The prickly air fills my lungs with sunlight and a whisper of sweaty bodies before the wind quickly whisks it away. My eyes are tightly shut, making each step I take hesitant like a toddler’s first steps. Palms slick with sweat from the heat and anticipation, I allow my friend’s hand in my mine to guide me to promises of grandeur and the sublime. “There, you can open your eyes,” they said, bringing my lurching body to a halt. I feel the rush of air as people walk by me, their excited murmurs bombarding my ears. Slowly, carefully, I peel back my eyelids, flesh-pink curtains replaced by a sight that draws admirers from all over the world.
The Grand Canyon.
I silently thank my director for blindfolding those of us who had not been to the national park, for this visual feast was made sumptuous by a big reveal, no peripheral sightings to whet the mind and appetite. Rust red, salmon pink, creamy apricot, and tender beige layer themselves faithfully in a sequence stretching back millions of years. Almost miraculously, specks of pinyon pine and juniper dot the cliffs, displaying no fear of heights. My eyes wander far below where the rays of light illuminate rock, and there, a river snakes, glinting shades of cyan and tawny in the shadow of cliffs looming above. I beeline to a rock and seat myself facing the overwhelming splendor, allowing it to inundate my senses. The sandstone rock is like velvet against my palm: warm, soft, and comforting.
How did I, a sheltered, suburban Texan, end up in the fantastic geologic labyrinth of the American West? I turn to find my director and program coordinator explaining our schedule for the day to nineteen other college students from all across the country. The twenty of us made up the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) at Northern Arizona University (NAU). We came together because of our passion for conservation and the environment, though our backgrounds varied culturally, socially, and educationally with budding expertise in the natural sciences, engineering, humanities, and more.
Katherine hiking the Grand Canyon with fellow Doris Duke Scholars
DDCSP brought together twenty students from all walks of life to start conversations about where and how to increase diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the conservation field. With an emphasis on public lands management in the Southwest, the program immersed us into the landscape, people, and stories of the region. The Grand Canyon was one of many places we explored, and for me, this visit marked the beginning of my passion and love for the Southwest. My experience of the geologic wonder through the immersion of my senses in unapologetic colors, harsh aridity, and a landscape so steadfast, so vulnerable, left me with a heightened awareness of interconnectedness and belonging. In my mindscape, I often return to where the land meets the sky on the Colorado Plateau, the stark contrast between rich red and turquoise blue. This horizon is a meeting place, a recognition of differences, and a path forward.
As disheartening as it is to acknowledge, national parks and public lands are not as accessible to minority people. In a time where public lands are attacked and climate change is inevitable, the voices of rising minority populations need to be included in conversations about conservation of public lands to add new perspectives and solutions. Crucial to this inclusive dialogue, I believe, is the role of experiential learning in developing strong personal ties to, and cultivating care for, a place. Go outside. Let the landscape speak to you. Feel the sun-soaked sandstone against your skin, the breeze on the nape of your neck, the cool water rush through your fingertips. Fall in love, and furiously fight to protect it. Experiences like these are considered a privilege, when they should be a right.
As our country celebrates the 100th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park this year, I reflect on my personal experience at the Grand Canyon as a monumental moment, express gratitude for organizations and people working to diversify the outdoors, and celebrate the emerging leaders of a more inclusive conservation movement. Looking forward into the next century, I have hope that national park visitations will be increasingly diverse, and that a dynamic community of environmental stewards continues to grow and spearhead the environmental challenges of today and the future.
I let the wind carry my breath away, a prayer of thanksgiving, my body firmly rooted in a place at once familiar and foreign. My eyes travel through the layers of the Grand Canyon’s geologic record from the shadowy beginnings to where weathered tips caress the sky. There, where the red meets the turquoise, a new horizon of potential and hope.
Katherine Bui is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholars alumna with a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah as a first-year graduate fellow of the Global Changes and Sustainability Center.