A deep and abiding connection to the pastures and forests of South Carolina defines J. Drew Lanham’s remarkable, boundary-breaking memoir, The Home Place.
A birder, naturalist, and distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, Lanham recounts his childhood on his family’s pristine multigenerational ranch in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Conservationist greats like Aldo Leopold become his heroes and inspire in him a strong land ethic and sense of place. The flora and fauna of the ranch take shape in his young mind and provide self-identity and emotional harmony.
That Lanham is black—in a scientific profession dominated by whites—makes The Home Place uniquely American and uniquely Southern. Lanham relays his experiences with extant racism in the South. In one troubling episode, rural white men in a pickup truck aggressively tail Lanham and a female colleague as they study birds in the backcountry. In trying to understand what it means to be a black naturalist in modern-day America, Lanham digs deep into his own genealogy and the legacy of slavery that still haunts southern states, even underlying the very academic institution where he teaches. These reflections on racial injustice invoke indignation as well as yearning for reconciliation.
The Home Place is a work of undeniable poetry. Like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and other trailblazers before him, Lanham writes rapturously of the natural world, of its majesty, sublimity, and wonder. He writes of being “colored” by the fields and the soil and the water, both in spirit and manifested in the beautiful hue of his skin. By helping to define a land ethic in a region where blacks have been historically dispossessed of their land, Lanham has created a book of monumental social, political, and philosophic importance. He shows that the land sustains life, yes, but also how it heals and nurtures our shared humanity.
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