Carter Roberts talks with Dr. J. Drew Lanham

Quail in flight

WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts talks with DR. J. DREW LANHAM, alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology and master teacher at Clemson University—and the poet laureate of Edgefield County, South Carolina—about conservation as an act of the heart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lanham and Roberts

CARTER ROBERTS Drew, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. To begin with, we’re both from the South, land of some of the greatest writers in our country, and a land with a complex, fraught history. How has being southern influenced your affinity for nature and also your penchant for writing?

DREW LANHAM Thanks, Carter. It’s great to see you again. I was born in Georgia but grew up in South Carolina, on a family farm that probably came into ownership back in the early 1900s. My ancestors were likely enslaved on that land. So there’s this long tie to the land for us, first by chattel but then by choice.

It’s hard for me to go anywhere, whether it’s cotton fields or a rice marsh, and not think about those places as they were under cultivation and duress. But I also see what they are now in terms of conservation. That story is alive in me as a descendant of enslaved people—and as the descendant of free people who decided they were going to stay on the land, and work the land, and help the land work for them.

CR You and I talked about my kids being drawn to writing, not only because they love to write, but also as a way to wrestle with trauma we all face at some time in our lives. You’ve talked about the cultural dimensions of that. I think increasingly in the world of conservation, we’re dealing with trauma; both in a human sense and an ecological sense, the systems that we love are getting torn apart. And yet somehow a lot of the work we both do is about defining what makes a place meaningful and real, addressing ways in which that might be broken, and going through some process of reconciliation and restoration.

DL For me, the therapeutic aspect of nature writing is this confluence of past, present, and future. I think about my upbringing, about disappearing for hours between my grandmother’s house and my parents’ house on my daily ramble back and forth, and what that meant for me.

Being able to escape down to the creek, or wherever—I may as well have been in a wilderness 1,000 miles away. Being present in wildness is what drives me. Conservation is really an act of the heart and, for many of us, of remembering what nature did for us in the past. I’ve never seen nature as transactional. I’ll be honest, Carter, I really hate the phrase “ecosystem services.”

CR In that sense we must be kindred spirits. While economic arguments matter, I am definitely not in this business because of the economic value of nature. I am in it because of the wonder of nature and because it feeds my soul.

DL I know it’s important that trees breathe for us, that pollinators feed us, but those things can also reduce wildness to a commodity. I would hope that we’re able to barter into that economy some love and care and remembering—about what the ground that we stand on does for us, how it restores our souls first. To me, at the heart of conservation is simply doing better by nature because, for many of us, man, it saved us.

CR I’ll talk about the prose and the poetry of our work. We need the prose because if we’re going to convince a finance minister to allocate budget for a park system, we’ve got to be able to talk about what’s at stake economically. But the poetry—that’s what brings it all to life.

DL For me, poetry leads the way. There’s something that’s immediate about poetry, that grabs us in ways that—if we’re fortunate—can lead us toward language that becomes a policy or practice. This stuff takes a great deal of imagining. It’s a wonder and a privilege to do my work in a way that I hope contributes to something existing in abundance that was slipping off the edge.

“From a conservation standpoint, it comes down to acknowledging that different people have different experiences on landscapes.”

Clemson University

CR I think more people are waking up to the reality that it’s not just climate change, it’s the loss of nature that is going to upend life as we know it. 

I wanted to ask you about how you fell in love with birds. It’s another thing we have in common—whatever place I go to, my first experience with it is the bird sounds. If the songs are ones I don’t know, it’s like waking up on Christmas morning.

DL You said it. I have boyhood memories of coveys of bobwhite quail. When those birds rocketed out of a blackberry bramble, I watched them sail across the pasture into the next thicket. I could hear them talking, and I would try to imagine what it was like to be a quail, to have the power of flight. Thinking about quail in that way resulted in me becoming an ornithologist. I don’t think I was ever anything other than a bird brain.

CR You write about the confluence of race and landscape and change. It’s becoming more imperative in conservation work that we start with an understanding and recognition of the people who live in a place—that we build our programs around their reality and their rights. Could you share some thoughts on that?

DL I sometimes get flak for having subtitled my book “Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.” Part of the reason that I use the word “colored” is that I’m proudly a Black man in this sense. The land has been such an important component in making me who I am. You and I share the red clay of Georgia. That’s part of who we are. Chlorophyll green is part of who we are. All of the colors of nature are part of who we are, and our ethnicities and our identities emanate from that.

From a conservation standpoint, it comes down to acknowledging that different people have different experiences on landscapes. We have to be able to understand how people think about land, how they think about wildlife, how they think about wildness—to take into consideration all of these factors that enable us to go at conservation in a more informed way.

CR Talk more about that.

DL For example, you don’t go to a low country rice field and put up a sign that says, “Servants had a hand in constructing this.” That’s not even using a full box of 48 Crayola crayons to imagine the landscape. You need the full richness of all those colors to talk about how this land came to be. First, the Indigenous peoples were pushed out. Then enslaved people were brought in to deforest the land. You must understand which cultures in Africa knew how to grow rice and were then brought to these shores to move mountains of mud that would help control the tide. You need to know they were not just beasts of burden, but they were beings of intelligence. Then that sign changes, so that when people read it, they are better informed about what conservation means in full historical context, and that you can’t blot out all of that color just to make it more pleasant.

CR Drew, I could talk to you for hours. Your words enjoining us to look for the different colors in a landscape—to use our histories and all of our senses—represent the beginning of understanding and recognition.

DL Thank you, Carter. I’m so appreciative of WWF and what you do for nature. It was part of my upbringing. My librarian used to save issues of WWF’s magazine for me. It’s lovely to close the circle this way.

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