November 8, 2023

Dr. J. Drew Lanham Talks Nature and Birding at Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr. Lecture Series

The Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr. Lecture Series continued on Nov. 2 at the University of Montevallo with Dr. J. Drew Lanham serving as the keynote speaker for the third installment of the series. The lecture, held on the Rebecca J. Luker Stage in the Discover Shelby Theatre at the Alan and Lindsey Song Center for the Arts, encompassed Lanham’s experience as an ornithologist and his deep appreciation for the ecological beauty of the South.

A native of Edgefield, South Carolina, Lanham is a 2022 MacArthur Fellow and Clemson University’s Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology. His published work includes “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and “Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts.”

Lanham’s essays and poetry have also appeared in publications including Orion, Audubon, Flycatcher and Wilderness, and in several anthologies, including “The Colors of Nature,” “State of the Heart,” “Bartram’s Living Legacy” and “Carolina Writers at Home.”

Lanham’s visit to Montevallo included a guided tour through Ebenezer Swamp Ecological Preserve and an afternoon session in the Discover Shelby Theatre where a panel of MADE students and GEAR UP Jefferson County students from Minor High School joined him on stage to ask questions about mentorship, his experience as a Black birder and how he dealt with being judged for choosing an unusual path.

“I see judgment as a challenge,” he said. “If you are a dreamer, someone who is outside of the box, then you’re going to have people that judge you. I had people tell me ‘Black people don’t study birds or major in zoology.’ If someone is coming at us that way, we need to understand who they are to us. That discernment is how we gain wisdom. We gain wisdom by understanding who’s helping us and who isn’t.”

Lanham spoke to students in the audience about the importance of staying curious and choosing the path where they’ll meet resistance in order to better themselves. He also compared life to a relay race, where each person is the baton being passed from runner to runner, mentor to mentor, and hopefully done so with care and good intentions.

In the evening, faculty, staff, students and local and regional community members gathered in the Discover Shelby Theatre, where Lanham was introduced by Dr. Greg Samuels, chief diversity and inclusion officer and associate professor of secondary education, and Dr. Kelly Wacker, professor of art.

“His depth and breadth of knowledge, his creativity and his engaged empathy aligns with our liberal arts mission and what we value here at the University of Montevallo, which is also located in one of the most ecologically diverse places in America,” Wacker said.

Taking the stage, Lanham described in vivid detail his perspective of nature and how the land both holds promises for the future and preserves history from the past.

“I think about the lay of the land,” Lanham said. “I think about how land came to be, what natural forces have changed the land, what human forces have mangled the land. I think about how concrete and asphalt often doom the land. I think about how land rises and runs, lifts and falls.”

He delved into the role nature played in his upbringing in South Carolina, saying that the pastures, fields, woods, creeks and bottoms of his hometown always stay on his mind while he is traveling the country.

“I’ve been all over this world, but my wanderlust seems to always find its way home to Piedmont clay, to loblolly pine, to prairie warblers and bob white quail,” Lanham said. “My obsession is born of that land in Edgefield, South Carolina, that nurtured me — land in the middle of nowhere. It is born of growing up on garden-raised vegetables, on our own pasture-fed beef and the sweet fruits of our own orchards. It is born of some of the best years of my life.”

Lanham explained that he doesn’t expect other Black Americans to feel how he feels about the land, for the scars of slavery and having to work that land for the profit of others are still too fresh. But reconnecting with nature is a worthwhile mission, and the land still holds hope for making good on the promises that many thought it could.

“My reparations will lie not in what someone will begrudgingly give, but in what we already own,” Lanham said. “The land can grow crops for us as well as it does for others. Place, land and nature — how we tie these things together is critical to our sense of self purpose and our fit in this world. These are our trinity. This is true for people everywhere, but nowhere is it truer than in my South.”

Following the lecture, Samuels presented “UM Campus Aerial Perspective of Buildings & History,” a 10-minute video showing a bird’s-eye view of the campus buildings. The video was captured using drone technology and edited by junior mass communication major Kaitie Wayne and Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Dr. Danielle Jennings, and narrated by UM Archivist Carey Heatherly. Guests then made their way to the William and Jeanetta Corbett Keller Lobby where they could purchase Lanham’s book, “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” and have him sign a copy.

The Dr. Wilson Fallin Jr. Lecture Series was established by the UM Black Heritage Committee and approved by the Board of Trustees in 2021 to honor Wilson’s lifelong efforts in higher education, the Civil Rights movement and social justice initiatives. Fallin is a UM Alum, UM professor emeritus in history, and has served the University and community for more than 28 years. The lecture series, which has been recognized by the Alabama Legislature for its importance, highlights educational and socio-cultural topics related to African American heritage, social justice and racial equity.