Pathfinding Through the Improbable
The ornithologist Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science, humans, and birds. His celebrated books include The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and a collection of poetry and meditations called Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts. Drew Lanham’s way of seeing and hearing and noticing the present and the history that birds traverse — through our backyards and beyond — is a revelatory way to be present to the world and to life in our time.
This conversation took place in partnership with The Great Northern.
J. Drew Lanham is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Master Teacher, and Certified Wildlife Biologist at Clemson University. He is the Poet Laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina, where he grew up. He is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and a collection of poetry and meditations, Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts.
Transcription by Heather Wang
Krista Tippett, host: The ornithologist Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science and of humans and of birds. He’s a professor of wildlife ecology, a naturalist, a self-described hunter-slash-conservationist, and he’s a most beautiful writer of poetry and author of the celebrated book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. His way of seeing and hearing and noticing the present and the history that birds traverse, through our backyards and beyond, is a revelatory way to be present to the world and to life in our time.
Drew Lanham: In that moment of that little brown bird that’s always so inquisitive, that sings reliably, in that moment that I’m thinking about that wren, I’m not thinking about anything else. That’s joy. And so sometimes, I think, we have to recognize the joy that the world didn’t give us and that the world can’t take away, in the midst of the world taking away what it can.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Drew Lanham has always been, in his words, an “edge” creature, first of all by growing up between the homes of his parents and his grandmother, who he called Mamatha, a quarter-mile in distance, but worlds apart, in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Today, Drew Lanham lives in Seneca, South Carolina, and is a professor at Clemson University. I brought his voice and perspective north to be part of the 2021 Great Northern Festival, in On Being’s hometown of the Twin Cities. But we recorded from our respective homes, during pandemic lockdown.
Well, here we are. Is it true that you’re in a writing shed? [laughs]
Lanham: [laughs] Well, yeah, that’s what I play it off as. It’s a little shed called The Thicket. It was originally a storage house, and I converted it, out of necessity, for hoarding stuff that I want to surround me, and also to have a little escape pod. So that’s where I am today.
My story is one of really searching for space constantly, because as a child, I really didn’t have it. I sort of always shared it. I didn’t have my own room — I shared my grandmother’s bedroom, and the bed, for a good while, until I got bigger. So this place, it’s Thoreauvian in a way, in that Thoreau’s Walden was really not very far from his mother’s home: and this is the side yard; it’s not the backyard only because I couldn’t get it in the backyard. And so it sits like this appendix of a building, on the side of the house, but it’s important. When I don’t get out here, I miss it.
Tippett: I want to read what I think are the first lines of The Home Place, the introduction. You wrote, “I am a man in love with nature. I am an eco-addict, consuming everything that the outdoors offers in its all-you-can-sense, seasonal buffet. I am a wildling, born of forests and fields and more comfortable on unpaved back roads and winding woodland paths than in any place where concrete, asphalt, and crowds prevail.” [laughs]
You write, also, somewhere near that same passage: “Why does my blood run wild?” That’s a question you’ve asked.
I just want to ask, as we start, how far back — and can you even feel it in your body — does that question and your sense of being this way go?
Lanham: Wow. Probably to, I don’t know, four or five years old, maybe — that point in time when I was given some freedom, allowed to wander a little bit beyond my parents’ eye view, or my grandmother’s eye view. So I would think maybe then, but certainly by six, because by six I was in Head Start and that kind of thing, and out and wandering around the yard, at least, and not long after that had my first bicycle.
So I think back to those times with my grandmother, and I’m thinking of her throwing out handfuls of grits to what she called “snowbirds,” that we know as juncos, but sparrows and all these other things, or her talking about owls being bad omen when they were calling around the house. So most of my life I’ve thought about things beyond four walls and what was in the woods or what was roaming in the darkness that I couldn’t see. So it’s been a long time.
Tippett: Something so interesting, as I’m talking to you, that is becoming clear to me, that was just all the way through — I tried to read as much as I could — there’s so much that you bring together in your imagination, in your experience, in your wisdom, that comes together in your life and in your body, that our culture doesn’t always bring together, at least overtly. So, I mean, one place to dive into that would be the different kinds of influences that you’ve talked about that form you and that you impart as a teacher: Aldo Leopold and Marvin Gaye, Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King Jr.
Lanham: Well, Krista, for me, imagination is this frontier that never ends. If you’re lucky, you get to always walk toward this horizon that’s constantly moving away from you. So in imagining my life, and living, and reimagining, really, the past, I think about those people who have influenced me. I mean, certainly Aldo Leopold is among them, because I remember picking up his book A Sand County Almanac in my brother’s room. And my brother’s room was a place that you ventured into at great peril.
Tippett: [laughs] This is a book from 1949.
Lanham: From 1949. And I happened to see it on his desk, and there were these birds, these geese on the cover. And so I picked up this book, and I just sort of flipped through it — I may have even stolen it for a day or two, and fell in love with the words. I fell in love with the illustrations that were there, that were just these sketches. And some of that language stuck because I was living some of what he had written, in terms of our family living off the land and seeing my father work so very hard to make a life for us — my mother and my father make a life for us, off the land. So Leopold stuck there in a way that wasn’t evident to me, really, until lots of years later.
Tippett: Here’s one way you just summarize some of his admonitions that you kept with you: “To be one of those who cannot live without wild things, keep all the parts, listen to the mountain, and preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”
Lanham: That says it all, right?
Tippett: Yeah, it’s amazing.
Lanham: That if you can hoard experiences, which I think is part of what I do — [laughs] along with books and other things, but if you can hoard experiences out there, then for me, that informs who I am. So seeing my father burn a piece of land to keep it productive, or being out with him when he was cutting a tree, and thinking about Leopold’s good oak and thinking about the annual rings in that tree as history, and not just how the tree grew, then it helps me understand and re-find my place in the past, but also now. And hopefully my students — I ask them to write their own stories about the land, their own “good oak” stories, their own histories and where they sit in the pantheon.
Tippett: I want to keep going on all of this, but I realize I wanted to ask you, also, what was the first bird you fell in love with? We need to anchor this conversation in that love of yours, as well.
Lanham: I go back to those snowbirds, to those juncos that would flock, in frost and snow — and I would imagine that frost was snow, sometimes, because I wanted it so badly — but those little gray and white birds that my grandmother was throwing grits to, and the sparrows that were out there. So I write in the book about this sorrowful tale of — this Christmas tale of a BB gun and a chipping sparrow. And so that made a great impression on me, that even now, when I see chipping sparrows, they are some of the most beautiful birds to me. And I can remember holding that bird in my hand, shortly after I had killed it, and thinking I could hide it from God. And I buried it in the yard to try and do that.
But so those tiny birds, even though there were vultures that I — buzzards, as we called them back then — that I laid out in the pasture trying to attract, and hearing wild turkeys gobbling on spring mornings, or barred owls on summer evenings, bobwhite quail, which are — probably, in this thicket here, I’ve got more representations of bobwhite quail around me than any other bird.
Tippett: Can you give me any of the song of them? You’re so good at that. [laughs] Is there a little soundscape you can insert into this conversation?
Lanham: A barred owl is: [makes sound]. And you hear that on a summer evening, and bobwhite quail are calling cubbies home, that [makes sound]. And those songs of barred owls and bobwhite quail — that bookended things, because those barred owls were often the last thing that you’d hear in the evening, and quail might be the first thing that you’d hear in the morning.
So in-between that there were all these other birds, many of which I did not know the names of — yellow-billed cuckoos, my grandmother called them “rain crows.” And so I would listen to those birds and hear that [makes sound]. And I would hear that, and initially, before I learned what those birds were, what yellow-billed cuckoos were, where they came from — before I thought about the science of the bird, I thought about the rain coming, because my grandmother told me, Mamatha said, “When you hear that bird, rain is coming.” So there was a different kind of ornithology, Krista, that I grew up with that was sort of mystic, before it was science.
[music: “Levander Crest” by Blue Dot Studios]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with ornithologist Drew Lanham.
[music: “Levander Crest” by Blue Dot Studios]
I want to draw you out on something that you’ve written about in many ways. You’ve said, “I am as much a scientist as I am a Black man. My skin defines me no more than my heart does. But somehow my color often casts my love affair with nature in shadow.”
It also feels to me like your fascination with and the way you attend to and delight in and honor all the multifaceted colors and patterns and forms of the natural world — you kind of just demonstrated this — also is reflected in the way you see human beings and you see human society.
Lanham: Well, to me, there’s so much that’s simple out there or that appears simple, but that’s really complex. It’s sort of like the sparrow that appears brown from far away and hard to identify, but if you just take the time to get to know that sparrow, then you see all of these hues. You see five, six, seven shades of brown on this bird. And you see little splashes of ochre or yellow or gray, and black and white, and all of these things on this bird that at first glance just appeared to be brown. And so in taking that time to delve into, not just what that bird is, but who that bird is, and to understand to get from some egg in a nest to where it is to grace you with its presence, that it’s taken, for this bird, trials and tribulations and escaping all of these hazards. And so I tend to think about, I try to think about people as much as I can in that way: that each of us has had these struggles from the nest to where we have flown now, and the journeys that we’re on. And so I think that’s important.
Tippett: Something that I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t thought about until I really deeply thought about it, reading some of your writing, is — I mean, you’ve done a lot of pondering about how slavery and the aftermath of slavery created this alienation of people from the land. And there are many facets to this; also that people were once forced into nature, in places that — environments that we now pass through and even take refuge in were once full of pain.
Lanham: Well, that’s this constant tension that we’re living in now, this history, whether there are trees growing over it that have grown out of soil that people toiled, or there are rice fields that stretch as far as the eye can see that are only there because of Black hands. And we’re watching black ducks and black-necked stilts, and hopeful for black rails, in those places that were created by Black human beings, not voluntarily. So enslavement is everywhere. I mean, it’s not just here, in my home place and in the South, but I think about it in other places.
And then I try to think in other landscapes about the history and what that means. So Krista, to me, again, they’re inextricably linked, that culture and care. We have to understand where we’ve been, I guess is the cliché. But when I see these landscapes, I cannot, in honoring what my ancestors endured — in that nest, really — to get me here to where I am, fledged and flying — I cannot in good conscience ignore the bitter for the beautiful.
Tippett: Right. Would you tell the story of the bobolinks — how focusing on this particular bird points at the forgotten history of public lands?
Lanham: Bobolinks are extraordinary birds. They are blackbirds. They give this appearance almost of being tuxedoed, in appearance. But they spend — like me, they spend life [laughs] in two different places. They spend a good portion of their non-breeding cycle in South America, so in the pampas, and in these exotic places where we think about gauchos and llanos and those kinds of things. But they’re there, in those grasslands.
And then in the spring, they migrate north to breeding grounds that are mostly north-temperate, but they migrate through the Southeast just as the rice crop that enslaved would have worked in these marshes to plant, just as some of these plants are coming into a stage where they can provide sustenance for these birds. And the birds would descend on these crops. And you’re talking about crops that meant millions and millions of dollars to these white planters, and the enslaved had worked dawn to dusk trying to grow it. And so it became incumbent upon them to keep the birds out of the crop, these rice birds, as they —
Tippett: And it sounds like there were also millions of birds, millions of bobolinks.
Lanham: Yes, millions — just hordes of them. So you can imagine skies darkening with birds, and then those birds descending onto a rice crop. And so sometimes people would have to stay up through the night to disturb the birds, to keep them from roosting in the rice crops. And they would kill the birds, and sometimes one of the delicacies was to eat these birds full of rice.
And then the birds would continue on their trek northward, but then would come back in the fall on their way back to their wintering grounds in South America, and they would hit the rice crops again. So I don’t have to go very far to think about birds being connected to bondage, and then conservation being connected to the Constitution in these ways, and so all of that through that little bird that has this amazing, amazing, discordant, broken-music-box of a song.
Tippett: Yes, can you — I think you wrote something for Audubon, and they had it linked to listen to it. Could you share that?
Lanham: Gosh, I wish I could imitate it. It’s: [makes sound]. And you hear that, and again, it’s a sound of spring. But now it’s a bird that’s declining for several reasons. And so when I talk about my ornithology and what my grandmother taught me, I’m realizing that part of the way that I teach ornithology and people about birds now is born in part of her telling me about birds in a different way. And I want people to see birds not just as things to count or to list — that’s an important aspect of it all, but I want them to see the stories in these birds and to be able to travel back through time and understand what it may have exacted on people, but then also to understand where we are now and how we can protect those birds.
[music: “Me Is All I Am” by Jacob Montague]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Drew Lanham.
You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed. That’s wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Me Is All I Am” by Jacob Montague]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today experiencing the world and life in our time through the ornithologist, hunter-conservationist, and poet’s eyes and ears of Drew Lanham. He’s the author of the celebrated book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
You wrote a beautiful piece, called “Elegy in Three Plagues,” in 2020, and it was interesting to read that even you — you spend your time in the natural world, attending to the natural world, loving the natural world, but it was still even a new experience for you — and it was an experience a lot of people had — that all of the travel you’d been doing, or the wild excursions you’d been doing were — you were sent, instead, into your backyard — [laughs] your backyard lawn and your Adirondack chair. And that, also, was an experience of discovery.
Lanham: Yeah, and still is, in many ways. Quarantine and being sentenced to home, in a way — it’s different, for so many of us. But for me, it was sudden stop, because I was approaching my migratory period, that part of the year when I’m following the birds. And sitting back there in the backyard for weeks, for months, and just watching the seasons come and go and the birds with them, it’s sort of like the leftovers that get better, [laughs] up to a point. We don’t appreciate them when we first cook them, and then you’re like, oh, wow, that soup is really good two days later.
So the backyard became that. And there were these birds, things like rose-breasted grosbeaks, that I was hearing from my friends and seeing on social media that they were having them in their backyard, and I hadn’t gotten any rose-breasted grosbeaks yet. But then, suddenly, there they were one morning. And they were sticking around for longer than I remember them, or longer than I had been at home to see them before. And it made me realize just how much on the go I had been, but also just what these birds were doing: that these were birds that had come from Central America, and many of them had come through the Caribbean, and now they were with me; and then I was going to send some of those birds to Vermont and New Hampshire and Minnesota, and that there was no way for anyone to prove, because these birds weren’t marked, that birds that I was seeing one week weren’t the birds that they were seeing the next week. And so I began to imagine that connecting.
But sitting by my plastic pond full of little fish and frogs, and sometimes with a beverage — that was a daily saving grace, in a way.
Tippett: You even use the word “pilgrimage” — pilgrimage to your backyard.
I think you say some things that feel so helpful to me, about the importance and the beauty and the goodness of learning about the common birds. And this imagination you have, I don’t have to be an ornithologist to take that in, to think about — you say, to think about how important your backyard can be for birds; that it can be critical space for them to grab food; that they lift off for faraway places. And your backyard has been a place that fueled that, and that you witnessed this rest and refueling and respite in their creaturely existence. I found that something that any of us can pick up.
Lanham: Well, if you’re fortunate to — I mean, I took backyard for granted, right?
Tippett: Yeah, and those of us who got to go to the backyard were lucky. We were the fortunate.
Lanham: But then, and seeing those grosbeaks that were exotic, I was watching those grosbeaks interact with my cardinals, my grandmother’s redbirds, that — who can ignore that? Who can ignore a red bird? So in thinking about those cardinals, I can remember seeing there would be eight or a dozen rose-breasted grosbeaks back there, but then there were eight or ten cardinals. And I began to know some of these cardinals by crest character, or a female that appeared just a little redder than another female, or even behavior or where they liked to perch; or watching a cardinal, watching a redbird as the sun would go down on a day, the end of a day that still had a little bit of chill in it. And watching a bird sit in the last shafts of sunlight, watching the setting sun blaze through that bird — to me, it gave me this appreciation again for the things that we often pass by; that cardinals, as common as they might be for some of us, “common” is a word that dismisses, sometimes, what we should be paying attention to.
Tippett: There’s part of me that really wants to make this confession to you, which is — it’s something I’ve thought so much about in my life, that I didn’t have a family like you did, that taught me the names of birds, or really that paid attention to them.
And I also, in my backyard — I don’t know, maybe I see some of those cardinals here in Minnesota that you saw in your yard. You’re right, it’s arresting. And I tend to think “redbird,” like your grandmother, [laughs] rather than “cardinal.” And I’ve always wondered — I feel ashamed of this, that I don’t know the names, and I also think I’ve felt like it’s too late to start, so I will just appreciate them. I don’t know. Do you have any advice for me on that? I have no idea how many people are like this, or if this is my problem.
Lanham: Well, it’s not a problem. There’s no shame in not knowing the name of a bird. If it’s a redbird to you, it’s a redbird to you. At some point, as a scientist, it’s important for me to be able to identify birds by accepted common names and Latin names and those things. But then I revert frequently to what my grandmother taught me, because, I say, the birds know who they are. They don’t need you to tell them that. But over time, when we relax into a thing, and maybe just being with the bird, then your brain kind of relaxes, it loosens, and things soak in. And I think that’s the key with a lot of learning. But not getting the name right immediately does not in any way diminish their ability to appreciate “the pretty,” as Aldo Leopold talks about. And so seeing that bird and saying, “Oh my God, what is that? Look at it,” and you’re looking at it, and you can see all of these hues, and you can watch its behavior, and you may hear it sing — well, in that moment, it’s a beautiful thing, no matter what its name is.
Sometimes what I try to get people to do is to disconnect for a moment, from that absolute need to list and name, and just see the bird. Just see that bird. And you begin to absorb it in a way, in a part of your brain that I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it. And then, guess what? The name, when you do learn it, it sticks in a different way.
Tippett: I don’t think I can count the number of times — if I think about it, I think I almost always say the same thing, but it always feels like a huge statement when I’ve seen some of these beautiful birds. I, like — “Oh my, aren’t you beautiful.” [laughs]
Lanham: And that’s enough.
Tippett: And again, to wander back into the realm of complexity, you’ve written so interestingly about how all the naming in science and in Western culture has been problematic, as well. And even the question of what wildness is is a more complicated — and who gets to say that, and when it was said, and how it was acted on — is so much more complicated than might seem obvious. Again, that intersection of culture and place and land and humans.
Lanham: Well, one of the things that sticks with me from current culture — and Hamilton, even, in thinking about who gets to tell the story and the names. And so I’m intensely interested in language and what different people call things, and these names and what names mean. So that Indigenous and First Nations people, who have all of these languages, and who a raven is to one nation versus who the raven is to another nation or people within that nation, so all of that is important, I think, for us to pay attention to, and all of those are different ornithologies.
In Western science, we boil down to Latin binomial and to genotype and phenotype, and all of that is critical, and it’s important in what we do as scientists. But I think, again, broadening the scope of vision so that we see the big picture, we need to understand who birds are to others, what land is to others, that if my ancestors were forced into nature and hung from trees, I might not have the same interest in going out into the forest and naming the trees. So that is part of my mission: to offer a different prism that people can maybe, maybe take a glimpse through.
[music: “Simple Vale” by Blue Dot Studios]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with ornithologist Drew Lanham.
[music: “Simple Vale” by Blue Dot Studios]
This essay you wrote, “Elegy in Three Plagues,” it’s about a lot of things. It’s about 2020, but it’s also about how 2020 was a microcosm of everything that we have to deal with for the rest of our lifetimes. But you have this sentence — and this may not be fair, to just pull out a sentence and ask you to say what you were saying, but I just found it so stunning. You’re kind of summarizing where some of this takes you. You said, “Our task, then, has been pathfinding” — and of course, you’re making ecological analogies — “has been pathfinding through the improbable without ending up at the inevitable.”
Lanham: Well, who could’ve predicted any of this? Well —
Tippett: Well, some of it we could’ve predicted. [laughs]
Lanham: Some of it, we could. But then five, six, ten years ago we would’ve said: OK, if this happens, and this and this and this, and this at the same time — and we would say: Oh no, that’s not probable.
Tippett: That’s a movie. It’s not real life. [laughs]
Lanham: That’s a movie that I don’t want to see.
And to try to get through that to someplace of — how do you get through that, to be whole on the other side? How do you track that path in a way that doesn’t send you careening over some hillside, into some abyss from which you can never climb out?
And that’s the daily task now, because all of these things have tossed down in the trail in front of you. They’ve fallen like trees. They’re coming down the upslope, down towards you like rocks that have been knocked loose by something up there and you don’t know what it is, and you’ve got to try to get through all of that. Yeah, you knew the trail may get rocky, but you never thought that it would get this rocky. And so here you are. So how do you get through that improbable?
So when I wrote that essay — and that essay was really sort of this compilation of, as much as I keep a journal. But I think of these things as plagues — again, I go back to my grandmother, because, man, she used to always talk about the end of the world. And that stuck with me. In my kid brain I was imagining frogs and locusts and all of that stuff. But she never told me about this. [laughs]
So in some ways I wonder what she would say, but then I track back to ancestors again, and certainly, they had to think of chattel slavery as a plague. And how do you get through that? For my parents, how did they get through Jim Crow? How do people who are abused get through the day in tough times, not knowing where the blows will come from?
So I’m trying. It’s a practice. And I’m trying to tread carefully, trying to get through it as best I can — and it’s not always easy, because this just seems like an uphill hike in mud.
Tippett: One of the themes that’s come through in a lot of conversations I’ve had, in the last couple of years, actually, is the relationship that it almost — it feels countercultural and almost dubious to talk about, but the relationship between justice and joy, and the importance of knowing what you love, in order to have the resilience and in order to be able to know what you need to fight and what needs to be rebuilt and remade. Obviously, you take joy in being an ornithologist, and you’ve also said — and you actually say you know, as a scientist, this is almost not a scientific statement — that you “hear joy in birdsong.”
Lanham: Well, I do think that joy, in part, is the justice we give ourselves. And for me, the songs of birds are important: they signal the beginning of the day and the end of it, and what birds are doing in their lives and carrying on. But I think joy must be something — you try to have joy as something that no one can take from you, that it’s something that you can hoard and you can hold in your heart, in a way, and you can protect that joy in a way that when all of those things on this rough-trod trail around you are threatening you, that you at some quiet moment can pull that joy out and experience it, and even if it’s just for a moment. That’s the bird flying through the yard. That’s the cardinal. That’s the song. That’s the memory of something good that you say, you know what?
For me, I have to find those moments daily. And again, it’s a struggle, sometimes, to endure all of this stuff and to say: Ah, there it is. As you said: that bird: Look at that! Look at that. And I’ve had those days where nothing is going right, and then it seems like there’s more coming that’s going to go wrong. But in that moment of that little brown bird that’s always so inquisitive, that sings reliably, in that moment that I’m thinking about that wren, I’m not thinking about anything else. That’s joy. And so sometimes, I think, we have to recognize the joy that the world didn’t give us and that the world can’t take away, in the midst of the world taking away what it can. And as hard as it is to say to find it — sometimes it’s in a song. My grandmother sometimes would just sing, and that was her joy, or just hum.
Tippett: [laughs] How do those wrens sound in your backyard?
Lanham: Oh gosh. One of their songs is this teakettle song, this [makes sound]. And it’s one of the first songs that you hear in the morning, but wrens sing all year long. But what I know now is that as the days get incrementally longer, their songs get stronger. And sometime in March, those wrens will begin to build nests, and they’ll begin this cycle of making more of themselves. And in that, there’s some hope, there’s some joy, there is some inspiration for looking forward. And that, to me, is what a little brown bird singing teakettle-teakettle-teakettle-tea — that’s what it brings, because they’re audacious birds. They’re small, but they are some of the loudest birds out there, and they’re inquisitive. There’s no crevice, crack, or cranny in the backyard that they don’t know about.
Tippett: [laughs] I’m going to look for them.
I do love — there have been many mission statements in what you’ve been saying. I liked this thing you wrote, which has a lot of theological, religious imagery. But as you’ve made that your own, you said, “Doing good things for and revering nature are just acts. There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird. In my moments of confession in front of strangers, talking about my love of something greater than any of us, I become a freer me. I am reborn.”
Lanham: [laughs] As much as I ran from my grandmother’s first Sunday God, I worship every bird that I see. And wildness is a wayward weed, but it’s also worthy of adoration and worship. So each time I see in those things that are flying or that are wild and free, I see a bit of me in that. And then that whole creation story my grandmother used to tell me about, I become a part of that, and I get to evolve through it. So my grandmother [laughs] never mentioned that word, “evolve,” but part of what she taught me gave me the strength to do it.
Tippett: I feel like you were touching on what feels to me like just one of the strangest things about us, as creatures: that just becoming fully ourselves is the work of a lifetime.
Lanham: Oh, that’s it. That is. That’s the practice.
Tippett: That’s the practice. But it seems — [laughs] it is. I just think it’s profoundly strange and interesting.
Lanham: I agree. Again, you can go back and you can think about what you thought your life or life or the world would be like, and you get taught the lesson of the profoundly strange things that you could not have imagined, that were improbable. And you’re living in them. And then you hopefully get through them, and you’re on the other side, somehow, and you can’t quite figure out how you did it. But then there was some joy that you held onto, somehow. And there you are.
[music: “Lahaina” by Blue Dot Studios]
Tippett: Drew Lanham is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Master Teacher, and Certified Wildlife Biologist at Clemson University. He is the Poet Laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina, where he grew up. He’s the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. And he has a wonderful collection of poetry and meditations, called Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts.
Special thanks this week to Kate Nordstrum and the whole team at The Great Northern, who introduced Drew Lanham to us. Learn more at thegreatnorthernfestival.com.
[music: “Lahaina” by Blue Dot Studios]
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Gautam Srikishan, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Matt Martinez, and Amy Chatelaine.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org;
Kalliopeia Foundation, dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality, supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org;
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives;
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.