By Lucy Frost-Helms, Copy editor
The University of Montevallo welcomed Dr. J. Drew Lanham as part of the Fallin Lecture Series on Nov. 2. The series, named for retired professor emeritus of history at UM, Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr., brings speakers to present their work related to African American heritage, civil rights and social and racial justice. The series has previously featured Vonetta Flowers, the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, and Dr. Bernice A. King, a lawyer and daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lanham’s lecture was held in the Alan and Lindsey Song Center for the Arts, with Fallin and his family in attendance alongside UM faculty, staff and community members.
Lanham, who is an author, poet, MacArthur Fellow and biologist with a keen interest in ornithology, is from Edgefield, S.C. He is currently a professor of wildlife biology and ecology at Clemson University.
As an author, Lanham has published “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” which received both the Southern Book Prize and the Reed Prize from the Southern Environmental Law Center
More recently, Lanham published “Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts.”
As a naturalist and conservationist, Lanham’s works are centered around the importance and depth of land in addition to poetically written details about the wildlife that call the land their home. While the animals are a focus, Lanham also focuses on his own connection to the land, which was once where his enslaved ancestors lived.
Lanham began reading from his work, with a focal point on the land that we live on and how land has been birthed, transformed and hurt.
“I think about land. In South Carolina—Alabama, in fact. I am possessed by these thoughts. I think about the lay of the land. I think about how land came to be. What natural forces have changed the land, what human forces have mangled the land,” he said.
Lanham referenced the often hidden hills, creeks, forests, hollers, rivers and fields that have been converted to suit the modern-day human. He thinks about the land in which animals attempt to live on, and how conversion of land has affected wildlife.
“I think about what used to be there, perhaps flocks of green and gold Carolina parakeets roosting in the cavernous hollows of monstrous yellow poplars. I think of cool creeks running unimpeded by what some call progress. I think of no lakeshore real estate or exclusive gated communities with names made up to sound wild,” said Lanham.
He continued, “Even when I find the forest, the trees are often planted like row crops.”
Lanham described that he closely observes, not only the land, but the structures which we have built to accommodate our lives as well. The highways we use and the suburbs we create to house condensed groups of individuals were two examples he listed. He recognized that, when he sees these structures, he imagines how they once looked and what has come of them.
In reference to a highway that Lanham uses, he said, “It is also a murderer’s row for many of the four-legged creatures that try, still, to call this place home.”
Lanham said his observations about land, and what humans have done with it, were a result of his acknowledgment of the land that he came from—land that was passed down through generations of slavery. Lanham, who grew up on in Edgefield, described that his family grew their own food, hunted their own meat and picked their own fruit from orchards. He described how this land was made.
“It is born of some of the best years of my life. My thinking is born of my ancestors’ sweat equity. These ancestors toiled the land as enslaved Africans, eventually came to own some of it and then gave away many of its riches for pennies on the dollar,” said Lanham.
After recognizing the history of his well-loved land, he also stated that he believes, while the scars of slavery are too fresh for some, land that was previously used for profit by way of enslaved people is able to be reconnected to.
“But, the land, in spite of its history, still holds hope for making good on the promises we thought it could,” he said.
The concept of land, which Lanham heavily focuses on in his work, transitioned into a conversation of home, as he said, “I think about homeplace, home range, homing in, homeward bound.”
For Lanham, home is where the heart is, and being unhoused does not equate to being homeless.
“Home is knowing your mind, knowing your heart. Home is knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.” He continued, “Something beyond a building, it is something beyond an address, it is something more than that place we lie our heads down at night or are sometimes reliably fed.”
Lanham finished his lecture by performing two bird calls. Both species, the Bachman sparrow and bobwhite quail, are described as secretive and not widely seen.
In a final statement, Lanham said, in reference to his short time at UM, “I now feel at home.”
Lucy Frost-Helms is the copy editor of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in social science and minoring in philosophy. She enjoys being a goober, eating chicken salad for breakfast, watching “National Treasure” and telling you that she will “definitely pay you back for that.” Lucy has the worst memory of all time and will forget major, important details of stories you tell her.