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

November Tulips

November 10th, 2014 by

As the calendar nudged into November, I dug through nearly two inches of frozen dirt to plant tulip bulbs. I felt compelled to finish this task before I left on a flight to visit my parents in Portland. They are reaching an age when health issues are taking their toll and I was traveling to help Mom convalesce after surgery.

05-tulip-bulbs-central-midwest from webEven with the generosity of our late autumn weather, I was already a month late in this task; the opportunity to plant bulbs would surely be gone by the time I returned.

Icy shards of dirt flaked in crumbling columns away from my trowel. It had been close to a decade since I’d last planted tulips. As I made an opening in the earth and deposited those hard seeds, I remembered past seasons when I planted bulbs with my sons. With cold fingers and rosy cheeks, they carefully placed each bulb into the ground.  They enjoyed the ritual; it was like burying treasure, one that would appear of its own colorful accord come springtime.  Today those little boys are men and have grown, not so unlike tulips, into the full bloom of adulthood.

The wind blew raw as leaves skittered across the dry grass. The ground was cold and would soon grow much colder as winter’s deep freeze permeated the soil. A thick layer of snow would soon blanket the frozen ground.

As I considered Mom’s upcoming surgery, it occurred to me what an act of faith it is to plant bulbs in the fall. There is the faith that after the dark winter, spring will come. There is the simple faith that we will be present an entire season from now; that the sun’s rays will warm both the earth’s skin and our own. That we will experience the transformation of seed to blossom in the cup of our own experience — tender green shoots, deeply colored blossoms, a tinge of fragrance. photo 3

My mother recently made her funeral wishes known—just in case. She has had three heart procedures in two years. My father had a recent bout with cancer and now his memory if failing. I wonder if we are ever ready for our lives to wind down into a season of winter. Autumn of course is brilliant. But winter? These bulbs lie nestled in the earth as the season of darkness descends, a buried deposit on the future.

It seems a gift that so many rituals of family take place during the winter months. They keep us rooted in the past and expectant for the future. Surely no rituals are more entrenched than Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe it is during these months of quiet dormancy, when activity is at a relative lull that we can pause to reflect and truly give thanks.  Yet how can I rightly give thanks for the parents who gave me life and by whose lives I have been indelibly shaped? How do I express gratitude for my children and grandchildren who weave shimmering joy into the fabric of my days? And what words are there for my husband who was not born into this ragtag family, but rather, freely chose to fold his life into mine?

Maybe we need this period of dark and the muffled sound of snow to quiet our minds. To take stock.  It is tempting to fill the void with frantic activity and preparations for the holidays. But perhaps the greater richness of the season is to listen for the hope that lies quiet beneath the new fallen snow.

I patted the dirt over the bulbs and mulched the area with frozen leaves. Then I marked the mound with black-eyed Susans uprooted from their summer pots, not wanting to forget this place once spring arrives.

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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.