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

Nuthatch

October 6th, 2021 by
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.

7 Comments

7 responses to “Nuthatch”

  1. Sue Rajek says:

    Love your stories. Thanks for sharing

  2. Bruce Kuhn says:

    Hi Kaylene…loved your article and very much relate to your first paragraph! Very eloquently stated! Definitely are crazy times that we are living in now.

    I love to read and always have a book going. I definitely want to read one of your books…which one would you recommend? I tend to gravitate to historical fiction or memoirs…I like to be entertained while learning a few things! 🙂

    You certainly seem to be living your best life in AK! The Alaska TV shows are about the only thing I watch on TV anymore!

    Take care!

    Bruce

  3. G. Cartmill says:

    I do love this story. The nuthatch was lucky to be rescued by you and you were happier, all because of this tiny little being.

  4. Kaylene, I’m too weary and sad for church. I’m happy I stumbled upon your lovely essay.

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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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