Armchair Birding – January 2017
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, by J. Drew Lanham
I first heard of Drew Lanham when Bird Note featured an interview with him after he published “Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” in Orion Magazine. He is both witty and serious about the perils of watching birds while black, dryly advising black birders to forgo hoodies and always carry plenty of identification. “Hoodies” now conjure horrific scenarios of children gunned down for snuggling into warm clothing in all the “wrong” places and a train of news stories laying bare a cancer of implacable racism and other ills besetting our nation. Amid the noise of the acrimonious election campaign, I sought a copy of his memoirs and spent some quiet time absorbing his story and perspective. He offered me a kind of field guide to his life in rural South Carolina, a foreign country for me, a white westerner.
Lanham begins with his grandmother, a considerable presence in his childhood and a link to a more shadowy legacy that he eventually explores and layers into his complex personal history. We also learn about his parents, with their struggles and triumphs raising the family and providing guidance and example for Drew and his siblings. He lets us in to the close world of church and community. But everywhere there was also the farm, with fields and woods beyond, the waters teeming with birdlife, the trees hiding deer and upland birds. Birds are in the sky, teasing him with their easy flight, drawing him up to their world, inspiring him to observe and learn their ways.
From the base of home, Lanham ranges far afield, both geographically and socially. The love of birds eventually leads him to studies and experiences that deepen his fascination and train his eyes and ears beyond appreciation to a deep knowledge of nature and his own life path. He is a teacher at heart, in touch with how learning opened his own world to wonder.
As a professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University, a gifted writer, conservationist and, yes, hunter, Lanham has impressive credentials, but as a black man he also has long experience with—and insight into—the difficult social relations humans have created for themselves. As he explores the fields, mountains and shores of his area, he does not let us forget that these enchanting experiences are colored—literally—by his color. There are snakes, the possibility of losing one’s way in the back country, accidents, or other dangers all noted but taken in stride; the key to human behavior is not as easily navigated. That Confederate flag snapping on a front-yard pole is a warning note for ears necessarily attuned to possible threat. The country through his eyes is not a reliably friendly place. He does not take his welcome for granted. The “Rules” are both protection and limitation.
By speaking out—here in his memoir, in publications and sites like Bird Note (check their website for more pieces by and about him) and wherever he can find a receptive audience—Lanham accepts his new teaching assignment: to build awareness of racial barriers, to encourage more birders of color, to make himself and others less “exotic” and as common as sparrows. In these times, more than ever, his extended hand must be warmly grasped. For every hand is needed where birds struggle and children grow up without seeing their flight as magical. Our job is to invite, encourage, and welcome everyone to this home place, our Earth. The environmental movement has too often been a white enclave; too often it has overlooked environmental justice as a vital issue. Many individuals and groups are finally awakening to this need, this call. Lanham is a valuable leader and teacher we can follow and emulate—and happily swap tales with over beers! He knows his birds. (from Jan/Feb 2017 Echo newsletter, by Anne Kilgannon, photo of J Drew Lanham – Clemson University Photo)