dust jacket had a photograph of a woman pruning red roses in her garden wearing white shoes and a white dress with a floral apron. No joke. The original price for the book appeared to be $5.95. I happily laid down $20 to take it home.

Since then, The Wise Garden Encyclopedia has been my go-to guide for all horticultural questions and endeavors. I saved the dust jacket in a Ziploc bag and to this day use the sturdy green hard-bound book when and however it’s needed. I have an entire shelf of gardening books, but Wise Garden is always the one with the answers. I have decided to transplant some ferns from a ditch near my house to the top of the rock wall that my son and grandkids helped to build last summer. I reached for the encyclopedia and was once again delighted by the book’s depth and also its poetry. The entry under “ferns” takes up seven of its 1,380 pages. And there in the midst of types of ferns, their uses and methods of propagation is a quote from Thoreau!

“Thoreau said, ‘Nature made ferns for pure leaves.’ And it is primarily for the great beauty of their leaves, the endless variety of forms, the range of subtle shades of green, that we treasure these plants.”

Be still my heart.

fern2 lrFifty-four varieties of ferns and horsetail are known to grow in Alaska. I am transplanting a northern wood fern, lifting it from the ditch and placing it where I can see it from my kitchen window. Wise Garden says to reset the plant facing the same way it was oriented in its original bed. Isn’t that something . . . how a plant can be sensitive to its orientation on the earth, or more specifically to its alignment with the moving sun?  An entire universe in a plant. It seems maybe some life lessons could be learned from observing just this individual fern.

The book also says that “some ferns are valuable for attracting birds because of the woolly substance which clothes the uncoiling fronds and is much prized as nesting material.” The language of the book itself is like sweet fruit, delicious and ripe for the picking.  Oh yes, and that was the other thing I’d hoped to place on the rock wall this year — a bird feeder.

It is summer, and plans abound. As daylight increases, energy and ambitions soar. Yes, there will be the beginnings of a garden, even if just in pots this year. I’ll transplant ferns and maybe put in some berry bushes. My son has given me some apple trees that he grafted himself from Siberian stock. Those should go in the ground this year as well. For these and other projects, Wise Garden will be there. like an old glove, worn and comfortable. Just for kicks I googled “transplanting ferns” and the omniscient “G” came back with 98,000 entries. I like the internet for its

wheelbarrow lrresearch capabilities; on a daily basis I have the world’s library at my fingertips. But a quick cruise of the top few of those 98,000 entries felt like a cheap and entirely unsatisfactory substitute for the heft and grace of Wise Garden.

The book feels as old as dirt which is, after all, the substance of the garden itself.

2 Comments

2 responses to “A Book as Old as Dirt”

  1. Erik Johnson says:

    I’ve always wondered about that book on your shelf…

  2. Patty Davis says:

    I inherited a copy of “The Wise Garden Encyclopedia” that belonged to my great-grandmother. The title page is missing, but I believe that my book is the 1959 edition. My Grandma Smith was an avid gardener who raised beautiful flowers in her garden by the sea in Ocean Lake, Oregon (now Lincoln City) during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is a remarkable reference book.

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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 Denali, 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 Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; 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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