Sometimes it better, sometimes easier, to start with endings than beginnings . . .
With Shelton Johnson
I sat in the amphitheater at Zoo Atlanta listening to Shelton Johnson. He was the keynote speaker for the 6th Annual Keeping it Wild (KIW) Gala, and is a national park ranger and author of Gloryland. As I listened to Shelton, one row back from me I heard the rhythmic breathing of a six year old girl. Shelton’s passionate story-telling and cadence of that small child’s breathing mentally and spiritually took me outdoors.
I imagined being at Yosemite National Park, the source of many of Shelton’s stories. The adults–I was there too–were up late quietly looking up at the sky filled with distant stars and a crescent moon. We had tucked the children away in the tents and we could hear the distinctive breathing of each child, like different signatures on many pages.
So to beginnings. KIW hosted a wonderful gala. It began with a reception filled with people from so many cultures eating from their bamboo plates. Later, more guests filled their plates from a buffet with cornbread, black-eyed peas, and more.
In the amphitheater, the latter part of the evening, I felt love and joy seeing so many people of color listening to Shelton tell his stories. The Buffalo soldiers also drew me in. I cried when one of the soldiers stepped forward and affirmed Shelton in honoring the ancestors. Towards the end, a young woman strummed her guitar singing. We sang along with her about fighting pollution.
I hope that KIW continues to grow and expands their good work. I may not always express my feelings in the moment but my heart was bursting and full last night, full of Yosemite National Park.
I will be a historian until the day I die. I can imagine reaching with my wavering hand stretched out for my computer so I can go look up something at the Library of Congress website. That’s why when Black Heritage Month comes in February, I perk up.
The celebration of African American accomplishments was launched by Carter G. Woodson, the granddaddy of African American history. He first named the annual celebration Negro History Week, which was later expanded to Black History Month. Many now call the month of February Black Heritage Month.
Gloryland by Shelton Johnson
I could go on and on about environmental (that would include technology, science and medicine in my mind) contributions by African Americans. I am inspired to share a few things in the month of February 2010.
The Buffalo soldiers first come to mind. I learned about them many years ago. I knew they were a branch of the U.S. military launched after the Civil War. I also knew of two stories of why Native Americans gave these African Americans the name buffalo: Native Americans believed African Americans were fierce fighters and had curly hair much like the buffalo.
As for the environment, African American men in the military serving in the American West, crossed and worked on numerous landscapes from deserts to prairies after the Civil War. News of the publication of Gloryland: A Novel by Shelton Johnson led me to look for more online in connection to the novel, which was revelatory. What I did not know was that Buffalo solders served as some of the first national park rangers in California!
Learn more about the Buffalo soldiers and Shelton Johnson:
Johnson has worked for the National Park Service since 1987 and is currently one of few African American park rangers at park ranger in Yosemite Park. He appeared in Ken Burn’s “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea,” a PBS documentary film. In 2009, Johnson’s Gloryland: A Novel was published by Sierra Club Books. It is the story of Elijah Yancy who was born on January 1, 1863 and traveled West in the early 1880’s. The novel is filled with environmental themes including rich descriptions of the landscape Yancy traversed across the country.