“The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature”
Author: J. Drew Lanham
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Price: $24.00 (Hardcover)
Although I had never thought about it, J. Drew Lanham, now a professor at Clemson, reminds readers several times during his memoir that there are precious few black ornithologists, in fact not very many black naturalists/biologists of any kind.
Lanham writes, “I am a black man and therefore a birding anomaly. The chances of seeing someone who looks like me while on the trail are only slightly greater than those of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker.” He says his choice of career means he “will forever be the odd bird, the raven in a horde of white doves, the blackbird in a flock of snow buntings.”
Put this way it is amusing enough, but in the chapter entitled “Birding While Black” Lanham tells of times when his working alone as a black ornithologist created some high anxiety. In rural South Carolina, sometimes in the Blue Ridge, in militia country, earning money while earning his PhD, Lanham’s job for the bird census bureau required stopping every half mile then, for three minutes, listening for birds and searching for them through binoculars.
A Forest Service gate had KKK sprayed on it, a few decrepit trucks did too. Some local houses sported Confederate flags. Lanham could not help but consider some terrible possibilities. Lillian Smith’s book “Strange Fruit” and thoughts of lynching came to mind. A colleague at Clemson joked of his degree “being awarded posthumously.”
Lanham offers some explanation for the paucity of black biologists. He had himself begun at Clemson as a mechanical engineering major. When a black kid shows skill at math and science, high school guidance counselors, he suggests, steer them towards either engineering or medicine, even if those may not be of primary interest.
Lanham describes himself as “a man in love with nature…an eco-addict.” He was converted to this through experience of course, but also through reading, especially “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold.
Addressing the larger question of why more African-Americans may not have a more powerful and direct connection to nature, Lanham thinks the roots may be, first, in slavery, where workers had no choice about laboring in the fields all day, and then the era of sharecropping with its exhausting work and economic futility.
Lanham is himself a child of the land, raised on the family farm in Edgefield County, South Carolina, with three siblings. He was second in line. Lanham described his siblings as birds: brother Jock a raven, a genius; little sister Jennifer a swallow, “a flitting wind-tossed bird”; Julia a falcon, “fiercely loyal.” He describes himself as a hermit thrush, a shadow hugger, shy, OK with being alone.
His parents were both school teachers by day but so poorly paid that they raised much of their own food, beef included, and sold vegetables at the farmer’s market. Lanham loved it. The work was endless, feeding livestock, mending fences, cutting firewood, but for him it was a paradise.
His grandmother, who lived to 96, lived on the property. She had wisdom concerning herbal remedies and a rich supply of superstitions as well. “A broom swept across your feet could mean an early death” as might an owl hooting in the yard or a bird trapped in the house. Mamatha spoke with the dead—her house housed a ghost—and conjured, but was throughout a devout Christian.
Lanham traces his own religious changes from the evangelical Jeter Baptist church with a fierce, terrible God, where education was considered “ungodly,” to Mt. Canaan Baptist which was gentler, more encouraging than fearful.
No church, however could compare with “the woods and fields where creation was so evident.” I’d say Lanham evolved into a pantheist and would have made a fine companion to Henry David Thoreau on a walk around Walden Pond.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.