Just like the clever raven he admires, Dr. J. Drew Lanham boldly squawks the message himself: “I’m a rare bird.” Such a simple statement yet riddled with complexity. Lanham’s a science nerd who writes award-winning prose. A country boy who travels the world. A Black birder who leads in a Caucasian-centric hobby. And as the resourceful raven uses all of its feathers to fly, Lanham uses his gathering of gifts to connect ornithology to the land, history, and race. Upon take-off with his winged objects of study, he prompts nature lovers to love all mankind.
“I have this desire to move people,” explains the Clemson Alumni Distinguished Professor. “To have them think, but also to have them feel about what they’re thinking. And then if they’re thinking and feeling, hopefully the next step is to act. I want to be understood not just as a scientist, but as a Black man who does this work, and as a Black rural Southerner who does this work. It all sort of falls through those prisms.”
I want to be understood not just as a scientist, but as a Black man who does this work, and as a Black rural Southerner who does this work.
Lanham’s perspective is as unique as the peregrine falcon’s flying above Caesars Head. After decades of scientific writing for academia, the 56-year-old is now sharing his view on birds, conservation, and life in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Audubon, and Orion magazines. The naturalist has penned a book of poetry, Sparrow Envy, as well as an autobiography, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
The latter, published in 2016, won many awards and continues to engage readers, with deep meditations not just on nature, but human nature. “I want people to understand why it’s important to see color,” the CU Master Teacher reveals. “I saw 18 cardinals in my backyard the other day, but they’re not the same. You have to look at the differences in their redness, crest shape, beak size. Their personality, or ‘birdnality.’ I want people to understand that kind of complexity when viewing a bird, or person, in the full context of their being. My pet peeve is when people say they don’t see color.”
As a young boy growing up in Edgefield, Lanham saw the nuances of color everywhere, including the first sign entering town that stated, “W.E. Lynch.” “I always read that as ‘we lynch.’ You learned what lynching was pretty early on as a Black kid in the ’60s, but I didn’t have any incidences myself,” he shares. By second grade, he knew he loved nature, birds, and reading. “The die was cast. What eight-year-old kid do you know who has a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine?” he asks with a laugh. “Oh, how I wanted to be a bird. I wanted to fly.”
The curious youth also came to know and respect history, including that of his forefather, a slave named Harry, who was sold in Maryland around 1790 and brought to Edgefield. “How do you find the strength to survive and thrive within a system that saw you as less than human? When I feel burdened, all I have to do is think about what that must have felt like and my burden becomes a lot lighter. Because of his strength, his endurance, and his persistence, my family is here. I’m fortunate to get to tell his story,” Lanham shares.
It’s about the intersection of birds’ lives, my life, and all of our lives . . . We all share the same air, the same water, same soil, same earth, and ultimately the same fate.
A louder voice has come with age and current events. Recently, Lanham’s writings feature an additional layer of awareness and activism. He updated his 9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher (#3: Don’t bird in a hoodie) to 9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher (#2: Leave your assumptions behind). The Seneca resident is also working on a sequel to Home Place, with Range Maps: Birds, Blackness, and Loving Nature Between the Two.
“It’s about the intersection of birds’ lives, my life, and all of our lives,” the writer reveals. “I have a mantra: We all share the same air, the same water, same soil, same earth, and ultimately the same fate. Hopefully, it will be a chance for people to see what that sharing looks like through my eyes, and hopefully expands their ability, or desire, to think about this sharing, not just with wild birds, but how we’re going to live together as human beings in a better way.”
Drew’s Favorite Local Areas to Bird
Clemson Experimental Forest:
“It’s 18,000 acres that surround campus in one of the nation’s largest school forests. There are a lot of migratory birds there like scarlet tanagers, prairie warblers, and wild turkeys.”
Caesars Head & Mountain Bridge Wilderness:
“I like to look for peregrine falcons and ravens. It’s one of the few places you can go in the state and see both of those birds because of the higher elevation.”
Nine Times Preserve (near Sunset):
“It’s a kaleidoscope of warblers that come through in the springtime that really sort of complement the wildflowers, the trillium, and trout lilies. They come in waves from South and Central America.”
“I worked here in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the DNR. You’ll see lots of Swainson’s warblers and ruffed grouse.”
Nemours Wildlife Foundation:
“It’s in the Lowcountry on the Combahee, where Harriet Tubman liberated more than 700 enslaved. When I bird there, I think about bird-watching with Harriet Tubman. She knew the woods and wetlands well and used an owl call to identify herself to others.”
This year’s national Black Birders Week runs from May 30 – June 5.