Broken Ground | Season 2 | Episode 1

Drew Lanham: Call of the Rural South

Author and wildlife biologist Drew Lanham talks about his book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Lanham discusses his love of birds, his South Carolina homeplace, and reconciling the South’s legacy of hate with its beauty.

Episode Transcript

Author and wildlife biologist Drew Lanham talks about his book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Lanham discusses his love of birds, his South Carolina homeplace, and reconciling the South’s legacy of hate with its beauty.




DREW LANHAM: You know, our lives don’t happen in vacuums. They happen in the context of history and other people. And one of the failures, I think that we’ve had as a conservation community is ignoring the stories and the voices. Of the rural south, because there’s a richness there and we’re not all impoverished and we’re not all negative stories. Those are certainly stories that we need. But I think it’s important to mind the successes as well, to understand for all of this rough bitter history that we have, that people have survived, that people have thrived in ways to allow us to be where we are now.




HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South, and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid-McElwain. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we’re passing the mic to some of the leading voices of the environmental movement in the South. Over the next few episodes, you’ll hear from authors and scholars speaking about the environmental stories and truths that reveal the specialness and sometimes the tragedies of this region.

Drew Lanham is an author, a wildlife biologist, and an alumni distinguished professor at Clemson University. But above all, he is a cultural ornithologist and he thinks of himself as a rare bird, as you’ll hear in this interview. In this episode, we talked to Drew Lanham about his book, “The Homeplace: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” which won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Reed Environmental Writing award in 2018. This memoir is at once a reflection on nature, the American experience in the south and a love letter to his homeplace and his family. Drew joined me for this conversation from studios at Clemson University.




CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: And the last time Drew that you and I met and were able to talk, I was lucky enough to be in what I’m going to call your office, right?


DREW: Yeah. Yes, that’s right. That’s right. It’s a Beidler Forest, and it is a part of Four Hole Swamp. Just this – thousands of years old are evident in the trees that grow tall in that forest, sort of like a cathedral almost, Claudine. And that place is sacred to me for many reasons, but you know, the trees are there sort of is as witnesses to, to time and that space and to all the wildness that has been there, but then also to people, to indigenous peoples who once trod that ground and then to enslaved peoples who fled there, um, as respite for sometimes a few days or sometimes in transit to other places, we think. So when I go there, I go there to escape and to connect sort of simultaneously. It’s a way to go to see, again, these thousand year old beings, but also these tiny birds that have commuted, have migrated from Central and South America. And suddenly they’re there, things like prothonotary warblers. These flecks of flying gold. And those birds are suddenly there in April and May, and, um, the forest is alive in a very different way. But when I’m watching birds, I’m also thinking about the history of the place and the people that were there, and, um, what a place like Beidler means for the future. It’s a huge set of lungs and that the trees help us breathe and they, they cleanse the air. The soil cleanses the water. And walking on that boardwalk sort of cleanses my soul. So, uh, you know, when we were there, I don’t know, it probably seemed like I was constantly in some sort of attention deficit because, you know, a bird would call and it’s hard to ignore or you hear something and it’s hard not to be attentive in a very different sort of way. So I’m glad that we got a chance to, to share that.


CLAUDINE (in the forest): What was that?


DREW (in the forest): Blue-headed Vireo. Um, we just had a, that was a woodpecker shadow that just flew over. A Red-bellied …


CLAUDINE: It was incredible actually to just, like you said, be able to hear something, stop, and turn that way and just give all of your attention and focus to what just moved in that tree, um, that we might catch a glimpse of.


DREW (in the forest): That’s a Blue-headed Vireo. That’s a Northern Perula. There’s a Yellow-throated Warbler way back, that falling sound, that tuli-tuli-tuli-tuli-tuli-tuli.


CLAUDINE: And, uh, when we met there, it was right after your, um, book, “Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature” won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Reed Award in 2018. Um, and we were talking about your book there and there was something kind of magical about being in that place and being able to also talk about this other magical place for you. I feel like when I was reading your book, the way you wrote about your homeplace, Edgefield, South Carolina was, you know, kind of mystical. Can you tell me a little bit about Edgefield where you grew up and what it was like growing up there?


DREW: Edgefield is, um, it’s a place that most people wouldn’t recognize except sort of to drive through it or if you love peaches, it’s a place to go to get really good sweet peaches. But, um, It was, is, is my home place. Uh, it’s a small county on the Western edge of the Midlands of the Piedmont. And it sits nestled against the Savannah river, which separates South Carolina from out west, which is Georgia. Edgefield is, um, right across the river from Augusta, Georgia, which is important historically, because Augusta was sort of a – really a jumping off point for the upcountry frontier of both Georgia and South Carolina. And Edgefield has this history that in many ways runs sort of parallel and intersects with what was happening at the intersection of commerce and trade and war and culture. And all of that, uh, my family was sort of touching.

Our first ancestor, we think Harry was brought south from Virginia, uh, and Maryland, the mid-Atlantic, in about 1790, according to the stories and was brought down there by the Lanhams, um, Josiah and his brother. Because as we know historically, what was happening in the mid-Atlantic agriculturally was that the land was being burned up by tobacco. Tobacco is hard on land, hard on soil. Burns it out so that it becomes unproductive. And so about 1790, there was, um, a large sell off of enslaved, um, and a lot of out migration, um, by the people who owned a lot of these enslaved, um, to places to try to make a go of it elsewhere. And so Harry Lanham probably came to Edgefield in about 1790 with the Lanham brothers and, and that’s sort of where the story begins for us. My father, James Hoover Lanham, my mother Willa Mae Jones Lanham, my older brother James Jock Lanham, my older sister Julia Ethel Lanham – Bug, as we called her, and my younger sister, Jennifer, we all grew up on this couple of hundred acres that was probably a part of what the white Lanhams had owned.

Edgefield, you know, for all of my family’s history there, which in many ways is sort of idyllic, Edgefield has not been an idyllic place. When you think about it being the home of someone like Pitchfork Ben Tillman, who is the founder of the university and my alma mater and where I work now, Clemson University, and a likely ancestor of mine. Um, that Pitchfork Ben Tillman was there and one of the most racist governors that this country has ever known. That Strom Thurmond is a native of Edgefield, South Carolina, and that I’m a native of Edgefield, South Carolina makes for some interesting conversations about race and place and how we resolve, you know, the bitterness of the past and, and try to move forward in some sort of different and better way. And I, I tried in the “Home Place” to reflect a little bit of that history of hate as it were, but also to try to reflect why someone can love a place where hate was predominant. And for me, having family grow up on land and being nurtured by land and nurtured by family and nurtured by nature in a way that made you whole, you know, ways now that I recognize that people would pay a lot of money for, to have the experiences that I had is growing up in a family that was, that was not rich, but enriched by living on, on this, this land in, in Edgefield.


CLAUDINE: Can you tell me a little bit about what some of those experiences were? And I’m also, um, when I was reading your book, I was so drawn to the story of your grandmother and just how it felt like your connection to your grandmother and to the land were sort of something that was intertwined.


DREW:  You know, the experience of growing up really, um, between two homesteads, my grandmother, my Matha and her name It was my perversion of mommy Ethel. Apparently as a, as a young child, I couldn’t say mommy Ethel. So, um, I was, I was sort of loaned to her when I was an infant because her husband, Joseph Samuel Lanham, daddy Joe, my grandfather, had died a few years before and my grandmother was lonely and here was this namesake baby that she was able to nurture and that provided company to her. So I stayed with my grandmother, you know, for a great deal of the time. We slept in the same bed until I was probably seven or eight years old. And then I moved to a little aluminum cot in the same room with her and this Ashley heater that she always seemed to have a fire in. But living with her was like living, you know, decades earlier because she cooked on a wood stove. She had an indoor toilet, but everything else was just sort of rudimentary. But my grandmother’s teachings and her tutelage and her nurturing from the cookstove to every other aspect of, of being is something that I find, as I grow older, that I’m, I’m still very tightly bound to. I’m constantly sort of repeating stories that she told me and, and, and hoping that they stick with, with our children so that they can tell them to their children one day so that the legacy gets passed forward.

But that was just sort of half of my life. The other half of it was with my parents over at their ranch house. My grandmother’s house, I call the ramshackle. My parents’ house I call the ranch, because it had been a small house, but then they modified it over the years to be this really nice modern three columned, you know, seventies, sorta house. And, um, you know, that’s where everybody else sort of lived in. So I would drop in when I left my grandmothers to that part of my life, with my siblings and with my parents. But I think, uh, as much as there is to tell about living with my grandmother and as much as there is to tell about living with my parents and my siblings, there was the time in between that, that sticks with me in some very deep ways. And that was the time sort of wandering between these, these two dwellings. I mean distance wise, it was only about a quarter of a mile at most. And it might take me 20 minutes. It might take me an hour. It might take me several hours to make my way from one place to the other. And so there were all sorts of things. There were puddles in between the two houses. There were ditches with water, sometimes running in them that I would imagine as raging rivers. There were fields with blackberries that you could pick and you could snack on, but in those same blackberry brambles, there were Bobwhite quail calling. There were birds in the trees that I was learning to identify. There were cattle in the pastures that sustained us. There, there were all these sorts of things in between the ramshackle and the ranch that afforded me the opportunity, I think, to have this sort of third existence. It was an opportunity to be immersed in this wildness that I still crave. And, and so when I have the opportunities now anywhere I am to wander and to be out of sight and out of mind, it’s important to me. And that all started down there in Edgefield on, on that home place.


(bird whistle)

DREW (in the forest): Turkey vulture coming over. Look at that. Wow.


CLAUDINE (in the forest):  Yeah, oh wow.


DREW (in the forest): That’s effortless. Right. You know, and that, um, the way that bird was flying that, seeing that, seeing vultures soar like that with just this total freedom, um, that, that was, that was inspiration to be a bird.


DREW: And you find yourself in this world, um, one moment soaring in the clouds above with, with vultures and the next moment you’re immersed, you know, six inches deep in a puddle that hadn’t been there.


CLAUDINE: Was there a moment for you at Edgefield where you, where that clicked, where you, you thought ‘this is the moment I became a conservationist?’


DREW: It’s, it’s hard to boil down to one, Claudine, but I, you know, I, I think about this moment when, after we had, we had lost the farm. And this was my, um, my freshman year, because once I left, after I came to Clemson, my father had died two years before. And so by the time I was able to return, my mother had moved closer to work in Aiken and, um, all the cattle had been sold, the land had been ravaged by unscrupulous forestry and the desire to turn a quick penny by some relatives. And so I go back down to the house that’s empty now and I’m riding through this landscape that I, I really don’t even recognize because the trees that were there were all gone. I could, I could see things that I had not seen before in ways that I did not want to see them really. And I stopped where our dirt road met the blacktop and, and there’s, uh, a bird singing. Um, It’s a Prairie Warbler. And that Prairie Warbler is sitting up on a sapling and just giving this Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze, Ze. And I could see this bird throwing his head back, just singing for all it was worth. And, um, you know, at that point in time, something struck in me that said, you know, I need to, I’m going to have to do things differently. I’m going to have to live my life in a different way to not lose everything. So that Prairie Warbler was, um, you know, a key part of, of my ornithology. And it’s a key part of me becoming who I’ve become. I think that was probably the moment for me.


CLAUDINE: There is this part of the book where you’re talking about your siblings. And, um, one of the things I absolutely loved was the bird assignments that you gave to your siblings. So like Jock is a Raven and bug is a Falcon and Jennifer’s a swallow. Do you go around assigning birds to the, to people regularly? Like, does everyone have kind of a bird personality to you? What’s your bird?


DREW: Yeah, I, you know, I think part of what’s happened to me is that I’m constantly thinking about us, human beings in a natural context and who we are and what we are. But birds inspire me. Um, some people inspire me and I, I like to think about what kinds of birds they would be for, for me. Um, you know, I think about Shrikes a lot, Loggerhead Shrikes. There are distinctive in that there are three toned. There’s a black mask and black on the wings, but then most of the body is gray and there’s just a little bit of white on the bird. So it’s a songbird that, that a lot of people would overlook except for the habits of the bird. Loggerhead Shrikes are songbirds, and they have these sort of rough hewn songs, but the colloquial name for a Loggerhead Shrike is a Butcherbird. And they’re called butcher birds because they’ll catch prey. It might be a grasshopper. It might be a small mouse or a shrew or a lizard or a small frog, but they will impale that prey on a thorn or a barbed wire fence. And that seems really gruesome to people. And, um, the bird does it in part because its feet aren’t strong enough to, to hold the prey as, um, something like a Hawk or a Falcon would. But again, it’s a songbird that’s also raptorial. So when I think about Loggerhead Shrikes, I think about how they code switch and code switching is something that I’m familiar with, that many people of color are familiar with, that we go between identities and, you know, I think about how I grew up sort of going between the ramshackle and the ranch and that I would have to code switch in some ways between going from this existence with my grandmother, to this life, with my parents and siblings. And I think about as a, as a Black man in America, sort of on a daily basis, how I code switch between home and, and my office and so, I think I’m a Loggerhead Shrike.


CLAUDINE: Well, I mean, there’s also, you know, let’s be honest that probably a lot of code switch going on working as a Black man, as a conservationist. You’re not surrounded by people who look like you.


DREW: Well, yeah, yeah. Yes, exactly, Claudine. That’s, that’s the other thing is sort of this, um, juggling that you do, but the balls that you’re juggling are identities. And so, in, in thinking about that juggling and sort of this constant effort code switching, which, you know, a Loggerhead Shrike does because it’s, it’s a Loggerhead Shrike. I mean, one moment it’s singing and the next moment it’s, you know, impaling something on a thorn. And people see the bird and think it’s handsome in the context of it sitting on a perch and singing. And in the next moment, they’re horrified to learn that, this is how it lives. You know, I tell people one of my, the birds that I’ve really, really come to love um, is the European Starling, which is a bird that’s not native to this country. It’s an immigrant, but it’s an immigrant that was brought here to suit others purposes. Um, people who wanted to see all of the birds of Shakespeare decided, well, Starlings should be here, so let’s bring some, and they released them in Central Park …


CLAUDINE:  Oh wow.


DREW: And Starlings became …


CLAUDINE: That’s how they got here?


DREW: That’s how they got here. Sounds familiar, right? You pack a living being away and take it where you want it to be so it suits your purposes. And starlings, these very intelligent birds of color, um, have come to be sort of, uh, public enemy number one, ecologically, because they compete for other birds for cavities, for nesting holes. And so they’re not protected by any law. So if you wanted to go out right now and just kill, just shoot down European Starlings, no one would care. Now that has sort of, um, obvious meaning to some of us and beings being shot down in the street without care and really without legal recourse. But then the amazing thing about Starlings is that you can watch a video of, of this activity called a murmuration, which is thousands, tens of thousands or more birds that are sort of flocking in this rhythmic way, flowing undulating amoeboid movement across the skyscapes. And people are brought to tears watching these birds at a distance. flowing and flocking across a skyscape. So it’s pretty easy for me, then, as an African-American man in this country to sort of take that, you know, as birds, as a being, is appreciated at a distance, but despised up close. And I think the sooner we sort of begin to see our plight with other beings, other humans who may not be like us, but other beings who maybe have wings and feathers or fins or snakeskin, that when we begin to see other beings in some way as sharing plight, as sharing life, then we develop some sort of empathy. And so a lot of what I think conservation comes down to now is love and how we care for this earth, how we care for one another, how we care for other beings not like us.


CLAUDINE: You’ve given lectures, written essays about the lack of diversity in conservationism, but also just about the ability to have places like Beidler Forest, um, places that just inherently feel like they’ve been White spaces for so long, be places that more people of color feel comfortable going to or changing, you know, that very whiteness of conservationism. Over the last, you know, say 20 years or however long it’s now been that you’ve been working in this field, have you seen that evolve? Have you seen that change?


DREW:  A little bit, you know, it’s, um, there’s a lot of momentum behind conservation and, and what it’s been. And, uh, I always tell my students, ‘Don’t confuse conservation with conservative.’ Because it’s, it’s easy to see things and say, well, if we just lock this down and continue to do things the way that we’ve always done them, then that’s what a conservative might do. Conservation, um, I define as the intense caring for something such that you want to save more for others yet to come when you’re not around. And so it involves a certain, uh, a great degree of selflessness to think about the world without you, and to think about the world going forward and those people, those generations of birds and human beings and other beasts to come behind you. You know, what’s left. And so the, the changes that I’ve seen, I think are – they’re incremental, but people are beginning to broaden the span of thinking, and to think about issues like environmental justice, to think about common plight. Um, we think about something like climate change and how critical climate change is to, to all of us. But I think part of what happened with typical conservation – wildlife conservation, anyway – was that, that people wanted to restrict the conversations to, to drowning polar bears and the melting ice cap and to, to couch the conversation in that way, which is important. It’s critical that science, as I say, is our scripture, but we lost track when we didn’t then say, well, you know that same water, that same air, that same plight of drowning is going to befall people who are in coastal cities, sitting below sea levels in places like New Orleans, um, where, where we’ve seen the impacts that flooding and storms disproportionately – not that they don’t affect everyone – but disproportionately impact people of color and the underserved who are in places that they can’t get out of as readily. They don’t have the choice to just move somewhere else.

So, you know, the changes that, um, that I’ve seen are coming along slowly. Because many of us get into this profession of, of wildlife, ecology and conservation, because we have dreams of working with wildness and with animals and, and we don’t consider ourselves people people. You know, I mean, really. We, you know, we’re a flock of introverts is, is who many of us are. But then the management, the true management that we have to do is with human beings. And um, you know, I’d say the simple way of, of conservation, uh, the simple mantra is, is to give life a chance. And if you give life a chance, it’s like with a Prairie Warbler, you give a Prairie Warbler a chance and you let a forest regenerate, then that Prairie Warbler finds haven there for a while. Well, we have to give one another a chance as well. And so in thinking about polar bears and thinking about migrating birds and thinking about wild spaces, I like to have the mantra to think of, of same water, same air, same soil, same breath, same fate. And if we can think about the sameness in what we share and what we all depend on together, that everyone is downstream, down plume from someone or something else, then we begin to have a greater degree of caring. So in the years, the decades that I’ve been in the field, I’m seeing people understand that we need to broaden that conversation.


HOST: Before we signed off, we asked Drew to read a passage from his book.


DREW: The wild things in places belong to all of us. So while I can’t fix the bigger problems of race in the United States, can’t suggest a means by which I and others like me will always feel safe, I can prescribe a solution in my own small corner. Get more people of color out there. Turn oddities into commonplace. The presence of more black birders, wildlife biologists, hunters, hikers, and fisherfolk will say to others that we to appreciate the warble of a Summer Tanager, the incredible instincts of a White-tail buck and the sound of wind in the tall pines. Our responsibility is to pass something on to those coming after. As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks, that the land renews and sustains us, maybe things will begin to change. I’m hoping that soon a Black birder won’t be a rare sighting. I’m hoping that at some point I’ll see color sprinkled throughout a birding festival crowd. I’m hoping for the day when young hot shot birders just happen to be Black like me. These hopes brighten the darkness of past experiences. The present does too. What I’ve learned from all the years of looking for birds in far-flung places and expecting the worst from people is that my assumptions are more times than not unfounded. These nature seeking souls are mostly kindred spirits out to find, not just birds, but solace. A catalog of friends – most of them white – have inspired, guided, and sometimes even nurtured my passion for birds and nature. As we gaze together, everything that’s different about us disappears into the plumages of the creatures we see beyond our binoculars. There is power in the shared pursuit of feathered things.


HOST: Drew Lanham is an author, a wildlife biologist, and an alumni distinguished professor at Clemson University. His book, “The Homeplace: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Reed Environmental Writing Award in 2018. Keep an eye out for his forthcoming book and eco-memoir entitled “Range Maps: Birds, Blackness and Loving Nature Between the Two.”




HOST: Join us next time to hear from the father of environmental justice in America, Dr. Robert Bullard.


ROBERT BULLARD: When I did my study in 1979, I, I went to a number of the environmental groups and showed them the data. I said 82% of all the garbage dumped in Houston from the thirties and up through 1978 [is] in black neighborhoods, even though blacks make up only 25% of the population and the response I would get was, ‘Well, isn’t that where the garbage is supposed to be?’


HOST: That’s next on Broken Ground. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


CREDITS: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson- Lorente, Jennie Daley, Paige Polk and Kelly Libby, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson. Our engineer was Jamal Milner at Virginia Humanities. Recordings of birds heard in this episode are courtesy of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.