August 11, 2017KR Reviews

On The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2016. 224 pages. $16.00.

Much of this tumultuously painful year in US politics was drenched in a heightened awareness of issues surrounding racial identity and equity, at least for white people like me.

But for people of color, it was just another year, one more year of being worried if their sons and daughters would come home safely when driving while black; one more year of legitimate concern that employment opportunities and career advancement were nowhere near equal to that of their white counterparts; one more year of knowing that their not-so-distant ancestors were not landowners but were in fact slaves that contributed mightily to the financial successes of white farmers and manufacturers. In other words, for people of color it was one more year of continuing to be subjugated by the dominant culture. It’s easy to forget, as a white person, how this centuries-old construct affects everything and everyone in this country.

Including ornithologists.

J. Drew Lanham, a black man, teaches ornithology at Clemson University in his native state of South Carolina, not so far from where he grew up in rural Edgefield County where he was raised, mostly, by his grandmother, Mamatha. This experience surely formed Lanham to be who he is today, as he tells us on the opening pages of this fine memoir that touches on so many issues of being black in today’s America:

I am a man in love with nature. I am an eco-addict, consuming everything that the outdoors offers in its all-you-can-sense, seasonal buffet. I am a wildling, born of forests and fields and more comfortable on unpaved back roads and winding woodland paths than any place where concrete, asphalt, and crowds prevail.

Lanham is also a man in love with words and writing, and fortunately for us, he realized early in his career that there is a place in this world for learned and informed writing about nature that goes well beyond the scientific papers aimed to “impress other professors,” as he puts it. As one might expect, the writings of the great naturalist Aldo Leopold, with his iconic Sand County Almanac (first published in 1949, with more than two million copies sold since then), still influence Lanham. But while many, mostly white, Americans were drawn to the burgeoning conservation movement in the ’70s that Leopold helped to spawn, Lanham truly found his conversion by residing with an old woman whose connection to nature was as natural for her as breathing is for the rest of us.

“The Home Place” is how Lanham refers to his childhood home. His mother and father were hardworking school teachers and farmers on the side, and in the ’60s they built a house in the country called the Ranch, just down the road from Mamatha’s older and much more ramshackle place where Lanham spent most of his time growing up. While urban and suburban kids played basketball and football or hung out with their friends going down to the corner store after school, Lanham explored the land on which he lived. He observed the flora, both native and cultivated, as well as the fauna, both wild and domesticated; and at the early age of seven he remembers being completely taken in by birds and buying his very first field guide. In college, Lanham was steered away from his love of the natural world and directed instead toward what was considered more practical and more employable: engineering. But that calling did not prove true to Lanham’s rural roots and so he soon turned formally to ornithology.

Lanham first came to the attention of the American literary community in 2013 when he published a small, slightly irreverent piece in Orion called “9 Rules for the Black Bird Watcher,” which are worth noting here:

  1. Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder.
  2. Carry your binoculars—and three forms of identification—at all times.
  3. Don’t bird in a hoodie.
  4. Nocturnal birding is a no-no.
  5. Black birds—any black birds—are your birds.
  6. The official word for an African American in cryptic clothing—camo or otherwise—is incognegro.
  7. Want to see the jaws of blue-blooded birders drop faster than a northern gannet into a shoal of shad?
  8. Use what’s left of your black-president momentum on the largely liberal birder crowd to step to the front of the spotting-scope line to view that wayward smew that wandered into US waters from Eurasia.
  9. You’re an endangered species—extinction looms.

Reading these rules gives a pretty clear understanding of some of the difficulties faced by Lanham when birding while black. (The only vague rule is #7, which in his Orion essay was expanded to suggest that one should inform people that our nation’s most famous birder, John James Audubon, was born, as he was, by a black Haitian mother.) While Lanham makes light of these occupational obstructions, he has faced real dangers on birding expeditions, such as when he was in an isolated corner of rural South Carolina accompanied by a white female colleague, and three locals in a pickup truck draped with a Confederate flag suddenly appeared. No confrontation occurred but the fear and uncertainty remained, and still does to this day.

Yet for Lanham, who loves the landscape of his origins, there is no denying that this lush and verdant land of the American South—despite its long traditions of social inequities—will always be his home. A home he shares with others who may look and act differently than he does, but who often share his love for this big world of nature.

As Lanham tells us at the beginning of The Home Place that besides being an ornithologist and a man in love with nature, there’s no escaping that he’s also

. . . a man of color—African American by politically correct convention—mostly black by virtue of ancestors who trod ground in central and west Africa before being brought to foreign shores. In me there’s additionally an inkling of Irish, a bit of Brit, a smidgen of Scandinavian, and some American Indian, Asian, and Neanderthal tossed in too. But that’s only a part of the whole: there is also the red of miry clay, plowed up and planted to pass a legacy forward.

As he tells us in this beautifully told, quiet story of a memoir: “Home, after all, is more than a place on a map. It’s a place in the heart.”

Jim Carmin, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Portland, Oregon. His writings have appeared in Oregon Humanities, the Oregonian, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune¸ and the Miami Herald. He is currently at work on a novel, and has a day job of directing a special collections of rare books and manuscripts.