7–8 minute experience, or the time it takes for a midday stretch.
As a Black environmentalist, birder, and poet, J. Drew Lanham offers a critical perspective on relationships between people, places, and other fauna — an interweaving of relationships as intricate as a bird’s nest. His poem “Nativist Namaste” observes the biases at play in predominantly white environmentalist spaces and questions what organisms can truly “belong” in the fantasy of an untouched wilderness. The poem is also a poignant record of public life in the COVID era, as seen through Zoom screens, and how people show up with the fullness of their identities and experiences in digital spaces.
BY J. DREW LANHAM
Sometime in 2020
Upon delivering a lecture
to a group of virtual lovers
of all things native, wild and free,
by their faithfully paid memberships
in certain societies attended to learn —
the invited guest keynoter —
I was asked at the end of the talk
(emoji applauses duly noted) —
“How will you get your neighbors
to rid their yards of noxious exotic grass?
To eliminate the Bermuda, the centipede
To plant the native things that belong?
Broomsedges, or Paspalums.
You know — bluestems, Indian grass?
Can you convince them to go native?”
My answer, past a barely suppressed eye roll
and the heavy sigh that I only half-hoped
they could not hear past mute
or catch in the glare of the too bright
ring lamp bouncing off my
was in my head,
“I really don’t know how much
my neighbors will care
about native warm season grasses
or wildflowers locally raised
and pollinator safe,
when their health is threatened by viral strain
or heightened likelihood of being fatally police
or worrying over the job that’s gone —
I cannot in good faith ask them
to nuke with poison
the green they now have,
to ask people who might have hungry stomachs;
maybe emptying lungs —
to destroy the little they have
to satisfy some vision
of perfect piedmont prairie
that once was cherished lawn.”
All of this swirled round in pre-verbal
Then — I opened my mouth
“No,” I replied, firmly out loud.
“I don’t think I will — I haven’t tried.”
The virtual crowd sat quiet
I glimpsed a head shake
or maybe it was just an “s-m-h” vibe I got.
No yellow hands clapping showed up
in the little people-filled boxes.
My lack of eco-conversion conviction,
of restoration awareness,
was not so appreciated.
Just a few days later, another chance.
This time about the birds (not plants)
and what is, and is not
The host wanted to know
what might my thoughts be on
why skin color matters sometimes,
more than Empidonax flycatcher identity.
Having given my Black birder opinion on
offenses taken personally
over the prosecution and profiling
of dark-skinned humans
(and black feathered things — like calling
double-crested cormorants “nigger geese”
or blaming Negroes for quail disappearing),
It was time for Q and A.
Hands went up.
I took them as they came;
gave easy funny quips about being stuck
on butcher birds (i.e. loggerhead shrikes);
offered advice on where best to see
Then a chat question rolled up —
“But what can I do about the house sparrows?
they are pushing my poor bluebirds out!”
The questioner seemed desperate in all caps.
Apoplectic at having the Eurasian weaver finches
In remote solitude I smiled wryly —
swallowed hard, gritted my teeth through
The screen, then replied —
“Not so sure house sparrows
are your biggest problem — ma’am.
Sure, they may usurp (yes I used the word)
a nest or two
of what some would deem ‘more desirable kinds’”—
(then inwardly possessed mid-sentence,
began a thought process — a conversation
wholly within about the Nazi scientists love affair with what belonged and what didn’t. Wasn’t there some idea of master types of this and that floating about?
How did that scheme of exclusion and homogeneity
I kept that train of thought
on its own internal track with only me on board —
and hitched for a second on revealing a musing of racial purity politics and its proximity to nativist ecology but instead, I said aloud —
“the cats roaming your neighborhood
are the worse players in this birds
declining by billions tragedy
Keep them inside and your bluebirds will
be better off.
Don’t blame beings
who never asked to be here,
for their presence
but found a way to thrive
in spite of fickle minds
who’d just as soon destroy
them once their service is done.”
I proceeded to mention starlings,
the beauty of murmurations viewed from afar,
the hate of the same birds up close,
tears of joy to words of hate —
the way we accept some for who they are
then deny others life because of the same —
depending on how close to us they come
or how far away they stay.
The room went quiet.
From the Zoom squares
where these questions grew
through a thicket of oblivion and blind spots
A touch screen shattering silence.
Kind of like the one
from the bird club guy,
a seventy-five or eighty-year-old white man
who advised behind a half smile
that I “get over” racism
because he resolved the Holocaust
by practicing Tai Chi.
Six million plus exterminated —
but martial arts in a park made it all better
My constant reminding,
that things weren’t so good for too many,
birds and Black folks alike, was too much
(with the same shitty smile)
“Get it together and you’ll feel better”
was his advice.
“Be more positive! It’s not all that bad.”
I did not wave back
I looked into his square —
Wondered if George Floyd ever thought
in his last moments
that downward facing dog would save his life.
I did what that Black man
face full of asphalt
was denied by a knee on his neck,
and breathed deep as I could
with a long slow blink,
to keep anger and tears back –
was what wanted to pour out,
but all I could do in that moment
was think of how this idiot
was the problem with so much.
“Next question, please”
dribbled from between my lips.
The Tai chi birder, the Holocaust happy birder
sat confident in his prescription,
as I struck second-thoughts from my repertoire.
Made speaking first mind,
[ID: J. Drew Lanham, a Black man with a goatee and glasses, smiles widely under the open sky. He is wearing a tan shirt with an open collar and a necklace peeking out underneath.]
J. Drew Lanham
He // Him // His
Drew Lanham, PhD, is a native of Edgefield, South Carolina, and a product of family farm, abundant wildness, and bittersweet legacy of land interdependence by chain and choice. Dr. Lanham is a Certified Wildlife Biologist specializing in cultural and conservation ornithology and an environmental equity activist. His work addresses the confluences of race, place, and nature. He holds an endowed chair as an Alumni Distinguished Professor at Clemson University and was named a Master Teacher in 2012 and a Provost’s Professor in 2018. Drew is the Poet Laureate of Edgefield and the author of many books, including Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts (2021), and The Home Place — Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (2016). His creative work and opinion appears in Orion Magazine, where he is a contributing editor, Vanity Fair, Audubon, The New York Times, and other publications. Drew currently resides in Seneca, South Carolina, a soaring broad-winged hawk’s downhill glide from the foot of the Southern Appalachian escarpment the Cherokee once called the “Blue Wall.” He claims his favorite birds to be “the ones with feathers,” and that “everyone has a bird story — even if it’s the chicken you ate last night or the pigeon that shat on your car this morning.”