Until June 2020 J. Drew Lanham was arguably the most famous Black birder in the United States. That title, if you want to call it that, was wrested from him temporarily by Christian Cooper, the man who on Memorial Day was profiled and threatened in Central Park by a stranger with the same last name, Amy Cooper, after Christian asked her to keep her dog on a leash. That incident held the nation’s fickle attention for a few moments before it was overwhelmed by larger, more deadly events that led to the protests that rocked the country.
In 2013 Drew published a piece called “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” in Orion magazine. The rules included “Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder,” “Don’t bird in a hoodie,” and “Blackbirds—any black birds—are your birds.” While the article, one of Orion’s most popular, vaulted him into the status of the country’s best-known Black birdwatcher, it wasn’t as if there was a lot of competition. Drew was, as he has written, a rare bird.
One thing Thoreau taught was not to respect our elders. That is, not to over-respect them. Take the old and make it new.
Drew and I got to know each other because we were both so-called nature writers, a term neither of us were comfortable with at the time. But it is true that we both have, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically, followed in the footsteps of that granddaddy of the genre, Henry David Thoreau. Drew’s first book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, takes Thoreau’s old genre and shakes it out. I can’t help but think Henry would approve. While the Concord hermit gets a lot of flack these days (for having had Mom do his laundry, among other things), one thing Thoreau taught was not to respect our elders. That is, not to over-respect them. Take the old and make it new.
Soon after the Central Park incident Drew and I drank tequila together—on Zoom of course. “Water is the only drink for a wise man,” said Thoreau. We thought otherwise. The plan was to talk about race, and for me to interview Drew about the issues that were tearing our country apart, but for most of the three hours it was a social call. Maybe that’s what we needed.
In the weeks before our talk Drew had been interviewed constantly. He said, “One interviewer started by asking me: ‘How are you?’ and I thought, but didn’t say, ‘I’m just fucking tired. I’m exhausted.’ ”
He paused, then added: “But I have to keep at it.”
In a turn Thoreau would have appreciated, we ended up talking as much about the writing shacks we had built as about racial strife. A couple years before, Drew had gone to look at an acre of land in Tamassee, South Carolina, telling his realtor that he would drive up to take a look but would turn around if he saw any Confederate flags in the immediate area. He ended up buying the land with money he had received from winning a conservation award and building a tiny house there where he could retreat and work.
“I never had my own space before,” he said.
I knew this already, having just reread The Home Place, in which he describes spending his childhood and early teens sleeping in a too-small cot in the same bedroom as his grandmother. I mentioned how I wouldn’t have wanted to have my sexual awakening with my grandma ten feet away.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “My wife says I now hoard spaces. My office at school. The converted storage space behind our house. And now my Tamassee retreat.”
We talked for a while about how neither of us built to code, but how building our shacks was a lot like writing: the problem-solving and the way you can get absorbed in it. We both kept boneyards of odd materials, knowing we would have a use for them later.
“I never throw anything away,” said Drew.
The cabin had become his increasingly necessary retreat from an increasingly violent and encroaching world. This was his place to get away, but during that first pandemic summer it was also an island in a sea of Trump signs. Drew talked about not feeling safe in his own country. Even birding offered no escape.
He had recently posted this on Facebook:
Was thinking just now this morning of going out to sit in my truck on the side of the road to watch birds. To escape for a few hours in other breathing beings’ lives. To envy who they are. To revel for just an hour or two in their songs. But then, I hesitated. Wondering what’s happened overnight? What city burns? Who’s alive who’s dead? Can a blue grosbeak change human plight? Can an eastern meadowlark’s territorial claim to sunrise, orange sky, or the right to breathe without death in the offing become for a moment my own dream? Is there some way to be where I am in my black skin and not wonder if I’m being trailed, tailed, watched, surveilled, sized up to be brought down? Still thinking on it; whether I should go to some wide open field with clouds and grass; sit among grasshopper sparrows balanced on thin wires concerned with nothing else but being themselves. Lucky birds. Troubled man.
Drew told me over Zoom about his evolution from calling himself a birder to a birdwatcher. Birders can miss the big picture and can be ridiculously competitive, and he related a story of being at a birding conference when news of a rare curlew came over the listserv and someone was trampled in the mob’s rush to see it.
The only time I birded with Drew, I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut. He was a real birder; I was not. It was a position I had been in many times before while birding with those much more accomplished than I am. While I love birds, and know quite a bit about them, I also know that I am not a great spotter and identifier of them by eye or ear. Drew Lanham is.
We weren’t exactly birding together either. I had just come back from a morning walk along Blue Mountain Lake, and Drew, as I remember it, was standing on or near a dock with his binoculars up. We were both part of a group that was spending the weekend in cabins on the lake in the Adirondacks as part of a kind of think tank of nature writers sponsored by Orion. In years past these gatherings had featured many heroes of mine, including Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, and Terry Tempest Williams, or as someone once referred to them at those famous get-togethers, “Gary-Terry-Berry-and-Barry.” But this year would be different. A new generation was meeting, all under forty-five. All except me, a couple years over the age limit, the elder. I told people that I had been let in, despite my advanced age, “by virtue of my immaturity.”
Most of us just dipped into science books when we needed to, but he was more rigorously trained than the rest of us, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson, an ornithologist, and a birder.
It was that immaturity, in part, that had led me to write an essay called “Sick of Nature” in 1999, which was a kind of tantrum decrying the earnestness and lack of variety in my chosen genre. In that essay I wrote: “There are currently more Black players in the NHL than in the Nature Writing League.” Luckily that was beginning to change somewhat by the time of our retreat, and Drew, and the poet Camille Dungy, who was also attending, were part of that change. Drew was an exception in a couple of other ways, too. Most of us just dipped into science books when we needed to, but he was more rigorously trained than the rest of us, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson, an ornithologist, and a birder. On the other hand, while most attending were writers first and foremost, he had only recently become a writer of powerful, nonacademic nonfiction.
Drew calls himself a “good negro” in his book, though when I mentioned this he amended it to “a former reluctantly good negro.” As a middle child and caregiver for his grandmother, who he lived with for the first sixteen years of his life, he was someone who followed the rules. He loved and hero-worshipped his powerful father, who taught science at a public school and worked the family farm when not teaching, and who died way too young. It was not without a little anxiety that Drew broke away from majoring in engineering as an undergrad at Clemson, a subject he grew to hate but that he had been told would secure him a good job. His new field was wildlife biology, but even then he followed the rules. He got his degrees, got some breaks, and eventually went back to work as a professor at his alma mater. His writing was also constrained by the rules of his profession. To break away from scientific writing, and from a discipline where he was respected, was his second great act of rebellion. It echoed the decision he had made in college, but this time he changed majors in life.
Drew’s training lifts him out of our country’s simplistic way of looking at things, a way that often ignores the larger connectivity of all the creatures who inhabit this planet. This is a con-nectivity that people like Thoreau, and Drew, are able to see thanks to their focus on the natural world. Back when Drew and I attended the Adirondack think tank, I disliked the name “nature writer.” But in this new world we have found ourselves in I wear the label proudly, and hope he does too. I think that nature writers are just what this world needs at the moment. This is a time when many of us pay lip service to the fact that everything is connected. If only we could really live like that truth were true.
Drew Lanham knows firsthand what it is like to be torn between the poles of the politics of race and the solitude of nature. His writing in The Home Place reflects this, and his writing on social media during that pandemic summer did too. One day he would post about grosbeaks, the next about George Floyd.
Hoping I’m not being seen by someone as suspiciously criminal—bird watching while black in my own backyard. There are no guarantees of security from my own alleged criminal element should some “citizen” decide I’m a threat to them on my own property. Sounds like a story someone would fabricate but sadly it’s more probable than should be. I can be shot down for just being me. Range change for the birds is a constant thing. Mine too, as it grows by the love of good friends and kind strangers—then shrinks with the news of hate and intolerance that comes daily.
Would love to be posting pretty pictures of backyard birds I’ve identified in this quarantined time—but today I’m thinking from my backyard of my own identity as a black man and the pestilent (virulent) privilege of impunity. Even as some of majority America finally recognizes that black and brown skin is and has been a “pre-existing condition” that killed us in dramatically disproportionate numbers way before viruses did; even as certain “American” citizens arm themselves and occupy state capitals without pause or retribution; even as those vigilant “citizens” profile black men innocently jogging or driving or sitting in their own homes—or maybe birding—to gun them down because of a notion that they “favor” some criminal suspect and that it’s their responsibility to keep the law; even as those “essentially serving” still bear risks that those who say “open up” will not have to bear, I cannot just watch the birds in gusts of heavy wind without thinking of the barriers that persist. And I’m supposed to be comfortable going around in a mask? Forgive me if I don’t just “trust” you, America. There’s more to kill me out there than COVID and it’s been more persistently deadly than any microbe ever was. Truth be told my range retracts every time this almost daily news comes to light. Impunity is the virus that can’t be cured. And in its pestilence there are no curves flattened—just human beings of color lying flat dead in the streets. And people wonder why so many of us find hope hard to hang on to or trust that the “system” will heal the wrongs?
Peace to the family of Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, 25, who was gun-downed by two “Americans” who saw their civic duty in chasing a young man down in their pickup truck and taking another black life—because they could and knew that in all likelihood they’d go without even a slap on the wrist. Don’t get too distracted—life and death go on in all kinds of insidious ways. So sorry y’all—today the birds, the beauty, climate change, COVID—everything will have to wait while I reset.
Maybe there’s another reason the term “nature writer” no longer bugs me as much. Maybe it is partly because, despite the effete connotations associated with the name, the genre has such a long, proud tradition of social protest.
Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” begins with sentences that we would today call libertarian, though verging on the anarchistic:
I heartily accept the motto,—‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
Idealistic words, and, as it turned out, a poor prophecy of how the United States government would evolve over the next 172 years. Whatever your philosophy, it would be hard to argue that the federal government has gotten smaller. In his essay, Thoreau, gradually and grudgingly, concedes that some government may be necessary. But he warns that what government amounts to is often a great machine, and when a government is wrong, as it clearly was when it comes to slavery and the Mexican War, the individual must resist the machine:
If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.
He continues: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Furthermore: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau doesn’t just say this but acts on it, and included in this otherwise declamatory and emphatic rant of an essay is a brief “history of ‘My Prisons.’” That history amounts to one night and one prison, specifically the night he spent in a Concord jail cell after refusing to pay the poll tax. It was a pleasant enough night, with a polite man accused of burning down a barn for a cell mate, and the next morning he was let out after someone, maybe Bronson Alcott, maybe Emerson, paid his tax, before heading off to lead a “huckleberry party,” spending the day picking berries.
But symbols matter. That night was also an embodiment of his ideas. He was laying himself on the line.
A small event, but like many other events Thoreau witnessed or was part of, one he made large through his writing. As it was for an epic battle between ants, or the move to Walden itself, the night in jail meant something to Thoreau. This was not uncommon in Thoreau’s internal world. The strange thing is how much this small event ended up meaning to the larger world.
Civil disobedience. This is the seed of the idea, nonviolent resistance, that was so instrumental in helping develop Gandhi’s philosophy and Martin Luther King, Jr’s. Thoreau, unlike King and Gandhi, didn’t truly suffer and certainly didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice for his cause. He spent just that one night in jail, an act more symbol than hardship. But symbols matter. That night was also an embodiment of his ideas. He was laying himself on the line. His act remains a fine precursor and model for what was happening out on the streets of this country in the pandemic summer.
Drew and I talked about the protests in the streets, but we also talked about books and what it meant to live in a country with a president who didn’t read them. This was hardly his worst crime but it mattered, we concluded. One problem with this is that books are humanity’s long-term memory. Another is that without books we become trapped in our own time and are inclined to think there has never been a time like this before.
who knows only his own generation remains always a child, said the inscription over the library where I went to grad school, paraphrasing Cicero.
It constantly amazes me, for instance, that many people in the town where I live, Wilmington, North Carolina, are unaware that in the late nineteenth century it was a majority Black city, and a thriving one at that. The only reason it isn’t still is that a group of wealthy white people organized another group of less wealthy, but extremely resentful and violent, white people, who then slaughtered between sixty and two hundred Black people. In a speech designed to fire up the masses for that activity, a kind of racist pep talk, Colonel Alfred Waddell proclaimed that having Black people in leadership positions led to “intolerable conditions” and that they would be overthrown even if the white citizens had “to choke the current of the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” The country’s only coup d’état (so far), which saw not just mass murder but the overthrowing of many duly elected officials, occurred on November 10, 1898.
While the kids chanted and marched and listened to speeches, I lurked on the other side of the street.
At one point that summer, I was convinced that Wilmington, with its abundance of Confederate statues and fraught history, would explode the way that Charlottesville had a few years before. I am still not certain it won’t. One of the protests that summer was organized and attended by local high school students, and my daughter Hadley was one of those students. While the kids chanted and marched and listened to speeches, I lurked on the other side of the street. I felt like a secret service agent, though to others I might have looked like someone a secret service agent should be watching out for: longhaired, bearded, wearing a mask, eyes scanning the crowd. At one point a character even more suspicious than me showed up, a scraggly scowly-faced white man who rode an ancient ram-horned ten-speed bike through the bank parking lot across the street from city hall. The man paused on the bike and began to scream “Shut the fuck up!” over and over at the kids. I moved closer to him, and so did one of the cops stationed near the rally.
“You gonna mace me?” the man yelled. “I got a fuckin’ gun.”
Luckily he didn’t. And after the cop approached and had talked to him a while, he petulantly rode away. I backed off but stayed vigilant.
Hadley made it safely through the afternoon, and the most anyone in her group suffered was some minor heatstroke from the blazing Carolina sun. Compared to those being shot with rubber bullets or knocked to the ground by cops, they suffered little, and compared to the victims, like George Floyd, who had spurred the protests, they suffered not at all.
But there was a risk. There is always the risk. That is the math of any protest. What are we willing to give up to try and effect the change we want? Are we willing to sacrifice our private pleasure for the public good? Are we willing to interrupt our oh-so-precious lives?
It is dangerous business leaving the woods behind.
It is scary out on the streets.
Of course it is more complicated than that. In at least one case, the ideas that inspire those on the streets were born in the woods.
In his autobiography, Martin Luther King writes:
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
What interested me as we spoke, as the country seemed to go up in flames, was the difference between Drew’s voice in his book, which is poetic, thoughtful, and, like the Drew I know, restrained, and the one I was hearing in his Facebook posts. This voice is equally powerful and thoughtful but it is also emotional, confessional, naked. It says things like:
Why is it so hard for me to find any joy these days? Why are we so tired? Why does any hope get withered and beaten back daily? It’s because you know that conversations like this are going on in all kinds of places—and not being accidentally recorded. They’re cloaked and hidden. Ignored. Never see the light of day. Just imagine what’s being said behind other “closed doors.”
The conversation he was referring to took place right here in Wilmington. As it turns out, the past is the present, and the Wilmington of 1898 still reverberates in 2020. The conversation was picked up by a recording device in a cop car and was a bare record of ugliness. In our downtown, as in so many downtowns across the country, people were out in the streets protesting. Here is what two Wilmington policemen had to say about the protests and the political mood of the country.
“We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fucking n——. I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait,” said one officer.
“I can’t wait,” said the other.
The first officer then explained to the second that he felt society needed a civil war to “wipe ’em off the fucking map.” Adding, “That’ll put ’em back about four or five generations.”
No wonder Drew was tired the night we talked on Zoom.
“I use the T word—transcendence—in my writing about birds,” he said then. “I’m just writing it with a different pen. But birds don’t erase all of this. I keep one eye in my binoculars and one behind my back.”
When Drew apologized for having to leave to go to dinner, I said that was quite all right. We had been on Zoom for three hours.
“This was long overdue,” he said by way of parting. “Long overdue but right on time.”
I’ll end with the rest of Drew’s post about the Wilmington police:
You know we’ve been here before, right? What will you do when you hear the conversations of friends, family and colleagues talking like this? What happens when someone you know reveals themselves to be a monster like this? Do you remain silent? Shrug it off? Keep it a secret? If so, then you’re a part of the problem.
Wondering what small town sheriff’s department these racist beasts will land in? What off-the-radar police department they’ll be welcomed to with open arms? Employed to “protect and serve” but all the while waiting to kill and destroy. Maybe it’ll be someplace near you. They’ll smile and wave. You’ll smile and wave back; to never know they are among you—until another black life is gone because it didn’t matter to them.
Yes. It’s deeply engrained. It’s like ink spilled that won’t wash out. Hiding it to not be seen won’t solve the problem either. The stained garment must be discarded. Thrown away. Burned. Then buried to rot as deep under the dirt as we can dig.
Anyone thinking that a fucking statue coming down or the name on a building being changed will ferret this out is being distracted by low-hanging fruit. The real problem isn’t in marble or bronze. It lies at the root