Posted On: May 2, 2017 In: In the Spotlight
Being nearby to see a bird in flight can be a transcendent experience. The sensation of watching a bird flying overhead has inspired me to simulate my own flight, standing with my arms raised high. And this seems most powerful in a wide-open natural area like the Haskell-Baker Wetlands—in the presence of many red-winged blackbirds.
I’ve become more aware recently that most other people out on the nature trails have white skin like me. Author J. Drew Lanham poetically describes the phenomenon of uncommon black or brown companion birders.
His recent book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature, shares lyrically-written storytelling of deep connections to family, his strong sense of place, a passion for nature, optimism and wit along with the frustration of being the singular African American ornithologist in a predominantly white field. Lanham is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University in South Carolina; he’s also a poet, naturalist, hunter, and birder.
“Birding While Black” is a poignant chapter in Lanham’s book reflecting fears similar to the negative experiences expressed by the phrase “driving while black”. A black man risks being accused of suspicious activity simply for being out in a remote environment.
In remote places fear has always accompanied binoculars, scopes, and field guides as baggage. …a white supremacist group [was] “organized” in the mountains of western North Carolina, near the places I was supposed to do a research project. They’d made the national news in stories that showed them worshiping Hitler and shooting at targets that looked like Martin Luther King Jr. Someone at the university joked about my degree being awarded posthumously. So though the proposal had been written and the project was well on its way to being funded—and as potentially groundbreaking the research on rose-breasted grosbeaks, golden-winged warblers, and forest management in the Southern Appalachians might be—I had to abandon the whole thing.
Author J. Drew Lanham
I look at maps through this lens—at the places where tolerance seems to thrive, and where hate and racism seem to fester—and think about where I want to be. Mostly those places jibe with my desires to be in the wild but sometimes they don’t.
The wild things and places belong to all of us. So while I can’t fix the bigger problems of race in the United States—can’t suggest a means by which I, and others like me, will always feel safe—I can prescribe a solution in my own small corner. Get more people of color “out there.” Turn oddities into commonplace. The presence of more black birders, wildlife biologists, hunters, hikers, and fisher-folk will say to others that we, too appreciate the warble of a summer tanager, the incredible instincts of a whitetale buck, and the sound of wind in the tall pines. Our responsibility is to pass something on to those coming after. As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew—that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks, that the land renews and sustains us—maybe things will begin to change.
I’m hoping that soon a black birder won’t be a rare sighting. I’m hoping that at some point I’ll see color sprinkled throughout a birding-festival crowd. I’m hoping for the day when young hotshot birders just happen to be black like me. These hopes brighten the darkness of past experiences.
Lanham is a terrific ambassador to inspire more people to enjoy the natural world, yet he also recognizes the empowerment shared by people with similar cultural experiences.
The “Sky Dawgs,” J. Drew Lanham and more colleagues of color
Lanham has created several entertaining short videos to advocate his mission of diversifying the community of naturalists; one of my favorites is witty-satire “Bird-Watching While Black: A Wildlife Ecologist Shares His Tips.” Use this link to watch the 2-minute video online, produced by BirdNote and featured in National Geographic Society’s Short Film Showcase.
This is a rallying cry to help more people connect to the outdoors, and I am inspired by Lanham’s message. I will be reaching out to be more inclusive in planning future nature-related events. As a Board Member and volunteer with Kansas Native Plant Society, I have organized and attended many outings over the last 17 years; almost all the folks who have joined me have been white.
Lanham and student birders
We need to be ambassadors to bring more kids and adults together from diverse communities to explore and connect with natural places—to imagine flight and experience transcendence with the birds.
I crave being outside in nature, but I was well into my 30s before I first enjoyed a wild environment. I wish someone had taken me under their wing to share wild places when I was a kid. I’ll be following J. Drew Lanham’s lead; when I visit a natural area I’ll respectfully invite new & old friends of different ages, varied hues and diverse origins to join me. I hope you’ll join me and we’ll exponentially increase the advocates for the natural world!
-Shirley Braunlich is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
Cover Image: red-winged blackbird, credit: Audubon.org
Posted On: Feb 21, 2017 In: In the Spotlight
I treasure wildlife sightings. During the winter season I sometimes glimpse bald eagles soaring in the sky outside my kitchen window, and I’ve been fortunate on several occasions to see beavers swimming in the Haskell-Baker Wetlands. Last summer my East Lawrence neighbors and I were frequently serenaded by the territorial calls of barred owls. Being reminded that wildlife still thrives nearby is reassuring for the future of our environmental heritage. Read More..
Posted On: Nov 11, 2016 In: In the Spotlight
As we slide into the holiday season, beginning with our most thankful time of year, we naturally begin to think about food. Sitting down to generous plates and celebrating all we’re grateful for, seems like a good time to give some thought to those who keep us fed. I’m not talking about Grandma’s cornbread dressing or Aunt Louise’s maple-bourbon-pecan pie. Rather, I’m thinking about the story that your meal would share if asked what it is and where it came from. Read More..
Posted On: May 13, 2016 In: In the Spotlight
Take a few moments to trace your history. Now trace the history of the place you call home. Following threads of memory, you’ll discern more than one version of your past. You probably have had more than one home, each of which has different versions of its own history. You have changed, places have changed, and as you dig you see that history itself is based on perceptions changing. “The past is remembered and retold by desire,” says author and geologist Lauret Savoy in her sweeping new book Trace , in which she endeavors to discover untold parts of her heritage and, intriguingly, tie them to the American land.
A palimpsest of a colorful decaying leaf over a page of faded text on the cover drew me in, and the blurb by author Terry Tempest Williams clinched it. Likewise, discernable through the gritty questing of Savoy’s story, one can see Williams’s Refuge, one of my favorite books, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me– for within Savoy runs the blood of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, and she examines racial oppression in the American landscape.
She begins as a child on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the geologist she would later become describes the layers of the land, including those of its “discovery” and exploration by Europeans. Having stood on Point Sublime and being familiar with some of its history, I was immediately drawn in. Indeed, much of this small book rang familiar, for the author and I share more than a few places visited and books read. She even lives in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley (a name she has surely examined), right down the road from where I once lived.
Amos A. Lawrence, namesake of my current home, came from Massachusetts. Historian Jonathan Earle has said of the man, “He made tons of money – Bill Gates kind of money,” thanks to Lawrence’s father running the greatest mercantile house in the U.S., trading cotton goods.
A desire for a more complete history of this home, our city of Lawrence, must therefore recognize the hundreds of thousands of slaves of the American South whose lives and labor fueled the Lawrence family’s cotton fortune. Time and again, Lauret Savoy’s desire for re-remembering her own past teases apart neglected examples like this, from Washington D.C. and South Carolina to Wisconsin and Arizona.
As a child in California, she says, she never knew race, but once she hit the Grand Canyon on her family’s move east it couldn’t be avoided. She was ignored and then short-changed when buying post cards at the National Park gift shop. In school she read history books full of “savage Indians in the way of Manifest Destiny, and Africans who thrived as slaves and by nature want to serve.” On her adult “journey of and to perception” she learns that heads of Native Americans slaughtered at Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre ended up in the Smithsonian.
She follows her family history across North America, digging up more and more. Tribes relocated to what is now Oklahoma held enslaved African Americans. What we think are Native tribal names were sometimes made up by Europeans – Ojibway, for example, rather than Anishinaabe. Indeed, the very names on the land are fraught. She visits a South Carolina “Living History” plantation that essentially lives without the history of the slaves who worked it. In Arizona, where her mother served as an Army nurse, she peels apart shifting layers of Apache history, borderlands, and the Jim Crow experience of the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers.
It’s a stunning personal telling of what historian Patricia Nelson Limerick called the Legacy of Conquest, with another important layer: despite all she found, “one idea stood firm: The American land preceded hate.” The sublime Grand Canyon and an early exposure to the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac informed this reality, and provided some guidance. “Only slowly did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them… relations among people from relations with the land.”
What refreshing words, with more than a trace of wisdom. I look forward to following more of Lauret Savoy’s explorations.
-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.