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


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A peculiar thing happened in the produce aisle at Fred Meyer on Monday. In some respects, the incident hardly seems worth mentioning. But it has stayed with me nonetheless, a moment I may remember for some time.

First, some background: Remember those first apocalyptic-feeling days of the pandemic when people emptied the shelves at grocery stores? Who knew what was going to happen in the weeks ahead? When I went to Three Bears with my list and a homemade mask, the place was packed with people pushing overflowing carts. It was strangely silent. Few people spoke and even fewer made eye contact. I remember the pit in my stomach to find the only thing left in the vegetable section of the freezer was a single bag of peas. I put it in my cart.

Looking back, it marked the beginning of a shift. The competition to get the last package of toilet paper that day made us all strangers and competitors rather than neighbors and friends. I left the parking lot with my bag of peas feeling strangely alone.

In the coming days, my mask became a shield to social contact. For one thing, those of us with glasses couldn’t see through the fog of our breath. Then, after social anxiety about toilet paper abated, the raging (and absurd) mask debate made ideological adversaries between those who wore them and those who did not. For me it just became easier to inhabit the space of my small personal bubble. Get groceries and get out. For awhile we ordered online for curbside pickup.

Fast forward to Monday this week. I went to Fred Meyers, masked as always, looking for fresh rosemary. The package on a shelf was blocked by another shopper, who was pondering her choices. I waited a bit but she was clearly going to be there a while. Finally I said, “Excuse me, would you mind if I reached around you to grab something?”

She looked startled at first. Then we made eye contact. Her eyes smiled behind her own mask, and she stepped back.

“I’m sorry. Yes, of course!”

“No problem at all,” I smiled back. “Thank you.”

“Have a good day.”

“You too!”

And we actually meant it.

I momentarily had trouble seeing, not because my glasses were fogged this time, but because tears sprang up in my eyes. Our exchange of pleasantries felt like rain on parched ground. How long had it been since I talked to a stranger with kind eyes and a spontaneous smile? Eighteen months, give or take.

I read recently that just as a baby needs human touch to thrive, adults need social interaction. I was a kid when I watched a documentary about experiments in the 1950s where rhesus monkey infants were given surrogate mothers of either bare wire or wire covered in terrycloth. In a series of ever-sadder deprivations, scientists studied the fear, aggression, and neurosis that developed in these babies who lacked the nurture and touch of their mothers.

Leaving Fred Meyers that day, I realized that our self-imposed seclusion has come at a price. We’ve been living in a world of wire monkeys. No wonder everyone is angry.  I have a wonderful husband whose company I adore, so I never considered our isolation a deprivation. It has surely saddened me not to see our kids or grandkids as much as we used to. Even so, I never thought I would miss an exchange of pleasantries with strangers.

The woman standing in front of the rosemary proved me wrong. We need connection like we need food and water. We have a long way to go to bridge the chasms that have opened up around politics, the pandemic, and past societal transgressions. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe the healing of these painful rifts could start small, in a grocery aisle, with words like “excuse me,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry.”

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Red-breasted Nuthatch CC 2.0

I was working at the kitchen stove, making a batch of mustard pickles wondering if there is any way back to a more charitable view of the world than the one I currently hold. A stubborn film of cynicism colors my lens. I cannot seem to wash clean from it. As I prepared the clear jars for hot cucumbers, I realized this sticky view has been accumulating bit by bit over two years of headlines. Each day seems more appalling than the last, until now I judge strangers by their appearance.  Masked or not masked. Flags flying (some with obscenities) or no flags. Big trucks or fuel-efficient sedans. When I go to the post office or grocery store, I have begun avoiding eye contact. If occasionally I glance into the face of an unmasked, usually bearded man the gaze that returns seems to mock. “Be safe now,” one young man said to me with a smirk – long, long before the U.S. death toll reached 700,000. These days I am more appalled at people than I am the headlines.

Example: A man, a new parishioner, carries a gun into our church with his baby girl riding on his hip, just above his firearm. A weapon of death in a house of worship. I am so uncomfortable with this that I finally write to the pastor, not knowing what can be done. It is after all a free country. I have been back to church only a handful of times since the beginning of the pandemic, in part because seeing a weapon in this sacred space drives me to distraction. The pastor’s careful response: “What sin is he committing?”

Thinking about all this at my kitchen stove, I heard a brief but distinct tapping noise. Tap, tap, tap, tap. I paused from my stirring, wondering if I imagined it. A moment later, I heard it again. And then again. So I left the stove and went toward the sound in the next room. Tap, tap, tap, tap. And there she was, a tiny nuthatch tapping from inside the clear glass of the woodstove. She must have flown down the chimney. She looked me directly in the eye. Expectant. I kneeled said, “Well you are in a fix, aren’t you?”

These blue-gray birds are shaped like little spearheads, sharp at the beak and blunt at the tail. They’re insanely fast in flight and creep up and down trees, tapping at the bark for insects. Omnivorous, they also enjoy our birdfeeder, especially now, before the deep cold of winter. This one apparently took a wrong turn. She tapped again and flew against the glass.

I opened the iron door just a crack, enough to reach my hand through, but the bird was fast and took her opportunity to escape. Just when she thought she was free, she flew into the picture window beating her wings up and under the drawn shade. I reached up and gently grabbed the fluttering bird. She was so tiny. I held her easily in one hand but cupped the other hand over her to lighten my grip. She grew still in the dark of my grasp. I could almost feel the hammer of her heart in my palm. I walked out onto the porch and uncurled my fingers. She flew away so fast, her gray feathers barely registered as a blur.

I went back to the stove, strangely buoyed. It made me happy to extend a favor to this small creature. I’d just been thinking about how to escape this feeling of cynicism, as dark and grimy as the inside of a cast-iron stove. Was the universe telling me something? If so, was I the bird or the rescuer? That just made me laugh, and it occurred to me how playful the golden leaves of autumn fall outside my window. Those deepening furrows in my brow change nothing. And as I went back to finishing my pickles with a lighter heart, I felt a calm, abiding sense of simply being held.

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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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  • 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.