In the wide, unshakable silence of Arizona's Painted Desert the shhhh of wind from a single car follows curves around the pastel hills. The sound of a crow, its black shadow gliding over chalky pink and blue cliffs, causes tears to trickle over my cheeks. A tyrannosaurus cloud hangs mid stride on the horizon: elongated neck, knees bent in a stilled chase through the sky above this stretch of Petrified Forest National Park. The land is strewn with ancient fallen trees. Sparkling blue, yellow and green minerals have replaced the rings in their trunks.
As always in wilderness, I feel the past embrace me. Those who live in big cities may find it hard to imagine that national parks offer more than a respite of expansive silence. But our parks offer cultural and historical links that help us understand our lives. I grew up in Philadelphia with a cousin who held tight to his Cherokee heritage; his ancestors lived in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. And as a young employee at Yellowstone years ago, I learned the story of the Nez Perce, pursued by the U.S. Army across that land in 1877. Those histories forged connections that gently shaped the path I would follow.
For me now, tales about the land and its people are crucial components in engaging urban youth in the discovery and protection of our American wilderness. How can city kids connect with wild lands when they see only fragments of green at the littered edges of sidewalks?
In 2004 I founded the Urban Wilderness Project in Seattle. I discovered that sometimes removing the barrier to getting people into natural settings is as simple as providing transportation and warm clothes. That was the case for 80 eighth graders who could see the 14,400-foot, snow-covered peak of Mount Rainier from their school windows but had never traveled the hour and a half to visit. We went to the park on buses, we shared stories, and we put on snowshoes to explore. As we pulled back up at school, one girl hopped off the bus onto the asphalt driveway and told me, "That was fun. I didn't know I liked nature."
Yes, I thought. My work is done.
Jourdan Imani Keith traces her storytelling roots to West Africa.