September 28, 2017

Alright, raise your hand if you’ve seen a black birder lately.  Ever?  That’s what I thought.  In a lifetime of birding I’ve known only two, my friend Marcus Watson whom I run into now and again birding along the Salt River, and a gentleman from California whose name I can’t remember that I’ve seen twice on birding trails in south Texas.  Do you ever speculate, as I do, on the reasons for this?

Since I attained full adulthood I’ve only felt physically afraid on two occasions.  Not the time I was treed by a Black Bear in the White Mountains (on a bird trip) nor the time I was approached in the Huachucas (on a bird trip) by two sketchy men on foot scoping out my van and inquiring about “policia.”  No, both occasions were in downtown Phoenix, well after dark, once when accosted by an aggressive panhandler with no one else in sight, the other when surrounded by hundreds of people, none of whom looked like me.  Both times I was out of my element, the natural world, and thus very uncomfortable.

This is all a teaser for a review of a new, must read book for birders, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, by J. Drew Lanham.  Drew Lanham is a Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson, a lifelong birder and nature observer who grew up on a small farm in South Carolina’s piedmont.  And he knows he’s an anomaly.  Birders are overwhelmingly middle class, middle aged, educated . . . and white.  As he writes, “the chances of seeing someone like me while on the trail are only slightly greater than those of sighting an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”  A black man walking around with binoculars in the rural South, or anywhere for that matter, is indeed out of his element and undoubtedly very uncomfortable.

Lanham is a thoughtful and gifted wordsmith, capable of creating both humor and pathos from the same scenario.  Those who have ever done a Breeding Bird Survey route will laugh and cringe with him as he sweats out a three minute stop, censusing species from his car with binoculars along a country road outside a South Carolina house with a barking dog and a Confederate flag flying, his feverish mind conjuring old sepias of lynching parties.

Because the book is a memoir, it chronicles the inflection points of his life:  partially raised by his ancient grandmother who held spiritual beliefs that defied the science and technology that would come to define his journey through academia; his fascination with birds which began with a longing to fly and evolved into lifelong obsession in a kindergarten coloring class; the discovery, at age twelve, of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; monitoring bluebird houses which led him away from engineering into a Zoology major; and a chance encounter with E. O. Wilson which turned him from a science lecturer into a proselytizing environmentalist.

Immersed in nature as a child, nature becomes Lanham’s element, the lens through which he views family, life and death, religion, and of course the exclusion and violence entrenched still today in the racism of the rural South.  Lanham’s upbringing on the land, his academic training, and his color itself, his blackness, have conjoined to give him what he terms a “new spiritual release” in which he’s “settled into a comfortable place with the idea of nature and god being the same thing.”  One of his closing lines eloquently captures what any birder regardless of color surely feels—“As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood . . . my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.”

If you’re hesitant to read the book, or if you read it and enjoy it, be sure you google J. Drew Lanham and listen to his “Birding While Black:  Rules for the Black Birder.”  It will make you smile, it will make you want to go out birding with Lanham, and it will make you give some thought to how we might induce people of color to share our avocation.  And why that’s important, because we’re all in this together despite what the alt right believes.
Red-winged Blackbird Brewer's Blackbird Tricolored Blackbird Yellow-headed Blackbird
Drew Lanham says, tongue in cheek, if you're a black birder, these are your birds.