The Home Place
(Milkweed Editions, $24).
The Clemson professor and wildlife scientist is out doing what ornithologists do: identifying and counting birds, documenting what he sees in a three minute window along a designated survey route. Only this particular route happens to be “one of the whitest places in the state” and here he is, “a large black man ... sitting on the side of the road with binoculars pointed toward a house with the Confederate flag proudly displayed.”
He’s out profiling birds, and is terrified of being profiled himself.
Lanham may be a birder and a naturalist by training, but he’s a damn good writer by avocation, and as a scientist poet, he offers generous and gentle insight into the complicated nature of our being. There’s no manifesto here, and no political ideology tucked between the lines, just heartwarming and sometimes heart-wrenching stories of a young black boy, who was “fascinated with flight” and loved all things wild and feathered, growing up in Edgefield County.
The book takes us through tender memories and colorful family history, stretching back to slave days and a legendary Harry Lanham (born 1787, died 1860) “true and faithful” to his master to the end. But it’s actually more of an essay collection than true memoir, with the third section of the book featuring chapters that can standalone as keen odes on topics ranging from religion in the South to deer hunting.
His lifetime passion for all things wild and his personal reflections growing up as a black man in the South are the dueling themes throughout this book, but nature is the unifying ground. As a professional observer of wildlife, Lanham believes humans would do well to learn a few lessons from Mother Nature. “What is wildness? To be wild is to be colorful, and in the claims of colorfulness there’s an embracing and a self-acceptance,” he writes, noting that despite years of tramping through fields and forests, “I’ve yet to have a wild creature question my identity.”
“There’s a little of each of us in one another,” he says. Wise words at this particular moment in time, amidst our Walter Scott, Dylann Roof reality. And if you’d like to hear more of Lanham’s wisdom, head over to the Charleston Museum Thursday night at 6 p.m., where he’ll talk about “Coloring the Conservation Conversation,” in a free public event hosted by the Charleston Natural History Society, Audubon SC, and the Center for Heirs Property Preservation.
Oh, and books (The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature
) will be on sale — perfect gifts for your bird-brained friends, or anyone who appreciates a natural touch with words.
“It’s only 9:06 a.m. and I think I might get hanged today.” So begins the chapter titled “Birding While Black” in Drew Lanham’s worthy new memoir,