Whenever Drew Lanham brings up the “Home Place,” he’s reaching back to his roots in Edgefield, South Carolina. Perched near the border of Georgia, this rural town of nearly 5,000 is where Lanham’s history begins—time and time again. It starts in 1790 with his ancestor Harry being brought to the state by slave owners as a child. It starts a century ago with his grandfather Joe buying dozens of acres of piedmont wood to carve out a life in an unstable world. It starts in the 1960s and ‘70s with a young Lanham exploring the cow paths and creeks and dreaming about flight. And it starts just a few years ago with his father’s death, prompting a return to the decaying “Home Place.”
Seeing his family’s farm and land in ruins reminded Lanham of something he’d long recognized: that his range map is always changing. And while this is true for most humans and organisms, it’s an extremely limiting factor for Lanham and other marginalized people. The ornithologist, Clemson professor, prize-winning writer, and self-described Black Birder strongly believes that his community has something in common with endangered birds: They’re both rare because their habitat is threatened.
Lanham covered this parallel between birds and humans during his keynote speech at the 2017 Audubon Convention in Park City, Utah. Watch it above, and then read on for more of his thoughts on conservation and diversity from a conversation with Audubon.
Audubon: How did you discover this relationship between avian range maps and your own?
Drew Lanham: I love maps and am constantly reading them to see why the species I also love aren’t in certain places. As ornithologists, we look at what birds need in their habitat: clean water, shelter, prey to forage, others of their species. Now what sort of habitat requirements are needed for humans? We want clean water, security, fresh food, and a good education. But when you look at where all these elements are available, and pair that with the distribution of people across the country, you see that we’re limited by where we go. There are the generalists that can tolerate and are tolerated everywhere; then there are the specialists that can’t tolerate and aren’t tolerated by all. Being black, my habitat is further compromised by these social situations. The space is there physically, but I don’t feel welcome. And so I’m playing this constant calculus of suitability to stay out of danger.
A: Does this mean we should be looking at conservation in a more humane way?
DL: I’ve come to this conclusion that conservation can be broken down into simple components: care and love. Yet as simple as these elements are, they’re often elusive. This field gives a lot of importance to biological diversity, but not on the human level; we’re guilty of not integrating eco-social tools enough. Research on land ethic, ethnicity, and race can affect perceptions of a place and how it’s used, especially in the South. We need to consider the landscape more holistically by understanding it better. How do we come to a place and appreciate who the people are, where they’ve been, and where they want to go? If we develop the empathy, we can start to think about inclusion and diversity in different ways.
A: What about birders? What should their mission be as they try to encompass more underrepresented communities?
DL: First of all, understand the mission. The point is not to create black birders; it’s to realize the diversity of thoughts to nature. Just because I love birds doesn’t mean the next person will love them in the same way. But I still want to meet them where they are.
To all the young birders out there, BE YOU. As much as other people may have dreams for you, they can’t create them. They can help you, and you can accept that graciously. But you need to find yourself.
A: You talk and write about home a lot. Why is that?
DL: It’s kind of crazy, but I think the soil has something to do with it. These superlatives of the “Home Place” . . . there was always survival on the land, and that’s become ingrained. For instance, after I lost the [Edgefield] land, I went to visit it. There was a Prairie Warbler buzzing on a fence post; it became my guide as I learned to love other places.
I can’t help but constantly compare where I go to with where I’m from—it’s the mental landscape I’ve formed. As a migratory being, when I get back home now, it’s all about comfort and care. The book really brought that out as I wrote. (I call it my literary selfie.) Overall, our personal stories are important because it allows us to see commonalities and differences. It lets us move forward in our lives and move forward as a society.