Book Review: The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by Drew Lanham
In his debut memoir, self-described “eco-addict” J. Drew Lanham explores the connection between trees and family trees, birds and brethren, and most importantly of all, the place where mother nature and human nature meet. Taken together, it makes for a unique reading experience; one in which the book’s meditative qualities far surpass any semblance of a conventional plot. Let the reader be warned, there are no fireworks here—simply the musings of an African-American naturalist who, throughout his lifetime, has trained himself to marvel at the minor. Trust me, that is enough.
Though the natural world remains Lanham’s main character, readers can hardly overlook his own narrative. Born in the midst of a moment of change in the segregated south, Lanham’s personal story is the story of his family history: a lineage traced back to a slave named Harry first brought to South Carolina around the turn of the 18th century. Yet as Lanham finds, there are limits even to knowing one’s own story, and over time, even the most basic facts begin to fade.
It’s a problem Lanham has faced in his professional life as a wildlife ecology professor as well. “Day after day, semester after semester, year after year I droned on,” he writes. “Yes, I was presenting the facts. Yes, I was publishing the facts. But it seemed to me that the facts never created motivation to make things better.” Simply put: facts are only ever half the story if they don’t compel change. Yet as Lanham learns, in some instances, facts fail to persuade half as well as mysteries. “…I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than by what I can,” Lanham writes. Though the line is offered in reference to religion, readers can’t help but feel its reverberations take root within the subject of race.
And what, precisely, can Lanham not see? Others birders who share his skin color.
In his essay “Birding While Black,” Lanham explores his own rarity. “The chances of seeing someone who looks like me while on the trail are only slightly greater than those of sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker.” Likening himself to a thought-to-be extinct species of bird has its intended effect: a reminder to the reader that being in the minority can be felt beyond human institutions. Though Lanham doesn’t use the word privilege anywhere within his essay, that word is often felt. After all, demographically speaking, most American birders are “middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated white wom[e]n.” Perhaps his subversion of the demographic is a result of his own tinge of privilege as an academic—a privilege rarely extended to minorities.
While the subject of race remains ever-present, Lanham skillfully filters his personal experiences through the natural lens. On the subject of ecology, Lanham concedes that he and his colleagues have “mostly done a poor job of reaching the hearts and minds” of the average citizen. Once more, his pronouncement is flooded with double-meaning. As we try to preserve our natural world, he seems to imply, we can hardly overlook the racially divided world we’ve built ourselves.
For Lanham, that world began in his birthplace of Edgefield, South Carolina, a “rich refuge for wild things”, though a place in which human dignity has been stunted. Yet despite the customs and politics that have held the place back, Lanham notes that there are still glimmers of hope to be found there. In one instance he recounts driving the family car into a ditch with his young sister on board. In this moment of crisis, a Confederate flag bumpered pick-up truck pulls to the side of the road. Lanham expects his situation to worsen, but in fact, the opposite proves true. “Ya’ll need some help?” a white man calls, and then proceeds to winch the car from the ditch and send the young African-Americans on their way. “We’d been delivered—,” Lanham marvels, “by the people I would’ve least expected to help.”
Of the many powerful lessons Lanham bestows upon readers, perhaps this last one is his best: proof that human nature, like Mother nature herself, can still surprise us with its grace.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, he’ll release Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, the founder of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: www.bjhollars.com