Career Spotlight: Park Ranger Shelton Johnson on Why Spending Time Outdoors Is About Civil Rights ​

Shelton Johnson fought fires, lectures on Yosemite’s wildlife, performed in a one-man show about the buffalo soldiers and insists that African Americans reconnecting with the wilderness are participating in the last act of the civil rights movement. 

Shelton Johnson Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Regardless of the reason, the fact that black Americans spend less time these days out in nature breaks Shelton’s heart because, he says, he’s acutely aware of the intimate relationship that our ancestors, sub-Saharan Africans, had with the earth.

“We descend from people who had that connection—that visceral, emotional, physical, spiritual connection to the earth,” he says in The Way Home.

“What is hardly ever brought up is how, over time, over 500 years, that incredible, intimate connection to nature, to wilderness, was incrementally whittled away and broken down to the point where African Americans are now the one group least likely to have a wilderness experience, least likely to have an experience in the natural world,” he continues.

He’s right, and he’s been on a well-documented mission to reverse this. Shelton created and starred in a one-man show titled Yosemite: Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier that chronicles the history of the buffalo soldiers for park visitors. That show eventually attracted the attention of a filmmaker who created a short documentary inspired by Shelton’s performance.

This ancestral affinity for Mother Earth is something that I personally experienced. A couple of months ago in Ghana, I was in awe as I watched my mother walk around her compound—after having not been there for a year—to take stock of all the new plant life that had sprouted. Many of the plants had not even begun to bear fruit, but she was able to see that this plant would bear tomatoes, that one corn pepper and another avocado.

“Ooh, look, Diana, this is okra,” she exclaimed as she walked up to some leaves, turned the plant on its side and plucked an okra from the stem.

“That’s mango, and that will soon produce oranges,” she told me. When I asked her how all of those plants came to be in her yard, she shrugged her shoulders and said that Yaow, her house overseer, may have been eating a mango at some point and then had thrown the core on the soil. That her garden had enough nutritive properties to envelop and then transform a few seeds—seeds that had not been intentionally planted—into a massive fruit-bearing plant fascinated me.

Shelton explained that what I witnessed with my mother was called ethnobotany—a relationship between plants and culture.

A return to that heightened sense of awareness of the earth is the “final act of the civil rights movement,” Shelton argues. “If Martin Luther King were alive today,” he says in The Way Home, “he would be first … to say, we as a people need to go to Yellowstone. We need to go to the Grand Canyon. If this is America’s best idea and we played a role in its creation, how dare we not choose that for ourselves?”

It made me think again of being with my mother in her garden.

“Mommy, what’s that?” I asked her, pointing to some leaves.

“Oh, they use that for medicine,” she responded.

I think Shelton’s on to something. The earth is healing.

For more on African Americans embracing the outdoors, check out these links:

Yes, We Camp, and if You Don’t, Here’s What You’re Missing

By Tent, Trailer or an RV: Some of the Best Places to Camp

Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beatsa Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.