Some might view art and science as diametrically opposed pursuits, but for Clemson University Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology Drew Lanham, they are simply two sides of the same coin: methods for humans to understand and describe the world around them.
And as a creative writer, as well as a scientist, Lanham said one piece of writing advice he often gives is not to be afraid to mine one’s own personal data.
“It should be the data that you know best,” Lanham said. “So, while other people can question your data, the things you write about yourself, it’s up to you to put it down in a way that’s not just accurate, but precise to who you are. And that’s also what we try to do as scientists. We deal with these truths of data: how we acquire it, how we analyze it and then how we report it. I don’t see this work as really anything different other than sort of my personal science; my life has been the field experiment.”
And for that reason, Lanham said it was especially gratifying to have his memoir, “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” honored among “The Best Scholarly Books of the Decade” by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“To have a work of creative non-fiction — of nature writing — recognized in a way that puts it in a scholarly realm is personally important because it validates your personal story, your personal struggles,” Lanham said.
The memoir takes readers back to the origins of the titular love story — to Edgefield County, South Carolina, where generations of Lanham’s ancestors, dating to slavery, called home and where Lanham began to fall in love with the natural world around him. Through his journey, Lanham never loses sight of the significance of his identity as a black man in the Deep South and eventually as “the rare bird, the oddity” of a black man in the conservation sciences.
“Lanham explains how much he wishes there were other black scientists at the ornithology meetings he attends,” writes Anna Tsing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “He tells of being stalked by suspicious whites when he looks for birds in the American countryside, where blacks are not supposed to be. … Too often, our ideas of what it means to be black are contained within the life of the city. The countryside is banished; it can only be known for its violence and bad memories. Yet many African Americans continue to live in the countryside and many in cities are proud, not ashamed, of their rural roots. Lanham’s memoir makes it possible to imagine a confident black embrace of nature.”
Lanham’s book also garnered recognition from Literary Hub among its “The 10 Best Memoirs of the Decade and Then Some.”
“Lanham is as much a poet as an academic,” the LitHub.com article reads. “He writes not only in homage to the family that made him who he is, but also to decouple nature and environmental literature from academia, which he accuses of alienating readers who might otherwise find a way in. … He’s aware that, unfortunately, a black man in his profession is relatively rare, and Lanham’s private experiences in and beyond the Home Place are always circumscribed by this knowledge.”
Lanham called the recognition for his book “a great honor,” not least because he says some in academia view such personal, creative endeavors as antithetical to serious scientific pursuits.
“As someone who has sort of bridged these two worlds between science and creative writing and art, you spend a lot of time wondering what your value is and, really, dealing with some colleagues who might not see the value in it,” he said. “You get a lot of these sort of looks and people thinking that you’ve gone soft. So, that validation from the outside is important for any of us at a university. We don’t just want the acceptance of those people we work with — we all know that’s important — but what we strive to do is get the science out and get the words out to the world.”
Lanham was honored by the National Audubon Society in 2019 with the Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership for his tireless advocacy to protect birds and build a new generation of conservation leaders. He was also appointed as Provost Distinguished Professor, a special designation awarded by the provost to recognize outstanding scholars who are highly productive and build a national reputation for Clemson University. His home county of Edgefield named him its Poet Laureate in 2018.
A Clemson faculty member for more than two decades, Lanham holds an endowed chair as an Alumni Distinguished Professor and was named an Alumni Master Teacher in 2012. In his teaching, research and outreach roles, he seeks to translate conservation science to make it relevant to others in ways that are evocative and understandable.
“I feel like this recognition was a way of doing that,” he said. “So, I hope that people pick up the book and don’t just see it as a story, but see it as how the data of your life gets built — how it gets collected, how you analyze it through the story and hopefully reporting it in some way that people want to read it.”
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