National Park Service: The First 75 Years
Biographical Vignettes
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Josh Barkin

                                          by Ron Thoman

Josh Barkin
(Courtesy of Ron Thoman)

A lesser-known but profound influence on National Park Service interpreters and interpretation was Joshua Aaron Barkin — to whom Freeman Tilden wrote in a 1971 letter: "Josh . . . you are MY interpreter, remember. I almost feel that I discovered you."

Josh was an interpretive naturalist with East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) in Oakland, California, for more than 20 years. He practiced the best interpretation, both whimsical and profound. He was equally adept at interpreting for children, engineers, clergy, and fellow interpreters. He was equally at home giving "'gutter walks" in the city and alpine meadow walks in Yosemite. He thrived on creative use of gadgets, puns and riddles, puppets, music, poetry, world religions, history, and philosophy in his programs. Not only was he unafraid of integrating ethical and moral issues in his programs, he often insisted upon it. After being "discovered" by the NPS, he became trainer and inspiration to Service interpreters at numerous parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone. Grand Teton, and Point Reyes. In the late 1970s, he became a central figure in skills training at the Mather and Albright training centers. At the point of his death in 1982, Josh had influenced hundreds of National Park Service interpreters and thus the character of NPS interpretation. He was just beginning to write books and make films on interpretation, although, sadly, none were completed.

Born in New York in 1918, Josh was a self-taught naturalist who first learned his love of interpretation from a Staten Island neighbor, whose own enthusiasm for nature was infectious. In his youth, Josh discovered a love of and talent for classical music and became a talented concert cellist. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1938, Josh graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. He became an executive with a lamp manufacturing company. As Josh grew less enchanted with the business world, he pursued his musical and naturalist interests more seriously. While on a musical retreat to Yosemite with Pablo Casals, he doubled as the group's naturalist. One evening Casals told Josh that while he was only an adequate cellist, he was a superb naturalist. And with that, Josh decided to change careers and apply for a job with EBRPD in 1960.

"I decided to walk to the office to apply. So I put on my knapsack and started up the hill. And as I walked a small child joined me. As we walked he asked me, 'What's in the bag mister?' And l answered him, 'Something to read, and some thing to eat, and something to wear.' The child paused a minute and asked, Are you going to seek your fortune?' Well, I immediately fell in love with that child."

He got the job, and Josh was off to seek his fortune, often quoting St. Francis, "Teaching is a mercy." In the process, he helped us find ours.

From National Park Service: The First 75 Years


Last Modified: Dec 1 2000 10:00:00 pm PDT

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