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Shelton Johnson: Share the Love for National Parks with America's Minority Youth

Share what you know, share what you love. The most effective way to connect youth and minorities to the wonders of the outdoors is for those who already love wild spaces to tell their stories and share their enthusiasm.

Shelton Johnson during speechThat was the message Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson delivered Friday morning at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. The event was presented by The Conservation Alliance, which consists of 180 outdoors companies, including REI. The Alliance provides grants to grassroots organizations working to protect wild places.

Johnson is known for his commentaries in the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea and for persuading media icon Oprah Winfrey to camp and explore at Yosemite.

In his Friday speech, Johnson described his own upbringing in Detroit (with stops in Europe and Canada) and how vital a role his parents played in sparking his own deep appreciation of nature.

"I'm here because of my parents," Johnson told the crowd. "I had no national park experience as a little boy. I grew up in Detroit, but I also grew up in Germany, and my parents took my brother and me to the Bavarian Alps for a little vacation.

The Revelatory Power of Nature

"I was so young," he said. "I remember reaching up to my mother and father's hands. My father grew up in South Carolina under Jim Crow. My father never waxed enthusiastic about being in nature and wilderness. When he thought about that, he thought about the 1930s and '40s and the KKK, and it's a whole different universe. But now I'm holding their hands and the mountains are so gorgeous and so beautiful, and I remember still that I was out of breath because I was so elevated. And I realized heaven is not a place you have to die to get to; you just need good hiking boots."

Shelton Johnson signs a copy of 'Gloryland'Children of American inner cities simply don't know what they're missing, Johnson said, because no one has told them about the marvels of the natural world.

"When you're a child growing up in an inner-city area, you do not hear, you do not see, you do not feel what everyone in this room (devotees of an outdoor lifestyle) sees, hears and feels about wilderness," he said. "No one talked to me as a child about, 'We need to get to the Grand Canyon. You need to see all of that sandstone, all that Vishnu Schist.' I love just saying that; Vishnu Schist.

"What a name," he said. "Who wouldn't want to see it? Even if you didn't know what it was, you'd want to see it. If you were on a street corner in Detroit and said, 'I've got some Vishnu Schist.' 'Well,  show it to me. Where do I get this Vishnu Schist?' 'You have to follow me to Arizona.' 'I have to go all the way out to Arizona to get Vishnu Schist? Is it good?' " Johnson paused, then replied, " 'It's billions of years good.' "

Johnson laughed at his own imaginary dialogue. "When you look for inspiration and you call out to the spirits, you never know what you're going to get," he said. "But where else do you feel that sense of deep time, that sense of cosmic time, other than in a wilderness area? I realized that to some degree my childhood was a period of deprivation because I did not have that access to the natural world. It bothers me today that there's so many kids who do not have that experience."

Americans Should Celebrate America's Natural Treasures

International youths, it seems to Johnson, have greater awareness of America's wilderness treasures than native children.

"As part of my job, I swear in Junior Rangers," he said. "I swear in Junior Rangers from all over the world. It strikes me that if I'm swearing in a Junior Ranger from Israel, from London, from Paris, from Antwerp, from Rio de Janeiro, that I'm highly unlikely to swear in a Junior Ranger from south-central L.A., from Oakland, from Detroit, from Boston, from Philly, that there's something terribly wrong with that scenario. What is it that the people in Helsinki are hearing that the folks in Harlem are not hearing? Why don't we teach our own citizens and let them know that this is part of our collective inheritance as Americans?"

Rebecca Bear and Shelton JohnsonA good starting point is sharing books, magazines, films or any resource that can spark curiosity about national parks within children. It's one of the reasons that Johnson, an author and poet, participated in the Ken Burns documentary.

"Art has the power to reach down deep inside you, grab hold of your heart and never let go," he said. "If you can't get to the rim of the Grand Canyon, find a great book, find a great film, find a great play—find anything about the Grand Canyon and you can vicariously experience it."

How Individuals Can Make an Impact

What role can an individual play? "We all need to work together to communicate those stories," Johnson said. "They're in the textbooks, they're in the magazines. Once you feel those connections, you take the time the time to go out there and see it for yourself.

"When I say 'park' to you (an audience of outdoor lovers), you guys start to swoon, right?" Johnson asked. "I say Zion, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Wrangell-St. Elias, you guys go, 'Ohh, if he says one more, I'm going to pass out.' That's because you know what the word 'park' means.

"But you start talking about a national park in an inner-city community, to people who have no idea of what a national park is to some degree. They make a (mental) equivalent of a city park or a county park. They're thinking, 'Why is this ranger going on and on about a park? That's the place my parents told me, 'Don't be there after dark. You could get in trouble there. That's where those drug dealers are.' They don't understand. But if you get one of those kids into a park, and they have that experience.

"This is the irony of everything that I've been saying," Johnson said. "The very people who can most connect with Yosemite or Zion are the people our culture perceives as being least able to connect with those environments. If you have never heard any kind of communication about the power of mountains, and then find yourself in the presence of mountains, it is overwhelming.

Nature's Effect on Inner-City Children

"I remember seeing an inner-city (school) kid, an African-American from L.A., who was at Lower Yosemite Falls, and he just kept staring at it, and staring at it, and he was crying. One of the instructors went up to him and asked him, 'Are you alright?" He said yes; 'I had no idea that such beauty exists.' He was profoundly moved by what he was seeing.

"We have programs where we've had kids from warring high schools, Dorsey and Crenshaw High from south-central L.A., and they become buddies and pals because they're in an environment where the turf was a different turf. There were these 2 young women from these warring high schools, and they were holding hands with this look on their faces. You know the look—the look that people have when they see something that pulls something from within them out into the world around them. They have that look, and that's a very powerful thing.

The Transcendence of the Sublime

Johnson emphasized the transcendent qualities of wilderness, the capacity of nature to put humans in touch with "the sublime."

Shelton Johnson plays an eagle bone flute"That's something that needs to be put back into our conversations, the sublime," he said. "That was really hot in the 19th century. People came to Yosemite for the sublime. What kind of look do you get on the faces of people who ask, 'What are you doing this weekend?' 'I'm going to the sublime.' It worked for Stephen Mather. It worked for John Muir. It worked for Rachel Carson. That's what this park experience—not park; that is what the experience of this continent is all about, connecting with the sublime. I think kids should grow up having that connection and that hunger.

"That's what I'm all about, is creating a drive and increasing that hunger—hunger for nature, hunger for wilderness," said Johnson, who opened and closed his speech playing an eagle bone flute, one of 15 in his collection. "And that hunger is strongest in those who have only had a little bit of a taste. When kids have only had a little bit of a taste, you can't keep them away. But they don't even know it's on the menu unless we tell them that it's there."

Photos, top to bottom: Shelton Johnson addresses The Conservation Alliance audience; Johnson signs a copy of his book, Gloryland; Rebecca Bear, director of the REI Outdoor School, talks with Johnson prior to his speech; Johnson closes his speech by playing an eagle bone flute; Johnson meets attendees at his post-speech book signing.

Posted on at 3:15 PM

Tagged: Shelton Johnson, Yosemite, diversity, national parks and youth

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Ann B

I had the exact same reaction the first time I read the words, "Vishnu schist." Have always wanted to go to the depths of the Grand Canyon to see it, but haven't yet.

This nation needs more heroes like Shelton Johnson.

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I was fortunate to be raised in a family that loved camping and exploring and had an opportunity as a family to visit many national parks. I am now fortunate to be working with the Girl Scouts in helping urban youth learn about and enjoy nature in a backpacking program. What a precious gift we have to give to these young people. While not all of them are able to go on the longer extended trips to national parks (Big Bend, Appalachian Trail) they are able to join us to enjoy some of the wonderful natural areas in Texas on weekend trips (Big Thicket, Enchanted Rock). We keep the cost low so that we can include as many girls as we can.


Nice write-up T.D. Sorry I missed meeting you at OR. Your reader's might enjoy listening to Shelton's speech in it's entirety on my podcast The Joy Trip Project:


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