The Home Place
Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature
J. Drew Lanham
The best way to describe this book is to begin with the author. J. Drew Lanham is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist. He’s also an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. Lanham’s essays and poetry have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. The Home Place is his memoir is about growing up in rural South Carolina and how he fell in love with nature, especially birding. Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk, says it best when she describes the book as “A groundbreaking work about race and the American landscape.”
Lanham talks about growing up with his three siblings in Edgefield during the 1970s. In addition to teaching high school, his parents ran a produce farm to make ends meet. Lanham and his brother and sisters were all expected to help on the farm and it was during these times that Lanham grew to love nature and the outdoors. “All that and the land were mine back then. I was the richest boy in the word, a prince living right there in backwoods Edgefield,” he writes.
Family relationships shaped Lanham in complex ways, from a commanding father who insisted on obedience and respect, to his widowed grandmother, Mamatha, who lived in a ramshackle house on their property and where Lanham spent many of his days and nights. Mamatha practiced both traditional black Baptist Christianity and her own form of spiritualism and herbalism. Lanham also talks about his brother and sisters. In a chapter titled, “A Field Guide to the Four,” he describes his siblings and how they each represent different birds: raven, falcon, swallow and hermit thrush.
Of equal importance are his experiences of being black in the deep south and how subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices have affected him. He talks about being a black birder, a rarity, and about feeling threatened out in the field, while observing birds in their habitats. He writes, “But my choice of career and my passion for wildness means that I will forever be the odd bird, the raven in the horde of white doves, the blackbird in a flock of snow buntings.” The impact of his prose lies in its gentle assertions, which are not argumentative, but deliver a powerful message about race in America.
Lanham writes beautifully about nature and about humans being just one part of a greater world. I like that idea and relate to both the words and the sights he describes. I attended a webinar this week where Lanham was a guest speaker and I enjoyed hearing him talk about his love of birding and nature. I highly recommend this book to those who like memoirs about nature and as a field guide to treating others without prejudice.
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