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

Beet Therapy

It is harvest time here on our little farm; the garden is at the end of its season. Carrots have been pulled, blanched, and put up in the freezer. Today the task is to process beets. I’m grateful for the work because it pulls me away from the news that 1,095 Alaskans were diagnosed with Covid-19 in one day this week, shattering the record of the pandemic to date. Alaska’s largest hospital announced it is implementing crisis standards of care and rationing medical care —forcing providers to prioritize in favor of those most likely to recover.

I scrub the beets until my hands are raw from the stiff brush and cold water. I had thought to start writing a blog about “ordinary time” after the past eighteen months of this pandemic. For a while in early summer it seemed we might be on the way to getting this virus behind us. That clearly was wishful thinking.

I place the beets in a large kettle, fill it with water, and set the pot on the stove to cook. Soon the kitchen fills with the warm scent of earth. Earlier in the summer, I placed the hard kernels of beet seeds into the soil, covered and watered them, and then waited. In about twelve days twin leaves sprouted in several long, straight rows. The more the leaves grew, the more sunlight, warmth and nutrients they absorbed, nourishing the root bulb below. I marvel at this process of planting and tending the crop. I’m always amazed at how a hard, seemingly dead seed can be brought to life by soil, sunlight, and water, and how it then gives and sustains life after the harvest.

I am also amazed how the circle of our family reflects in many ways the dismay and deep division of our nation. While some in our family express paranoia about our scientific, educational, and government institutions, others in our family who work in healthcare are overwhelmed, exhausted, and angry by what they perceive as the rejection of those same institutions and knowledge. The window of opportunity we had to eradicate, or at least control, this disease has passed us by. It seems we will now live and die with the virus in our midst. The number of Americans who have died of the disease is quickly approaching the number of those who died from the Civil War, nearly 670,000 to date.

Civil war. The ugly vitriol of our times is beyond anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. This past weekend we saw three large trucks each with two flags flying. One flag was an American flag. On the other, printed boldly in black and white, was an expletive toward the current administration. Freedom of speech these days does not reflect a free exchange of ideas so much as the freedom to hurl insults and profanity.

The beets are cooked, and I dump the steaming kettle into the sink. After they drain I plunge them into ice-cold water. As they cool, I slide their warm skins off with my hands. The beets now look like small hearts, red and slippery.  

I wonder what has become of our hearts, that we cannot find it in ourselves to collectively care for our neighbors, our communities, our earth? My heart is so heavy some days, it feels like an anvil in my chest. My sister’s friend died of Covid-19 yesterday. Another friend from our church died the same day. How do we mourn when division and strife add to our grief, day after day after day?

The pot I used to cook the beets has since boiled the jars for pickling. The scent of earth in the kitchen has been replaced by hot vinegar brine. I cut up the beets, put them into the sterilized jars, and pour over the brine. The kitchen is moist with humidity. I slide open a window and breathe in the cool fall air. Outside my window, birch leaves have begun to shimmer shades of yellow. After sealing the jars, I put them back into a water bath to boil for ten more minutes. Meanwhile, I set another pot to boiling while I prepare the beet greens for blanching.

This ritual of the harvest is a comfort somehow. My mother and grandmothers had gardens and every August and September we spent time shoulder to shoulder at the stove and sink. It is just as nourishing now as it was then to watch shelves being filled with sustenance for the coming winter. Generations ago it was a matter of survival. Today it is a ritual of constancy, a task as sure as the seasons, something to count on. And in some odd way, it is an act of hope that our divided family will someday gather around the table, break bread, and consume the harvest together.

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Awards and Other News

While our world has changed in big ways and small through the 2020 pandemic, the wheels have still been turning in my writing life. The review I wrote of Katy Yocum’s novel Three Ways to Disappear, published in the North American Review, won FIRST PLACE in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2020 awards in the category of “Specialty Articles – Reviews.” 

There were 1,800 entrants in the nation-wide NFPW contest.  The award for this book review was especially gratifying since Katy and I graduated from the same Spalding MFA in Writing class of October ‘03.

I earned another FIRST PLACE in “Specialty Articles – Agriculture” for the article published in Alaska magazine “Sweet Cherry Rumors.” I also earned two second-place awards and an honorable mention for other articles in various publications. The combined awards in the NFPW contest earned THIRD PLACE in the national sweepstakes.

In other news, the documentary Canyons and Ice: The Last Run of Dick Griffith, that I co-produced with Andy Trimlett, is airing on 39 PBS stations around the country this summer. The film is a companion to the book and chronicles Griffith’s last, historic run through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

As for what I’m doing now? I have been writing to my one-year-old granddaughter (and all my grandchildren) about these days of quarantine, pandemic, and civil unrest. Eva will not remember these unprecedented historic events, so I am writing these letters to her future self. Included with the news are stories about the rhythm of daily life on our little farm – the arrival of cranes in springtime, the planting of our garden, the antics of dogs and horses. I’m throwing in a bit of advice here and there from her “Oma.” Writing is cathartic in these strange times, and Eva is the unwitting receptacle for my musings. This entry was recently published by 49 Writers.

One-Year-Old in Quarantine

Since we cannot see you in person,

The video shows your arms out,

your face frozen in startled wonder,

as if you had been transported to another universe,

which of course you had. There is an entire world

Outside your little house in the big woods.

You slowly, carefully squatted

Orienting yourself closer to the safety of earth.

Closer to the ground, your

Tiny fingers picked up a rock.

It was as if holding something in your grasp

Brought you back to yourself.

The “wow” of something you can carry is

Less overwhelming than the “whoa” of the cosmos,

We are all, little Eva, grasping at pebbles.

A person wearing a hat

Description automatically generated
Eva’s first steps outdoors.
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Old Boots

It won’t be long before we’ll be swapping winter bunny boots for summer footwear. Our assortment of boots sits on a shelf in the mudroom, out of reach of Lily, our shoe-chewing Aussie pup. The collection clearly shows that I prefer boots to pretty shoes. When I shop, I’m looking for comfort and mileage. I’m looking for a long-term, hard-working relationship.

              Sadly, like good dogs and honest horses, boots have a limited lifespan. I have outlived five dogs and two horses. Now friends are telling me it is time to say goodbye to my old cowboy boots. My husband even offered to take me shopping. 

              The boots are literally coming apart at the seams. The inside lining has long since ripped out. They are tattered and stained. All that remains are worn soles, cracked leather that lets in daylight, and a whole lot of memories.

              I bought them more than a decade ago in North Dakota in the small town where my late mother- and father-in-law at one time owned a working cattle ranch. We rode many miles checking and mending fences in the hot Dakota sun. In early spring, we pulled calves and watched newborn babies totter at their mother’s sides. We rounded up cattle on horseback and moved them from one pasture to another. We branded and vaccinated bawling calves in old wood-rail corrals. We hauled hay bales and planted trees and watched for deer that the guys would hunt in the fall. The day my father-in-law and I lay my sick horse to rest, those boots stood on prairie soil as our tears watered the ground. My old boots hold the memories of ranch life, hard and dusty but good.

              The boots also saw many fine experiences on trails in Alaska. One day, attempting to keep my boots dry as we crossed the Little Susitna River, I draped my feet up onto my horse’s neck. A school of salmon swam by and bumped into my mare’s legs. Startled, she wildly leaped out of the water, leaving me and the boots behind for a thorough dunking. 

The boots accompanied me twice as I went airborne off my new horse. That set me on a journey to learn a new kind of training and riding that expanded far beyond the cowboy way. I discovered that horses had more to teach me than I could have imagined.

              Not long ago, I took my husband up on his offer and bought that new pair of boots, but I confess I’m having trouble parting with the old ones. The new boots are young and inexperienced. They are strangers to my feet and have not yet melded to my stride. They haven’t yet kicked manure, been buried in mud, or pressed their heels against the flanks of a horse. Every time I slip into my old boots, it feels like a hug from an old friend. To think about throwing them in the trash seems disrespectful somehow. It seems far more fitting that they should be laid to rest under a tall birch tree.

              When I shared these sentiments with my husband recently, he listened without laughing. Then quietly he said, “I’ll dig a hole.”

              So someday, when the ground thaws in spring, we’ll bury the old boots. I won’t be parting with the memories though. Those I’ll hold dear for the rest of my days. Soon it will be time to take some brand-new friends out of the box. And maybe the best way to get acquainted will be to go for a nice long ride together.

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The Eduction of Lily Blue

I stepped into my kitchen yesterday and discovered that a pan of cinnamon rolls I had left on the stovetop to rise, now lay face down in a gooey mess on the kitchen floor. A lot of thoughts ran through my mind at that moment. One thought is not printable in a family magazine. Another thought was why two reasonably sensible adults would choose to get two puppies in the span of two and a half years.

“LILY!”

The mess was clearly the handiwork of the younger of the two dogs, eighteen-week-old Lily Blue. Our granddaughter, Aurora, chose the name when we announced her arrival into the family at Easter dinner. Lily’s second name, Blue, is after the dog whose legacy preceded her. They even share some of the same markings.

We wound up with two dogs in quick succession in the same way couples often wind up with two kids back-to-back. The first child is so easy-going and joyfully compliant that we congratulate ourselves on our amazing parenting skills. “This is easy and fun, let’s have another!” Then number two comes along and our pride gets roundly thumped and taken out with the trash – much like that pile of bread dough on the floor.

In trouble again.

The older of the two dogs, Essie Lou, is a border collie and is by far the smartest dog we’ve ever owned. Her intelligence is a tad unsettling because you wonder if she just might be smarter than you.  Someone once asked, if we got lost hiking in Alaska, could she help us find our way home? I answered, “Yes, and probably figure out my taxes along the way.” Essie Lou’s greatest anxiety in life is that she might displease us and so any reprimands to this sensitive dog must be measured and calm; followed by lots of love and assurance that we do indeed adore her.  

Then came Lily.

We cannot remember Essie Lou destroying a single item even through the insatiable curiosity of her puppyhood. (Might we have amnesia about her youth in the same way that parents forget the pain of childbirth or the challenge of raising teenagers?)

Although she is the epitome of sweetness, to date Lily has shredded my reading glasses, my husband’s hearing aids, a pair of Carhartt’s, the wooden stair banister, and a corner of the leather couch. Lily is also a thief. She pilfers from the laundry, the garbage, and the grandkids’ dollhouse. She once stole from the table, a crime we discovered only after her pink belly was as round as the blueberries that were in the muffins she consumed. Why wouldn’t she check on what tasty morsels – like cinnamon rolls – might be awaiting discovery on countertops and stoves?

Lily is an Australian Shepherd, another herding breed. Along with being smart, they’re known as “Velcro dogs” for the strong bonds they form with their owners. It is easy to keep Lily under close supervision because she’s always underfoot, except when she quietly exits our space to explore her world. The results of her forays have become self-evident.

We asked our friend, 92-year-old Dick Griffith, who was once a sheepherder in Wyoming, how to train these dogs. We have horses and the dogs have a natural drive to herd them, which can be problematic without some direction. I was gathering the horses up one day when I heard the thunder of galloping hooves coming at me from behind. When I turned around, one of the horses was running toward me full tilt with a border collie on its heels. “Whoa!” As far as the dog was concerned, she was just doing her job, helping me bring in the herd.

Dick said you don’t have to train these dogs – they learn what to do by watching older dogs do their job. Essie Lou has always adored Dick; we put her indoors when he leaves, or she will follow his car out of the driveway. Now Lily has also glommed on, following Dick around and laying at his feet to nap. We’ve decided that either sheepherders have a secret handshake or it’s in the blood. They certainly seem to share a kindred spirit.

Maybe Lily and Essie Lou have adopted Dick as the old dog that will teach them what they need to know in life. He’s certainly taught us a thing or two over the years.

Meanwhile, Lily is educating us on how best to puppy-proof our surroundings and the importance of keeping the cinnamon rolls out of reach. 

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Narrative Preservation: A review of Three Ways to Disappear

My husband and I have a private reading club. We read aloud every night before bed and the topic of discussion over our coffee the next morning is often the book we are reading. Katy Yocom’s debut novel Three Ways to Disappear was a book that generated thought-provoking discussion long after we turned the last page.

We live in Alaska. As I write this, July temperatures have soared to record-breaking 90 degrees (32 C), and smoke has obliterated the view of the mountains behind our home. Wildfires have already scorched 1.2 million acres of the state this summer. Seven dead gray whales have washed up on Alaska shores this week alone, bringing the total to twenty-two so far this year. The Arctic Inupiaq village of Kivalina is being threatened by rising sea levels and erosion. Yocom’s novel touches on environmental themes of a story that we are living here in real-time.

Cover of Three Ways to Disappear

Three Ways to Disappear depicts the relationships of the DeVaughan sisters who were each shaped by a tragedy that befell their family when they were young. Quinn is raising a family in Louisville, Kentucky, with a child who has severe asthma. Sarah is a globe-trotting journalist whose interest in the conservation of tigers has landed her in a job in India, where the sisters grew up. In many respects, Sarah and Quinn are opposites. Sarah is a warrior, willing to take risks; Quinn is a thinker and careful to avoid peril. 

The novel organically raises questions about the efforts to preserve imperiled species. Those efforts often push up against cultural norms and belief systems, and Sarah’s story takes place at the intersection of these divergent values. It is one thing to be a relatively wealthy American woman with a sincere call to save tigers and another thing to be a local villager whose livestock and livelihood depend on water that is now off limits within the boundaries of the national park. The controversy reaches a boiling point during a regional drought and marks a dramatic turning point in the novel.

In Alaska, the establishment of national parks and preserves in the 1970s was vehemently—sometimes violently—opposed by local residents who felt robbed of the lands they once considered the last bastion of the American frontier. President Jimmy Carter was burned in effigy and national park aircraft were firebombed in protest.  Passions ran high as love for unfettered wilderness pushed against devotion to the freedoms that wilderness represented. 

Yocom’s luscious description of the Ranthambhore tiger reserve reveres the habitat itself. Readers feel the shade of the kulu trees, see the Sambar deer graze, and catch the “iridescent flash of blue” as a kingfisher flies past. The legendary tigress, Machhli, who was the oldest surviving tiger in the wild until she died in 2016, is a character in the novel. Sarah must navigate her commitment to the preservation of tigers with her burgeoning but forbidden love for a local man. 

Meanwhile, Quinn is in Kentucky navigating a troubled marriage and the demands of a tight-lipped mother whose secrets hold a key to understanding their childhood. The Quinn sisters’ paths converge in India as they try to reconnect with each other and with their troubled past.

It turns out in Alaska that the wilderness here was never “locked up” with the establishment of national parks as many feared. Instead, it was “locked open,” as former Governor Jay Hammond liked to say, for the preservation of one of the last truly wild places on earth. Most national parks in the contiguous U.S. offer facsimiles of wilderness as tourists drive in RVs to see bison grazing next to the road. In Alaska, there are no roads and no facilities at many of the parks. Thus, truly wild places are preserved in a natural state that offers an ever-shrinking laboratory of what is possible when the land is left to its own devices.

The deeply human plot in Three Ways to Disappear has the forward momentum that my husband enjoyed, with a richness of language that satisfied us both. In the smoke of Alaska’s heatwave, in a time of historic environmental changes, the book’s title held no small amount of irony for us.

The topic of the environment must by necessity include economics and the reality of politics. Yet in these vitriolic times, how do you find words to bring disparate voices to the table without further polarizing the conversation? Literature can take that role as it bridges a strong fictional narrative to the complicated world in which we live. In our conversations, both my husband and I agreed that Yocom’s novel achieved this with clarity and grace. Not only are the characters changed by the end of the story, we are changed for having known them.

This book review was published in the Summer 2019 issue of North American Review.

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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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