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

June 2009 – Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

February 3rd, 2011 by

I have new neighbors and not long ago, we built a fence together. Our horses share a pasture and all is well when they are out grazing on sweet spring grass. However, domestic disputes broke out once the horses returned to the barn at the end of the day. It quickly became clear – after one horse took a beating from another –that a fence was necessary to keep the peace.

Another reason for fence work is Hootchie, an adorable but wily cairn terrier. She is built so low to the ground, even the smallest openings in the fence are an opportunity for the dog to take herself for a walk. In order to avoid what had become Hoochie-hollering dog hunts around the neighborhood, Valorie and her husband Dan, resorted to attaching an empty gas can to the dog’s harness. Although the dog could still scoot under the fence, the gas can kept her tethered close to home.

So between horses and dogs, my neighbor, Valorie Booyer, and our friends, Tom and Tina Victory, and I put on our working gloves to put up and remodel an existing fence.

In reality, Tom built the fence. He just happened to have three women and two dogs as assistants in the project. Tom may be the handiest person I’ve ever met. He has that innate ability of some men to take whatever materials are on hand and create or fix whatever he sets out to do. As for his assistants . . . well, we tried. Tom and Tina used affection and wit to harass one another throughout the day. They are comic proof that just because couples have been married for decades, doesn’t mean they understand each other. Still, the tenderness between them is genuine. Together, Valorie and I moved panels and tried to follow instructions. She prepared bottomless pitchers of iced-tea which slaked our thirst after hours of working under the dazzling sun.

Millie, the year-old Labrador retriever pup, kept stealing tools out of the tool box. The hammer was her favorite with its rubber handle that tasted of salt and grease. Once the hammer was out of reach, she dug into the bag of zip-ties and later tried to tear into a bag of insulators for the electric portion of the fence. Her helpfulness in the project cost us half an hour, some slobbery insulators, and some swear-words mixed in with our chuckles.

As we worked together under Alaska’s clear blue sky, I thought of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” In it, Frost and his neighbor walk the fence line each spring with his neighbor proclaiming that “good fences make good neighbors.” The expression implies that boundaries set between people and properties are a good thing. But Frost argues that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and he goes on to say “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like, to give offense.”

Yes, our day of fence-building created the kind of good fence that nurtures neighborly relations between feuding horses. But rather than building any walls, our task forged deeper friendships as we worked and laughed and got dirty together. We ended the day with a last-minute potluck dinner. I ran home and threw together a coleslaw and salad. Valorie and Dan put shish kabobs on the barbecue.  We sat on the porch in a scene reminiscent of the Waltons – complete with evening sunshine, rocking chairs, and a little Hootchie on the side.  We admired our handwork – three sturdy turnouts for the horses and an electric wire along the perimeter of a chain link fence. And we all agreed good fences can indeed make good neighbors.

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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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