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Reclaiming the Wilderness

I can still recall the memory with total clarity: I was afraid that the wind would lift me off the ground and carry me over the edge of the world. I knew if I let go of my parents’ hands, I would lose them and I would be lost.

I was five years old. My father was a sergeant in the Army, and my family had moved to Contwig, Germany where he was stationed. One weekend we took a family trip to Berchtesgaden, the “Eagle’s Nest,” which had been a stronghold of the Third Reich during World War II.

photo of an African American man in a park ranger hat

I wasn’t aware of the history at the time. I was only aware of clouds, light, wind, and cold, aware of the closeness of sky, and the fragile blue at its heart. I was dizzy, afraid, breathing fast, and utterly alive in that moment that has lasted all my life.

It was a baptism, an awakening into the secret life of mountains. And the mountains have never let go. Now I live in the Sierra Nevada and I work as a ranger in Yosemite National Park. How did I get here?

That weekend trip in the mountains of Germany planted a seed in my consciousness. That seed then wrapped roots around my heart, roots that nourished me throughout my childhood in Detroit, Michigan. I was an inner city kid with a hidden past, a past of unfiltered sunlight and space.

That one wilderness excursion was all it took. The whole time I was growing up in Detroit, I held onto a vision that opened my eyes to the world around me. Detroit was at once ugly and beautiful, plain and transcendent. My memory of mountains gave me a vantage point to clearly see that there is beauty in every moment, no matter where you are.

As someone who has both African and Native American ancestry, it troubles me that so few African Americans have the chance for similar experiences.

We all know that once upon a time in America there were many laws that kept African Americans “in their place.” And one of the places where African Americans weren’t “supposed to be” was outside, in the wild. Today, thankfully, those laws are gone. But their legacy still has a powerful effect. Even once you remove all of the tangible barriers that keep certain people out, intangible barriers remain, the barriers erected in the imagination. How do you tear those down? How long does it take to no longer feel the psychological and spiritual pain of that rejection?

I’m not sure. But I do know that every day I greet people from all over the world who come to Yosemite to experience this wonder for themselves, yet African Americans are few and far between. Today, many African Americans don’t consider a national park visit to be a “black thing,” something that is symbolic of African American culture. The absence of African Americans is particularly ironic when one considers that 100 years ago, both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were protected by the Buffalo Soldiers, African American cavalry and infantry troops who served as some of the first park rangers before the National Park Service was even created.

How can we address this issue? One way is to make sure that more African American children get to have the same kind of experience I had in the mountains when young. There are very few African Americans who have a childhood wilderness experience, an experience of mountains, deserts, forests, or grasslands. If we can change this one thing, we can change so much else.

We will correct not just a physical absence, but an aesthetic absence as well. There are very few African American artists or writers who have chosen to examine the wilderness experience through the lens of African American culture. There is a literature yet to be written, music yet to be composed, canvasses yet to be painted, and words yet to be spoken with reverence.

But most important of all, there are still hands that have not been tightly held at the edge of the world where hearts quicken. I, for one, cannot let go of this dream. I want to direct eyes and hearts toward the ancient wonders of the wilderness. And I want others to join me in this effort.

When we start succeeding in getting more young African Americans into the wilderness, we will not only save the wilds that shaped us, we will also save ourselves. We will reclaim that which was forcibly taken from us when we were stolen long, long ago. We will again fully feel what it meant to be Yoruba or Mandinka.

What it meant to be African.

Shelton Johnson has worked as a national park ranger for 26 years. He was an advisor to and on-camera commentator for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. He is also the author of the historical novel Gloryland.


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In Seattle, there are two organizations working with African American youth and youth of color:

Sierra Club Inner City Outings:

which is one of the most active ICO programs of any Sierra Club chapter. And much smaller, but more intriguing to me, is the Urban Wilderness Project:

(As I was typing, I realized you very likely know about the Sierra Club ICO but thought other people reading this might not. Also, Urban Wilderness Project is based in Seattle and is much more local.)

Thanks for this article, I knew about Buffalo Soldiers but not that they had been park rangers.

By Luke McGuff on Sat, September 08, 2012 at 11:05 am

This is a beautiful article. I feel deeply that the wilderness holds a powerful key to joy and peace in our lives, even if we don’t live in the wilderness. I believe that the wilderness may also be an antidote to materialism. When people discover that there is something far beyond the accumulation of matter, they will relax, perhaps. They will stop fighting to rule the monetary world. I sent this article to my wife, who teaches African-American history. I’ll have to get her to read it!

By Peter on Thu, September 06, 2012 at 9:21 pm

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