A Rare Bird


Drew Lanham receives national acclaim for his memoir

This spring, Clemson Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology J. Drew Lanham ’88, M ’90, Ph.D. ’97 has been quoted widely in the national media in publications ranging from The Atlantic and Vanity Fair to Garden and Gun magazine and The Bitter Southerner. He’s also been on NPR podcasts and in Newsweek.
Much of his visibility has been in response to the Central Park birdwatching confrontation in May between Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper, a white woman whose dog was unleashed.
A nationally known birder and proponent of increasing diversity among the ranks of birders, Lanham has had his own confrontations with those who see a Black man with binoculars as a threat rather than as another human exploring the world of flight. “My binoculars have become heavier now,” he said during his NPR interview. “It’s become harder for me now to pick up my binoculars and singularly focus on birds.”
Lanham also was lauded in the national media this spring for his memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which was named by The Chronicle of Higher Education among “The Best Scholarly Books of the Decade” and by Literary Hub among “The 10 Best Memoirs of the Decade and Then Some.
“To have a work of creative nonfiction — of nature writing — recognized in a way that puts it in a scholarly realm is personally important because it validates your personal story, your personal struggles,” Lanham said.
The memoir takes readers back to the origins of the titular love story — to Edgefield County, South Carolina, where generations of Lanham’s ancestors, dating to slavery, called home and where Lanham began to fall in love with the natural world around him. Through his journey, Lanham never loses sight of the significance of his identity as a Black man in the Deep South and eventually as “the rare bird, the oddity” of a Black man in the conservation sciences.
“Lanham explains how much he wishes there were other Black scientists at the ornithology meetings he attends,” wrote Anna Tsing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Too often, our ideas of what it means to be Black are contained within the life of the city. The countryside is banished; it can only be known for its violence and bad memories. Yet many African Americans continue to live in the countryside, and many in cities are proud, not ashamed, of their rural roots. Lanham’s memoir makes it possible to imagine a confident Black embrace of nature.”
Lanham called the recognition for his book “a great honor,” not least because he says some in academia view such personal, creative endeavors as antithetical to serious scientific pursuits. “That validation from the outside is important for any of us at a university. We don’t just want the acceptance of those people we work with — we all know that’s important — but what we strive to do is get the science out and get the words out to the world.” 
Listen to a podcast on Threshold with Lanham.
Listen to a Yale Podcast with Lanham.
CNN: The realities of being a black birdwatcher