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Bird expert and poet Drew Lanham on how he's inspired by the natural world


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Drew Lanham refers to himself as a rare bird. He's an ornithologist, naturalist and writer.

He views conservation efforts as a blending of rigorous science and having a vision of the broader world. Lanham is among the new class of MacArthur fellows, often called the Genius Award.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to South Carolina recently to meet him for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A winter morning walk in South Carolina's Congaree National Park outside the capital city of Columbia, the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in this region of the country.

This is woodpecker destruction, or what? What are we looking at?

Drew Lanham, Ornithologist: This is woodpecker buffet.


Drew Lanham: They're going for breakfast.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not the busiest time of year for spotting birds, but if you know what to look and listen for...

Drew Lanham: That's a ruby-crowned.

Jeffrey Brown: Responding.

... and Drew Lanham does -- there's plenty going on.

Drew Lanham: We're going to -- oh.

Jeffrey Brown: Even if sometimes he can be fooled himself, a moment of birding comedy, a call from his dentist.

Drew Lanham: Well, no, I wish that was a real bird. That's, unfortunately, my phone.


Jeffrey Brown: Jeffrey Lanham often wanders this boardwalk for hours, open to surprises.

Drew Lanham: Chickadee. Black-and-white warbler That's a special bird. Oh, look at you. How beautiful are you?

The thing is that, every time I come here, the light is different, the trees are different. The last...

Jeffrey Brown: The water is different.

Drew Lanham: The water is different. But having the time to sort of wander slowly allows you to see things that you didn't see the last time.

Jeffrey Brown: Lanham traces his love of the natural world to his childhood on a farm in rural South Carolina and his understanding of human nature to his grandmother's stories of growing up in the Jim Crowe South. He wrote of all of this in a 2016 memoir, "The Home Place."

Birds were and are his continuing passion. He travels around the U.S. and to other parts of the globe to study firsthand how they behave. His greatest wish, then and now, to be a bird.

Drew Lanham: To see that bird soaring, to see a vulture soaring or to hear a bird singing, to see a bird flying from point A to point B so effortlessly, I wanted that.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, first, you wanted to be a bird. Then you wanted to study birds. But there was no pathway to do it at first?

Drew Lanham: No, it wasn't a thing, right?

Ask 10 people, and nine of them are going to say, what? Oh, an orthodontist? You want to -- no, ornithologist And, quite frankly, once people learned what an ornithologist was, then they said, well, that's not what Black kids do.

An ultimate question is, why birds?

Jeffrey Brown: It would take years after first being pushed to study engineering, at which he excelled, but didn't love, for Lanham to fulfill his calling.

But he did, eventually earning three degrees, including a Ph.D in forest resources from Clemson University, where he's now taught wildlife science for 28 years. He's learned the sights and sounds of the trees and animals around him, which this day included a number of hermit thrushes. But he also learned and teaches that, sometimes, you have to put the binoculars down to really see.

Drew Lanham: Sometimes, as bird-watchers, we become so focused on that bird, on that one bird, and that we want to see it ultra close. And that's fine.

Jeffrey Brown: That's the mission in some sense, huh?

Drew Lanham: Yes, that's the mission in some sense. But then, when you put the binoculars down and sort of zoom out and you see that bird in the context of place and then begin to understand habitat and begin to -- so, this morning, looking at that tiny kinglet, then we can zoom back a little bit and we see that its in holly and its foraging in the holly.

But then we zoom back and we see this wonderful wetland -- wooded wetland landscape, right? We see this swamp. And then, when you see the swamp, you begin to think about all these other things. And the kinglet is still there. The kinglet hasn't gone anywhere.

Jeffrey Brown: And these other things include human history.

Drew Lanham: And these other things include human history.

Jeffrey Brown: Indigenous people moving through the forest, enslaved people seeking safety and our own-present day lives all impacted by and impacting this landscape.

Drew Lanham: Were I the sparrow, brown-backed, skittish and small.

Jeffrey Brown: Lanham uses the tools of science to work for and preach conservation. But he also uses poetry, including the title poem from his 2021 book, "Sparrow Envy," identifying with a small brown bird often overlooked.

Drew Lanham: I would find great joy in the mist-sodden morning, sing humble pleas from the highest weeds and plead for the gray days to stay.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a humble moment in the life of a fairly humble bird.

Drew Lanham: The understated beauty of brownness, right? You know, these are birds that are often passed by.

I envy those birds, in part, because they continue to sing, they continue to be who they are. For a Black person, for a Black man who is often overlooked and dismissed in this society, to find common ground, I think, for me, is part of life's mission.

Jeffrey Brown: In his own life, Lanham, a bassoonist who takes a wooden flute into the woods, has lived with the complexities of color in a world where birding while Black is a thing.

He says, for example, he had to drop an early dissertation project because the area he was conducting research in was home to a supremacist group who let him know he was not welcome. One piece in his book is titled "Nine Rules for the Black Birder."

Drew Lanham: So, if someone calls and says, Drew, there are evening grosbeaks that have appeared suddenly this winter in a particular neighborhood, you really should go see those birds, well, depending on the neighborhood, I'm not going to go alone.

And so that's real, Jeff. That's something I have to think about. And so, while I'm watching the birds, I'm also watching to see who's watching me.

Red shoulders are kind of suburban hawks.

Jeffrey Brown: Lanham laments that too many young students of color still never learn they have the opportunity to do the kind of work he does.

Educators and the scientific community, he thinks, need to do better. And he makes a wider call to all of us to leave places like this better than we found them.

Drew Lanham: That's all conservation is. And leaving it better than you found it means you have to have some degree of care and love for people you don't even know.

Wow, what a concept, right? That means you're going to have to think outside of yourself. You're going to have to take your binoculars down, and you're going to have see a broader vision and a broader world.

Jeffrey Brown: A vision both very small and very large, indeed.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in South Carolina's Congaree National Park.

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