A Buffalo Soldier Speaks

“Mountains and Forests Rise Within Us”

At the turn of the last century, African-American US Army troops – called “Buffalo Soldiers” by their Plains Indians adversaries – served as some of the first Wilderness Rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Their contributions were subsequently forgotten for nearly 100 years. Author Shelton Johnson has brought this story back to life in his novel, Gloryland. Here’s Johnson writing in the voice of his Buffalo Soldier character.

Wilderness is just a word, and the wind got no use for anything that come out of our mouths except songs or prayers. Only then are we speaking from our hearts and are worth listening to. Otherwise we should just be quiet and let trees and sky do the talking. The wind’s been talking since the world began. I’ve been listening to it since I was born, and I ain’t been bored yet.

photo of El Capitan in Yosemite at sunsetphoto: © Nick Carver / NBP/ Wilderness

That’s the conclusion I come to as the sun was going down over the edge of the world. That wasn’t really happening, but it sure as hell looked like it yesterday evening as I was sitting in the saddle, staring down into the shadows of Yosemite Valley. I was reporting for duty.

I’d been assigned to assist Mr. George Harlow, the Guardian of Yosemite, with his duty to protect the Valley and the Giant Sequoia in the Mariposa Grove. If Captain Nance had told me to do this a few months ago, I would’ve thought he was drunk or crazy. I would’ve asked him, “Sir, what harm can anyone do to El Capitan? As for those sequoias, I ain’t ever heard one of those Big Trees cry out for help.”

I’ve learned a few things since then. I learned that any tree can be cut down if some fool’s got the will, that some people can’t see that there’s more wealth in a wildflower than in any bank, and that you can get more illumination from a mountain than any preacher trying to save your soul.

I also learned a bit from my mule. A mule won’t work up a sweat trying to figure out something that was never meant to be a problem. He’s never surprised by what he sees, hears, or smells. He’s never bored either. He just accepts whatever’s there in front of him, although he’s not too fond of anything that comes up from behind.

My mule don’t know everything. Neither do we, but we think we do, and that’s funny. We think way too much. As far as a mule can tell, things are what they are. A river’s just a river and a tree’s just a tree, a stone’s a stone and a cloud’s a cloud. Stop thinking, start feeling. Just go where the mule goes, flow with the flow, lean forward up the mountain, lean back going down, heels low. For my mule, flies thick about his head and heat of the sun opening up the world – in all that there’s no room for thinking.

There’s room enough for the ancestors: for my grandma who’s Cherokee, for my grandma who’s Seminole, for all those Africans, the spirits of family who come before me. There’s room enough for the smoke of burning tobacco, or sage, or the sweat of my ancestors falling from shadows, from shoulders swaying away from and back to the center of a song being sung at the beginning of time, thick about my head, heat of red stones opening a world with plenty room for the beating of our hearts, the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

We hear the drum. Mountains and forests rise within us. Bears peer out from our eyes, lick the sweet air in our mouths. Coyotes sleep behind our ribs, breathe deep the smoke of our lungs. On Earth there’s only family. Everything that crawls, trots, swims, hops, floats or flies, shines like the ancestors.

As I said, wilderness is just a word, and the wind got no use for anything that come out of our mouths except songs or prayers. Let the sky do the talking. The wind’s been talking since the world began. I’ve been listening to it since before I was born, and I ain’t been bored yet.

That’s the conclusion I come to as the sun goes down over the edge of the world.

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