1. Opinion

Review: Black man in a green world

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Published Apr. 14, 2017

The environmental writer Cynthia Barnett and I recently joined a busload of fifth-graders on a field trip to Gilchrist Blue Springs Park, north of Gainesville, as part of a project to introduce children to the state's precious water sources. The kids plunged into the chilly blue with underwater cameras and hiked the spring run to the Santa Fe River, taking field notes they would later translate into a story, poem or song.

One girl, Dniya, wrote, "The whispering river carried the fish away."

The young adventurers were all children of color. Most had never seen a spring before, yet all took to the surroundings. Sightings of fish and turtles excited squeals, while whiffs of foul rotting vegetation at the river's edge set them to howling. The outdoors was freeing, even as it apparently felt alien, more the neighborhood and privilege of the white middle-class escorts. Unlike society, however, nature draws no color line.

This is a central point J. Drew Lanham makes in The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature. He is eager for this particular demographic of young people to know "what so many of their ancestors knew" — that their "connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks." Cynthia and I wished Lanham had been with us on the outing. His beautiful memoir is a story of coming of age and developing a sense of wonder in the outdoors, and how its infinite allures eventually turned him into a scientist.

Lanham is also a "man of color." So much of his life has been about being black and being in nature, and the conflicts that sometimes arise between the two. Encouraging a fascination with nature, he writes, "doesn't fit the common calculus" for black kids. Public schools typically don't track them into the sciences either. Of himself, observes Lanham, now a wildlife biologist at Clemson University, popular perceptions cast him as the "rare bird, the oddity ... an unusually colored fish out of water."

Born in 1965, the year of the Voting Rights Act, he grew up in rural South Carolina on a small family farm he calls the Home Place. There he was surrounded by woods and wetlands that beckoned his curiosity on solitary wanderings, that molded his sensibilities no less than did family and society.

Everything captivated him, insects, reptiles, rocks, plants and, especially, birds. When his second-grade teacher gave the class mimeographed images of birds to color, a "switch was flipped on." He bought a pocket-size field guide and never again turned his eyes away from the sky or his ears off to song.

Observation, awareness and connections emerge as dominating themes in the series of essays that form his book. When Lanham writes of the boy who incessantly peered into streams and under rocks, he is also examining his ancestral roots. We meet his parents, who nourished his curiosity with a good education, and his grandmother, whose herbal remedies both cured him and attuned him to earthly fascinations.

"When I'm in an old field," he writes, "full of things most others bypass as weeds, I see healing." When baptized in his grandmother's authoritarian religious faith, he questioned the ritual but not the algae and "little black commas of tadpoles" in the immersing waters. Sometime after, he expanded his spiritual world "to include longleaf savannas, salt marshes, cove forests, and tall-grass prairie. ... Nature seems worthy of worship."

It is a worthy lens too, one through which he views the world — its conflicts and joys, setbacks and successes. He writes with the intellect of the scientist he became yet with the wonder he never left behind in childhood. Conventional science writing, remote and hyper-academic, he calls a "sin." He is critical of colleagues who have lost touch with the general public, who lock up important knowledge in obtuse language left to "die" in professional journals only specialists read. (Many participants in the March for Science this Earth Day are intending to spotlight this shortfall among their colleagues.)

If anything fascinates Lanham as much as nature, it is the written word. An alumnus of writing workshops, he has compiled an impressive list of publications in creative nonfiction and poetry that compares with that of his academic works. The voice in The Home Place is learned and lyrical. When describing the domestic and sexual behavior of eastern bluebirds, Lanham weaves revealing research into master storytelling. In "Thinking," an essay pondering the land in the tradition of Aldo Leopold, he joins the company of our finest nature writers, including Leopold himself.

The land within Lanham's field of vision is the Deep South, a land scarred by a long history of social discord. His book doesn't dwell on the subject of racism; it delivers it in doses, honestly yet without condemnation, and sometimes with salving humor. Lanham delves informatively into the social realities of black and white that circumscribed the lives of his grandparents and his parents, the latter of whom played their part in the great movement that punctured barriers but not necessarily myths.

Today, Lanham is most conscious of his seeming out-of-placeness when conducting seasonal bird counts in white residential areas, when he's a black man levelling binoculars on the landscape of a still racially paranoid white America. He consoles himself with the thought that "Maybe these folks are the 'heritage not hate' type." Simultaneously, he is aware of his own tendencies to type others.

Not long ago, Lanham caught the genealogy bug. Troweling to sometimes scary depths, he encountered both inspiring and unsettling tangles in his family's roots. His discoveries reaffirmed lessons from childhood and science: that connections with each other and everything else are the foundation of life. We can't escape or sever these connections, and we reach our best when we acknowledge and embrace them.

"My hope," he writes, "is that somehow I might move others to find themselves magnified in nature, whomever and wherever they might be." Here is a meaningful wish for those fifth-graders — and all of us.

Jack E. Davis is a professor of environmental history and sustainability studies at the University of Florida and the author of "The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea."