The Home Place

By J. Drew Lanham


Milkweed Editions
October 2016

Reviewed by Amber Nicole Brooks


In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature, J. Drew Lanham, an ornithologist and wildlife ecologist, explores the American landscape—the literal, cultural, and physical landscape, but also dynamics of race. Lanham asks us to develop a broader and more nuanced view of the intersection of environment and race. The Home Place is comprised of an Introduction and three main sections: "Flock," "Fledgling," and "Flight." After a quotation from Frederick Douglass, Lanham begins with the line "I am a man in love with nature. I am an eco-addict . . ." In the Introduction, he describes himself as a conservationist, makes a plea for the land, and explains how the book is memoir but also "the story of an ecosystem." Although much of the book focuses on characterizing the past, as one does with memoir, and although Lanham names his place as a Black man in the long history of the South as a "Colored Man" in his title, ultimately this book is more about the future, the future of our environment.

"Flock," the first section, presents Edgefield, South Carolina, the diverse land of Lanham's youth, home to the coast, the Savannah River, mountains, and also Piedmont. We learn of his family—Mama, Daddy Joe, grandmother Mamatha, and siblings. The physical structures, The Ranch and The Ramshackle, exist as family homes but also as contrast. Lanham explains how he split his time between The Ranch and The Ramshackle, where he stayed with Mamatha: "But while those structures were close together physically they were almost a century apart in mindset." So the child of the 1960s and 1970s also grows up in the '30s with Mamatha keeping him "suspended in and in-between world of superstitions, haints, and herbal remedies." In addition to characterizing the setting of his youth, Lanham explores the tensions between two mindsets: being raised to know mystery is okay versus being trained as a scientist, an academic. What is "real" and what is "believable"? Lanham explains:

I grew up understanding that the mysterious things I experienced didn't all need to be explained. Not knowing everything was OK. But since I last fell under any of my grandmother's spells, I've been trained extensively. Some might even say I've been overtrained, brainwashed to think critically about the natural world.

In addition to dualities, cycles persist throughout the narrative: seasons, the routine for procuring firewood, farming and harvest, the moon, the temperature, even war and peace. The lush voice and layering of images brings forth a world of its own. Lanham describes the changes in October:

The season has always drawn a sort of restlessness from me. The Germans have a fine word for it: zugunruhe. A compound derived from the roots zug (migration) and unruhe (anxiety), it describes the seasonal migration of birds and other animals.

Although The Home Place is its own world, its own ecosystem, Lanham contextualizes the larger society surrounding it through his grandmother's life: World War II Black aviators, George Washington Carver, a man on the moon. His life is one of cultivation, nurturing, and food, but alongside it the larger world is changing. Another contrast emerges: the biodiversity of the ecosystem, of the flora and fauna, versus a city less tolerant of human diversity.

These contrasts and settings are developed through a careful cataloging and layering. Early in life Lanham is interested in field guides, encyclopedias, rock collections, and wildlife. As a writer and naturalist, he catalogs settings, animals, plants, tasks, routines, foods, and even his siblings in the chapter titled "A Field Guide to the Four." In this field guide to life, Lanham cites Aldo Leopold's idea of a Land Ethic: "In 'Thinking Like a Mountain,' he encouraged us to consider the whole ecosystem, and not tear it apart selfishly for our own ends. Love, Leopold said, was central to the Land Ethic." Through elements of memoir—family drama, fundamentalist indoctrination, loss, grief—this thread of a Land Ethic persists. In tandem, exploring "natural worship" versus manmade worship is also an aim of Lanham's.

"Fledgling" opens with a chapter titled "Little Brown Icarus" and a quotation honoring the Tuskegee Airmen. Then, the young narrator imagines himself as a white pilot because in his understanding of the 1970's cultural landscape, pilots are white. All of his interests—fighter pilot, ornithologist, cowboy—seem white. Fast-forward to his adulthood, and birdwatchers are primarily white, and visitors to national parks are overwhelmingly white. Lanham writes, "Like most of the places I go to see birds anywhere in the world, these spots are often far off the beaten path and mostly populated by white people. As I seek rare birds, I often find myself among the rarest individuals around."

"Flight," which contains nine chapters, is the most substantial section of The Home Place. Lanham traces his early research of bluebird mating and other field work. The chapter "Birding While Black" highlights the struggle of being an outsider:

Society at large has certain boxes I'm supposed to fit into, and most of the labels on those boxes aren't good. Birders have a profile as well, a much more positively perceived one. Bring a birder in the United States means that you're probably a middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated white man.

Yet, he sees a solution not only to this lack of diversity, but to a larger awareness of the land: "I can prescribe a solution to my own small corner. Get more people of color 'out there'." 

Lanham traces his genealogy and is brought face to face with recorded fact that explains what he already understands, that Black Americans' birthplaces had to do often with slavery of the past, their names having to do, often, with white slave owners. Ultimately, though, the book is about the land as much as it about the man. An important angle emerges from the intersection of these two things:

But more and more I also think about how other black and brown folks think about land. I wonder how our lives would change for the better if the ties to place weren't broken by bad memories, misinformation, and ignorance. I think about schoolchildren playing in safe, clean, green spaces, where the water and air flow clear and the birdsong sounds sweet. More and more I think of land not just in remote, desolate wilderness but in inner-city parks and suburban backyards and community gardens. I think of land and all it brings in my life. I think of land and hope that others are thinking about it, too.

Any readers who love the land, love the South, or who may find themselves minorities in their vocation, would enjoy this journey with Lanham. Even more importantly, Lanham implores: "We must rediscover the art in conservation and reorient toward doing and not talking."