Reviewed by Cate Hodorowicz
In recent years, scholars and activists have started to question why and how, as geographer Carolyn Finney writes, “we have come to understand/see/envision the environmental debate as shaped and inhabited primarily by white people.”
J. Drew Lanham’s outstanding memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed Editions, Reprint June 2017), engages this problem as he considers what it means to be a person of color who feels at home in America’s wild places. A professor of wildlife ecology, an ornithologist, and a nature writer, Lanham as a black man works in almost exclusively white fields. With grace and a keen humanity, his book offers a ground-breaking addition to the dialogue about race, place, and the environment.
Lanham’s love of the land and its creatures begins on his schoolteacher parents’ Edgefield, South Carolina farm. Young Drew tramps The Home Place’s fields and forests, and it’s no wonder he later devotes his life to nature:
In every nook and cranny—a stump hole, a dry creek bed, or a burrow in the ground— there was something furred, feathered, finned, or scaled that scurried, swan, or flew . . . [I] learned the signs of the wild souls I seldom actually saw: the delicate doglike trace of a fox; the handlike pawprints of raccoons and opossums; mysterious feathers that had floated to earth, gifts from unknown birds.
As much as Drew loves the outdoors, his grandmother helps him hear its call more deeply. Developed in a remarkable chapter of herbal remedies and ghostly visitations, Mamatha is a woman with “a foot in two dimensions—this world and the spirit one.” Her presence echoes through the pages, particularly in Lanham’s quest to infuse the teaching of science and conservation with passion: “Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything.”
Heart and mind are at work in the book’s structure, too. Generally chronological, the book presents itself as memoir through three mostly chronological sections—Flock, Fledgling, Flight—an innocence-to-experience arc. Each chapter, though, is a self-contained essay in the best sense of that genre: Lanham’s voice is most engaging when we get to watch his thinking, rather than depend on a narrative through-line.
While childhood wonder dances through early chapters, Lanham keeps reality close at hand: the terrible economics of keeping cows; backbreaking farm labor; and, when Drew is in high school, his father’s sudden death. The loss of his father is awful enough, but a subsequent land-grab by extended family divides The Home Place acreage, and land becomes a source of pain. While Lanham doesn’t make a connection between his personal loss and historic black dispossession from the land, he suggests one reason people of color, particularly those in the South, have low engagement in environmentalism: because land has always belonged to someone else, not to mention carried the blood of enslaved ancestors, the land carries a legacy of systemic racism rather than one of home.
For all the challenges of race and place Lanham endures, he remains a caretaker of humans as well as the wild. Family trouble runs as an undercurrent in The Home Place, but Lanham offers few specifics; there is value, he seems to say, in respecting not just nature, but people.
Lanham doesn’t hold back, however, when it comes to his own experiences and self-exploration. He relates the terror of ‘birding while black’ in the rural South, and one chapter opens with, “It’s only 9:06am and I think I might get hanged today.” I wept at the last chapter, “Patchwork Legacy,” a masterful reclamation of self, land, and purpose. To return to Finney, “our ability to imagine others is colored by the narratives, images, and meanings we’ve come to hold as truths in relation to the environment.” Thanks to J. Drew Lanham’s story, we have expanded truths and meanings, as well as a long, deep song to the natural world. In return, Lanham asks us to consider how we can begin to have a stake in anything, particularly wild land, if we don’t—or can’t—find ourselves there.