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 2010- In Praise of Perennials

February 4th, 2011 by

My delphiniums are growing inches each day as they draw upward into the feast of summer sunlight. Less than a month from now I will be staking bold purple spikes of blossoms, some nearly six feet tall. Whether I am ready for the season’s changes or not, perennial flowers offer a steady reminder that the seasons come and go with or without my permission. Yet just a little attention – like an occasional watering – reaps big colorful dividends.

Two years ago, my friend, Melissa Alger, earned the “Yard of the Week” followed by the “Yard of the Year” award in Eagle River.  Her aunt, Judy Kleven, is also a superb gardener, and I had the privilege of spending two hours with them, tidying up the gardens. Their flower beds are overflowing with perennials, some of which jumped their borders to grow happily elsewhere. Little violas skipped along the gravel path like schoolgirls on a lark. We did not uproot them — their sweetness won us over. But we savaged other unruly species, like dandelion and fireweed and horsetail.

I couldn’t help wondering why certain plants are “desirable” and others are not. I had to step past my guilt tearing out the fireweed. It is a flower I love and one I cultivate in the wilder reaches of my own yard. Yet once we cleaned out the “riff-raff,” what remained were fragrant lily-of-the-valley, bleeding heart blossoms, dianthus, and lamium – all in various states of gorgeous bloom.

The names of perennials themselves read like the ingredients of a magical potion, or the names of storybook characters.  Imagine the fairytale you might tell with names like “Snowdrop” and “Goatsbeard” and “Candytuft.”

What I especially enjoyed about our morning of gardening were the stories that grew up around the flowers themselves. The lily-of-the-valley in Melissa’s garden originally came from the garden of Judy’s mother in Montana.

“My mother always had a beautiful garden,” Judy said. “She shipped transplants from her garden to mine with the roots protected in a plastic bag.” Since then, the lilies have been so prolific that Judy has been able to share them with family and friends. Judy’s mother may be gone, but her legacy blooms year after year.

As a little girl, I remember hollyhocks growing on the sunny side of our house in North Dakota. My sister and I made flower dolls using a toothpick to attach a closed blossom (the head) to an open blossom (the body). We twirled our dolls with pink-petal dresses and sometimes even danced along, singing at the top of our lungs.

As for my faithful delphiniums, my son Mark helped me plant them when he was about 10 years old. I’d read in my Wise Gardening handbook that they grow best in rich top soil ideally 2-3 feet deep. So after buying the plants, Mark helped dig three-foot holes to fill with the prescribed topsoil. In our digging, we came across a rock that quickly grew from a stone – that we thought would be the size of a watermelon – into a Volkswagen-sized boulder. There was no getting rid of it without an excavator.

“Mom,” Mark said, his forehead beaded with sweat. “This rock is like Jesus. Solid and immovable.”

“Right you are,” I laughed. And we covered it up again, planting the perennials on either side of it.

That was fifteen years ago. Mark is 25 now and fighting Alaska wildfires through the summer. Next year, on scorched tundra, fireweed will bloom in the aftermath of the fires Mark is attempting to extinguish. And the delphiniums he helped to plant will bloom in the abundance of memories and light.

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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.