I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
December 1, 2021: J. Drew Lanham
In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal, Drew writes, “My plumage is a kaleidoscopic rainbow of an eternal hope and the deepest blue of despair and darkness. All of these hues are me; I am, in the deepest sense, colored.” One of the reasons I loved this book was the pleasure of being inside Drew’s head. “What is wildness?” he asks. “To be wild is to be colorful…”
The place J. Drew Lanham writes from is a childhood in Edgefield, South Carolina,
where Cheves Creek snaked foamy and quick and where Daddy taught us to fish. Wetting a line, hoping for a bream to take a wormy hook, calling the cows in from evening pasture; picking butter beans on a sweaty summer’s eve…the belly-filling satisfaction of homegrown food and thirst-slaking coolness of spring water; the awe of a whitetail leaping the blacktop road in a single bound; the wonder of finding an ancient arrowhead in a newly plowed field; the breathtaking beauty of the bluest jay against golden hickory leaves.
His writing lights up the brain with imagery and alliteration.
My memory continues to run like a rabbit around the times spent in the small piedmont place I call home. It weaves and winds through woods and wetlands to reconnect me to my nature-loving roots. That pleasant wandering is reason enough for remembering–and returning–home.
His love of nature gives him a strong sense of the order present in the world.
My heart has moved on to love other people, places, and things like I never thought I could. But that first place I knew as home will always be locked within.
He describes the chapters as “patchwork pieces stitched together by memory,” the book as “the story of an ecosystem–of some land, the lives lived on it, and the dreams that unfolded there.”
To listen to Drew read a short excerpt from the book via Krista Tippett’s On Being, click over to The Home Place.
In 2019, Drew’s essay, “Forever Gone: How bird lives and black lives intertwine under the long shadow of history,” was published in Orion Magazine and then chosen for the The Best American Essays 2019, as one of the twenty best essays of that year.
My office walls are covered with portraits of birds gone past existence. At a glance I can see ivory-billed woodpeckers, Bachman’s warblers, passenger pigeons, heath hens, great auks, and Labrador ducks. It’s an ornithological pantheon of loss. Some Gone Birds, as I call them, especially the ones that would’ve inhabited my southern home place, have cast spells that I can’t shake.
Today, when I lead others out to birdwatch in the remaining fragments of wild places, I cannot help but bring the history of the enslaved, and the landscape we tread upon, into the same head-heart space. I cannot tell stories of birds and of the cypress swamps and old rice fields I frequent in low-country South Carolina without telling the story of those who moved forests, soil, and water through force and greed. There are stories in the soil that have to be plowed up.
Back in 2013, before The Home Place and before “Forever Gone,” Orion Magazine also published his enumeration piece, “9 Rules for the Black Birder.” In lightening speed and with such simplicity and so few words, Drew turns me into the Black birder and I feel the fear. Rule number three:
Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.
In May of 2020, in Vanity Fair, Drew was asked about the “9 Rules.”
I don’t even know why nine rules, why not 10, 13, there could’ve been more. But I got to nine and I sort of exhaled…There are times in writing litany that you feel like you’re not breathing, and you feel like if you take a breath, you’ll lose the thought, you’ll lose the words, you’ll lose the flow. That’s what happened there: I didn’t want to lose the flow. I’ve been asked before about that nine—was there something magical you were thinking, something numerological? No. There were nine. And I didn’t need any more. I wanted in that process to then be able to exhale. And that’s when I did.
You can find Drew’s poetry, along with the “9 Rules,” in his most recent book, Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts. And while you’re waiting for the book to arrive, click over to listen to Drew read “Joy is the Justice We Give Ourselves.”
J. Drew Lanham is a poet, essayist, and memoirist who loves birds. He has a PhD in Forest Resources and teaches at Clemson University, where he’s an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher and Certified Wildlife Biologist. This January, he will be teaching a course online for Writing by Writers.
Come back on DECEMBER 1st to read how J. DREW LANHAM spends his days.