Photo: William Lee

Nature’s Timeless Beauty

Part II: Shelton Johnson’s Efforts To Bring Us Back to the Sacred

I’m Michael Kleber-Diggs, a writer and arts educator who thrives in outdoor spaces. In celebration of Black History Month, I’m partnering with Public Lands to showcase four Black park rangers. By sharing their stories, we hope to relate the rich history of African-American influence in the National Park Service that lives on today, while examining how the Black community is changing its relationship with public lands. See the first installment in our series here.

This is our profile of Shelton Johnson, a long-time park ranger and advocate for diversity in national parks. During our conversation (edited for clarity and length below), Johnson spoke fluently and fast about national parks, the natural world, and the importance of our connection to outdoor spaces, about American history, Black history and how its complicated legacy impacts national park utilization today. 

Yosemite National Park is the ideal location to consider how the past informs the present. No national park has a more celebrated connection to Black history than Yosemite. Before national parks were even created, the Army was responsible for safeguarding federal lands set aside for protection. And the Buffalo Soldiers (originally members of its 10th Cavalry Regiment) stationed at what is now Yosemite National Park are credited with being America’s first park rangers. (Read more about their history and connection to Yosemite here.)

Johnson has worked in the park for almost 35 years, and honors the contributions made by Buffalo Soldiers in his role as a Community Engagement Specialist. His mission is to welcome communities of color who may feel disconnected from outdoor spaces like  national parks. Helping people of color restore their relationship with nature is his life’s work—and an extension of Johnson’s appreciation for nature as sacred space that he first experienced when he was young. 

MICHAEL KLEBER-DIGGS: Thanks for meeting with me. To start, can you tell me about Yosemite? I've been to Yellowstone and Denali, the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and so many national parks, but I have not yet been to Yosemite. 

SHELTON JOHNSON: Well, I would say you're saving the best for last. Which I thought I would never say as a former Yellowstone National Park ranger. There’s no other place that I’ve ever visited, either here in the lower 48, up in Alaska, or where I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, in Liberia—there, I was in the middle of the tropical rainforest, which was exquisitely beautiful. But I have never seen any other place in the world that has the transcendent beauty of Yosemite. 

It sounds like you have the same sense of awe today that you had when you first arrived there.

I would say that, over time, it has deepened. In Yosemite, the ordinary slowly over time becomes extraordinary. And what is extraordinary is also amplified and deepened until you’re there and people are wondering, why is that dude crying? 

As I hear you speak about it, I find myself thinking, maybe this is the summer we go to Yosemite.

Well, let me put it this way: I can't think of any group, any population in the United States, that is more deserving and more needful of having an experience of immersion in that spirit, that atmosphere of beauty, that is Yosemite. And the group that I’m thinking of is African Americans. 

Look at our history [as African Americans] and our estrangement from the land itself. We don't talk about the fact that we come from Indigenous people, indigenous to the west coast of Africa, due to the slave trade. Our people had an intimate relationship with the natural world, a sacred relationship. We didn’t commodify nature. Nature was something that we knew was bigger than us. Many of us have lost that connection.

Photo: Anna Papuga

I feel that. Completely. My maternal grandparents had a farm in Oklahoma. My paternal grandparents lived in Boston. Growing up, I spent time in cities and in the country. My brother and I enjoyed both, but we relished time outside camping and fishing. A lot of my Black friends are being intentional about enjoying time outdoors. How does your role at Yosemite factor into that connection?  

I’m the Community Engagement Specialist for Yosemite National Park, which means my job is to engage people—communities of color in general—that do not feel a connection, an innate connection, a birthright, to public lands. Those groups would be what you're imagining them to be: Latinx, Asian American, African American.

When I was in the Peace Corps in Liberia, you could see the disconnect was between the people who still lived in the bush, and the people who had moved to the city. If you’re in a bigger town, you adopted the Western way of looking at the world by accommodating that Western perception. You had divorced yourself from the natural world, and even looked at that relationship [with nature] through a negative lens. That's what we have done as well: We now look at nature through a lens that's so distorted, we don't even see what's really there. We no longer see that sense of a sacred relationship between any mammal, any bird, any flower, and the Earth itself.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that spent time outdoors and visited a lot of national parks—and now I enjoy hiking and cycling and paddling. But I know that's not true for a lot of African Americans. Do you have a sense for why that is?

Well, I think about that all the time. I know exactly what it is. It’s essentially a cultural and racial estrangement from the Earth. Because all you have to do is think about where we were when we were in Africa. And then look at where we are here in the United States. It doesn't surprise me when I think about our history, that today African Americans are the ones who are least likely to have a wilderness experience. It makes perfect sense. It is a multiple centuries-long experience of separation. 

I think of the African American spirit. This loss compounded by loss. It’s incredibly sad to think about that. But, at the same time, what I’m arguing is that the path to [our ancestors] can be found here, in public lands, in the restoration of the sacred. That's the path back—the path back to who we used to be. It’s turning a negative value that’s a degradation into a positive value that's a celebration. 

How do you see this transition unfolding?  

The loss of the sacred is like a hole in a big wooden tank. And that sense of the sacred has just been dripping out over 400 years. When we were in our ancestral lands in Africa, we had names for the stars. We had names and stories and legends for the rising of the sun, and the setting of the sun, the rising of the moon, the setting of the moon, the seasonal movements and when the rains would come in. And we lost all of that. But not completely. Because I’ve always believed you cannot annihilate culture within the human spirit. If you could, there would be no such thing as jazz.

 

Photo: NPS

In your work at Yosemite, you’re connecting to a long and surprising history of African-American park rangers.

I don’t think there’s a greater story in terms of national parks and the evolution of the national park idea than the fact that African Americans, over a decade before the creation of the National Park Service, were essentially serving as park rangers. They were Buffalo Soldiers [all-Black troops that were established after the Civil War to serve on Western frontier]. For me, it recalls our ancestral relationship with the land. We were stewards of not just the national parks, we were stewards of the Earth. We were protecting the Earth like we were doing when we were back in Africa. I see those soldiers in those photographs [of the first park rangers] and say, ‘They were Black men, reclaiming what it means to be Black and a man in Africa.’ 

I’m so grateful for the conversation and for your time and insights. Your love for what you do, the value you hold for it really comes through. I’m curious, what drew you to national parks and to the National Park Service?

Well, this is the most important thing of all. We don't have the power to change how things were, but we have the power to change how things will be. I’m here talking to you right now because my dad, he was a veteran—he served in World War II, but not as a soldier; he was in Berlin, after the war concluded. He saw Berlin in ruins. He saw Germany in ruins. Then he was sent with the infantry to Korea, and he saw combat in the Korean War, and served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War in telecommunications. And when I was a child, 5 years old, I saw a photograph of the first African-American soldiers in Yosemite. I thought ‘There by the grace of God is my father and my father’s father.’ Right there. You know? So I just had these thoughts that the past that we think is past isn't past—it’s still here. 

You said, ‘We don’t have the power to change how things are, but we can change how things can be.’ What are your thoughts on how we can do that?

When people say to me, ‘What's the best thing that we can do for our kids to ensure that there are national parks and national forests in the future?’ I say restore that sense of the sacred with regard to the Earth. Saying that a national park is a natural force isn't strong enough. The Earth is the only world we will ever know. Our ancestors had a sacred relationship with the Earth. And back then the Earth was just fine.

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