Exploring Ties Between Nature, History, and Race

Naturalist J. Drew Lanham connects birds, race, and conservation ethics in his new memoir—and in an unexpectedly viral video.

A lyrical story about the power of the wild, J. Drew Lanham’s new book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature, synthesizes his own family history, geography, nature, and race into a compelling argument for conservation and resilience.

Lanham, a lifelong birder, naturalist, and wildlife biologist at Clemson University, grew up in rural Edgefield, South Carolina, on his family’s ranch, the Home Place. Working on the farm alongside his three siblings, wandering through the forests that his father tended, Lanham first noticed birds—blue jays who stole nuts from his grandmother’s pecan tree, wild turkeys that gobbled lustily in the bottomlands, and prairie warblers that buzzed from the shrubby thickets. They became companions and guides for his coming of age, and future career in ornithology (an ill-advised detour into engineering notwithstanding), in a culture still grappling with racial rifts and unpleasant history.

Today, Lanham’s research focuses on the interplay of ecology, people, and land ethics. But just as important, he shares his love of birds and wilderness as a means to encourage more people of color to appreciate the outdoors and claim their stake in it.

National Geographic Adventure spoke with Lanham about family legacies, the need for diverse voices in conservation, and his viral video, “The Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.”

In your memoir, you describe the complex natural history around your family’s farm in South Carolina, and how it is intertwined with your own experience of growing up. What prompted you, as a scientist, to write your story?

When I was 40, maybe 41, I attended a writing workshop in Vermont. I had gone through the travails of promotion and tenure as a college professor and really thought I had found my rhythm as an ornithologist doing what I truly wanted to do. I was asked to write a place-based essay. I began to write the story of where I grew up. It was a 500-word assignment, and I think I wrote close to 3,000 words.

The next morning, when my turn came to read my story, and I broke down and couldn’t get through it. It was the first time I had mourned my father’s death, the first time I had mourned the loss of my Home Place. It was a reconnection to what had made me me. The memoir was borne of that.

Initially, I kind of balked at the idea of writing about myself, because my whole thing was, “why would anybody have any interest in that? It’s not anything special in its own right.” It still sometimes feels like that, but hopefully, people will be able to share in it.

Your book has many universal themes to it, though—such as how your environment shapes your personality. Did your instinct for observing the natural world when you were young lead you into wildlife biology as a career?

Growing up rurally in Edgefield, South Carolina, and with the options of only two and a half television channels and no video games, there was nature all around me, and I noticed it—birds in particular, because birds fly, and I’ve always wanted to fly at some level. I envied birds. I was studying them at a pretty intense level early on, and I had designs then on being an ornithologist. Both of my parents were science teachers, so there was some genesis there too.

I let guidance counselors know that I wanted to be a person who studied animals, a zoologist and an ornithologist. But, unfortunately, what happened—and I think this happens to lots of kids, and kids of color in particular—is that if you’re good at math and science like I was, then you’re herded toward engineering and traditional STEM disciplines.

But I look around me at what I do now—and being asked to share my thoughts about ornithology and conservation and culture—I feel like it was a map drawn up somehow. I think about the internal compasses that birds have to help them get where they need to be, and I think there’s a compass inside that’s been guiding me in the same way.

Along with birds and ecology, your research has focused on the African-American land ethic. Can you talk about what that is and the ideas you’re exploring?

It started with Aldo Leopold and A Sand County Almanac. One of his most frequently stated maxims is “conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” I definitely believe that to be true. The extension of that is asking not just “men,” but women and everybody else of various hues and colors and traditions, “well, how do you think about land?”

As a black man from the South, I’m looking at the historical connections to land, of slavery and oppression, as well as how land has sustained us in positive ways. In the South, and quite frankly across a lot of the United States, there’s a not-so-good history between black folks and land. People were terrorized and killed and forced to serve in ways that were unpleasant. Policies have created disparities for access to the things that we need to manage land. Addressing that directly, I think, is important. But then we also need to look at the good that land has done for us. Understanding history, but then coming forward to illuminate the positive connections between land and black folks, has been, for me, the fulfillment of a personal mission.

The idea of conservation being a state of harmony becomes a question of how we respond to all of this interplay. That means we’re not making assumptions about how people think about land, or wildlife, or trees, or birds, which I think is one of the biggest sins [conservationists] commit. Once you begin to understand how people think about land, then we can go forward to help people in informed ways. For the Color of the Land project [created as part of a TogetherGreen fellowship supported by Audubon and Toyota], we collected stories of black folks who owned rural southern lands to understand their stories so that I could then, hopefully, help them be better stewards depending on what their desires were for their lands: timber harvest for sustainable income, hunting, aesthetics.

That effort lives on in my relationship with the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation [which helps black landowners keep their inherited property and obtain income from sustainable forestry on their land] in Charleston, South Carolina. I provide support there as an ecologist, and inform black landowners about the black land ethic. Part of that is very much about using birds as the messengers between people. We share landscapes, we need the same air, the same water—I try to help them understand that they do have a stake in the conservation conversation. It’s everybody’s right to have access to nature. We all need it. To deny anybody that is immoral.

Let’s go back to something you touched on just now: the disconnect between conservationists and the communities where they’re doing a lot of their work, which was a theme in your talk at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in July. How might these different groups collaborate more?

The first thing for those of us in the conservation community to do is to show our hearts. When you’re trained as a scientist, you go out and collect all this data, you write the manuscripts formulaically, and you publish it, and hopefully 50 people read it. Then you go on to the next publication. We don’t go beyond that to be advocates for the resource. We need to bring conservation science back to a point where Aldo Leopold would recognize it, where we’re connecting head to heart.

Conservation means care. It’s a long word that you can boil down to four letters—care, and love. It doesn’t mean that we bias the data, it doesn’t mean that we don’t rigorously do analyses. But it does mean that we let people know that we care about what we do. Telling stories is one way to do that. As you build empathy and feeling between populations, things come together and then we can move forward, because those walls have come down some.

The BirdNote-produced video you star in, “The Rules for the Black Birdwatcher,” seems like a way to communicate the need for discussion between people who love nature and people who feel that they’re not welcome in nature. How did the video come about?

I got an email from one of the editors at Orion Magazine, who asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece. I thought for about 25 seconds and I emailed back to say I’d love to. I started thinking up these rules for being a black birder. Forty-five minutes to an hour and a half later, I was done.

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The article, “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” took off in ways that I didn’t think it would. I’m on the board of BirdNote, an organization that tells wonderful stories about birds, but more importantly, about bird conservation and how we connect to birds. BirdNote said, “birders haven’t thought about these sorts of issues, and here you’re thinking about them. Let’s get it out in another way.”

I was in Ocean City, Maryland, for a talk, and [producer] Ari Daniel and [videographer] Amanda Kowalski came down from Boston to film the video. We were out in the cold near Assateague Island National Seashore. The incident when the other black birder drives up was unscripted—there was no second take, it was just the way things in my life seem to be going these days!

I thought that maybe a few people would find it intriguing, but I certainly didn’t think it would go semi-viral. I think it represents the landscape of race in America and how some of us feel not so comfortable in these situations. Combining birding with being a black man is not a common thing in this country, so there are things that I have to think about that other people may not have to think about. Maybe other birders will begin to think about it too. It opens up the door for conversation about more than just birds; it opens up conversation about all sorts of things that we need to deal with as a society.

I had a question at a film festival where the clip got shown, and someone asked, “I laughed, but did you mean for this to be funny?” I said, “Well, I did, it’s satire, but I guess my goal is for you to laugh, and then think about why you laughed, and then think about why you had to think about why you laughed.”

I’m sure you have tons of memorable birding stories. Which one stands out for you most?

I left home in Edgefield two years after my father died, and the land was in dispute at that point. Relatives were sort of wrangling to profit on the land he had managed so carefully for all those years. I had gone back to Edgefield to try to salvage some stuff from my room. The land had been cut over, a lot of the mature forest that my father had carefully managed had been cut down. And it hurt. But then I had stopped at the head of the dirt road that led down to our house, and the car window was down, and I heard a “di-di-di-di-di-di-deet.” It was a prairie warbler, in this habitat that was growing back after all of this cutting. That bird was so close; it was just belting out that climb up the chromatic scale. I had seen prairie warblers before, but that prairie warbler meant renewal, in a way.

Prairie warblers come in to early successional habitats and sort of recolonize things. They start things again. I felt like I was losing the place where I grew up, and then there’s this bird, as bright as feathered sunshine, singing from this new green spring foliage. It stuck with me. Now there’s nothing more beautiful to me than a prairie warbler in some sort of shrubby, overgrown, thorny, tangled place. That bird was a messenger that put me on the path to where I am now.

The Home Place will be out September 13 from Milkweed Editions.

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