Dr. J. Drew Lanham was the speaker for this year’s Evelyn McNeill Sims Memorial Lecture at the NC Botanical Garden. The continuing pandemic required his presentation to be virtual, and I am a bit sad about that, because Dr. Lanham was a lyrical, charismatic speaker even on a video screen. I imagine he would have mesmerized a live audience. Plus, selfishly, I would have loved to have been able to ask him to autograph his book for me. I highly recommend it.
Dr. Lanham is a native of Edgefield, SC. He is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. He describes himself as a rare bird, because he is a black man and a birder and conservationist. His book is titled, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
From the very first pages of Dr. Lanham’s book, I knew I was with a kindred spirit. The passages in which he describes the natural world are effortlessly vivid and lyrical. His profound connection to his family’s farm and surrounding lands on which he grew up is recounted beautifully. His love for his parents and siblings combines with his love of their land to create his deep sense of home. This anchor to his home place likely contributed to his resilience navigating the social inequities faced by people of color in the United States. Dr. Lanham does not pretend those inequities do not exist. I think his connection to the natural world helped him survive difficult times.
Dr. Lanham describes his evolution from boy and young man who mostly conformed to society’s expectations to the man he is today, a man more comfortable with who he is, a man who is often more happy in the natural world than the human-built one. He writes, “But I try to live half-wild, not judging, skirting convention and expectation. I spent too many years inside four walls.” I can totally relate.
As is true of many southerners of his generation, Dr. Lanham was raised in the Christian faith, but he was never comfortable with the angry God described in church, the one who was always watching. These days, he writes, “I’ve settled into a comfortable place with the idea of nature and god being the same thing. Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest nurture me. …There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird.” I am right there with him.
Dr. Lanham has been all over the world, but his home place in South Carolina straddled the Piedmont-Coastal Plain transition zone. He understands both landscapes very well. His description of my beloved southern Piedmont region – a zone that encompasses parts of states from Virginia to Alabama – breaks my heart with its accuracy:
“Things are in pieces here, fragments of what used to be. A bit of forest, a bit of field, a wetland rarely – all surrounded by a sea of cement. Acres and acres of asphalt. Even where I find forest, the trees are often planted like row crops. …In most places, the thin crust of topsoil that remains struggles to hide the gummy clay underneath. When the infrequent rains do come, the Midlands weep erosively.”
Dr. Lanham concludes his book by describing his increasing comfort with his role as a proselytizer on behalf of the natural world he loves. He ponders how to re-connect humanity to the natural world from which it arose, on which it relies. As I wrote here, it is a dilemma I also struggle with. He concludes on a hopeful note:
“Trying to do what’s best by nature is a guessing game with long-term stakes. Good decisions mean that the soil and water will prosper. The trees will prosper. The wild things will prosper. In that natural prospering, all of us will become wealthier in richer dawn choruses and endless golden sunsets. The investment is called legacy. If I can see, feel touch, and smell these things once more on a piece of land I can call my own, I’ll be home again. …Home, after all, is more than a place on a map. It’s a place in the heart.”
In his video presentation for the NC Botanical Garden, Dr. Lanham noted that “It’s important for us to be aware of who we are so that we can be better than the day before.” I think he meant that unless we acknowledge our failings as a society, we cannot change them. We are failing each other, and we are failing our home planet, because too many of us are not aware, and therefore see no reason to strive to be better.
He also shared two personal mantras he repeats to himself often. One speaks to the need for awareness of our place on the planet: “Same air, same water, same soil, same Earth, same fate.”
The other mantra is for himself as a writer tied to the rhythms of the natural world: “Watch, revere, write, repeat.” Of course, that phrase sealed my conviction that he and I are indeed both half-wild kindred spirits. I’ve been following that very guidance for decades. It has never felt more pertinent than it does on this Earth Day.