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Race and Environmental Science: A Man of Color Shares His Stories


People of color are not well-represented in the field of environmental science and Drew Lanham thinks he knows why.  Lanham is an African-American, a Professor of Wildlife Ecology and the winner of this year’s Southern Environmental Law Center Reed Award for literary non-fiction – a prize given at the Virginia Festival of the Book. 

Drew Lanham grew up in rural South Carolina – watching wildlife, learning to fish and shoot.  He got a BB gun for Christmas and, in his words, went on a boyish rampage in which he pretended to be a cowboy, a soldier and a hunter.

“I shot all kinds of things that morning. I tried out tin cans.  I shot pine cones.  My sister and I shot one another in the butt, which was really stupid, but we needed to know how powerful the little BB rifle was,” he explains.

Then, he spotted another possible target.

“I was a birder then," Lanham recalls. "I knew what it was – a little rusty cap and a black stripe through the eye and the clean breast.  Chipping Sparrows are really pretty birds.”

He aimed, fired and missed, then shot again, killing the bird instantly.

“And the bird fell to the ground, and it was what I thought I wanted to happen, but then this wasn’t a bird that I was going to eat.  I had killed something just for the sake of killing it.  I knew I had done something wrong,” he says.

Today he hunts – but only for food – and  hopes to repay the animals he has killed.

“That my ashes eventually become oak, and eventually become acorn that falls to the ground, and some deer comes along and consumes me.  That, to me, is the cycle complete.”

He has dedicated his life to studying that cycle, but says it wasn’t easy for a black man to explore wild areas in the South.  Now a professor at Clemson, he recalls going into the field with a co-worker who happened to be a white woman.

“We were riding along in the mountains, and we come head on with a truck. People had already told me that some of the places I was going – there are no black people there.  They've never seen anybody like you, so be careful, and as we passed this truck that day, I remember the people in that truck -- their heads just swiveling and really tracking us. There was this almost overwhelming fear and questioning that rose up in me, because I knew that the road that we were on was a dead end road, and I remember looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing the brake lights and the back-up lights actually come on, and I’m thinking They’re going to follow us, and I began to question why I was back there, why I was doing any of it.”

The two were not, in fact, followed, but Lanham still sees confederate flags in his travels, and sometimes people say things that upset him.

“The directions I was given were that I would make a turn at the hanging tree, and so whenever I would come to that tree I would think 'Who was hung there?  Why were they hung there?  Will they hang me from it?'”

He concludes that being a black man in his field is inherently stressful, and nature shows that’s a mixed blessing.

“When you look at a tree and you look at how it’s tossed and bent in the wind,  this stuff called reaction wood builds up that in many ways makes the tree stronger," Lanham says, "but the tree is still stressed.  How much taller would the tree have been if it had not had to detour its growth for some stress?”

Which is one reason why winning the Reed Award means so much to him – especially in Charlottesville where white supremacists recently marched.  For Lanham it’s proof of his achievements – of the fact that he belongs and that he can make a difference for the South, for other people of color and for the cause of conservation.

Drew Lanham will speak and read from his new book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature, from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at Christ Church, 120 High Street in Charlottesville.  The Southern Environmental Law Center is an underwriter of WVTF and RadioIQ.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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