“Same air, same water, same soil, same earth, same fate.”
This credo was one of several shared by J. Drew Lanham during Wednesday’s Common Hour topic, "Birding While Black." An acclaimed author, birder, wildlife ecologist and naturalist, Lanham is the alumni distinguished professor in wildlife ecology at Clemson University.
Weaving together insights on conservation, racism, and extinction of native species, Lanham discussed “the cognitive dissonances between conservationists who don't see people on the landscape, but only see animals on the landscape.”
In professorial fashion, Lanham began the lecture with a brief ornithology lesson.
“Think about yourself as one of these birds,” he instructed.
Are you the ubiquitous yellow warbler, “a generalist, able to do well everywhere, unrestricted in your travels? Are you a Swainson's warbler that is restricted to specialized places that make you most comfortable? Or, are you a Kirtland’s warbler, having difficulty surviving anywhere so that your existence is constantly in question?” Lanham asked.
The question highlights the invisible barriers created by systemic, structural and institutional racism in America today.
“In the conservation community, we spend a great deal of time not speaking to how the lives of these birds align with equality of life of Black people on the ground over which they fly,” he said
Lanham discussed bird and human habitats, foraging ability, mate selection and predation to further demonstrate how ornithology is “blurring the lines of coexistence between birds and people.”
“On our landscapes, there are features that create difference. They separate us and create policy and create perception that impact who we are. And often that policy and perception is born on the back of race and ethnicity,” he said.
One such landscape is South Carolina’s low country, a popular birding destination.
“Those are habitats that were created by enslaved people,” Lanham said of the area’s many rice marshes.
“These birds share their place, their habitat, with extreme poverty,” he continued. “The habitats of birds that many are concerned with – in fact, many are more concerned with than the fates of people – will require us to think more about this whole mantra of together, how we create a way forward.”
Lanham's visit is the first lecture in the Environmental Justice Speaker Series, a new initiative at Franklin & Marshall supported by the Center for the Sustainable Environment (CSE). Each month, the CSE will virtually host an environmental activist from an underrepresented population working in an environmental justice community. Speakers will cover a broad range of topics discussing the intersection between environmentalism, race, income, health and more.
This summer, The Center for the Sustainable Environment invited the F&M community to read Lanham’s book “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair With Nature.” Lanham made a virtual appearance to discuss the book with readers.