- Published: 18 January 2017 18 January 2017
He is, by his own definition an “eco-addict”, a “wildling, born of forests and fields”, and “more comfortable on unpaved back roads and winding woodland paths than in any place where concrete, asphalt, and crowds prevail”. In the words of others he is “wise and beautiful”, “thoughtful and relevant”, “lyrical”. To me, the writing of J. Drew Lanham is where solace lives, serenity in the gentle rocking from one sentence to the next, and comfort that even though the losses to the Southern literary community have been near to unbearable, there is still greatness among us. There still lives the storytellers, the wordsmiths, the inner torture of loving a piece of the map and knowing its demons, of defending a land and a people we still struggle to understand.
Drew Lanham is a Southern writer. His art has been shaped by his geography, by clay. In reading his journey we better understand our own, the conflict and bond of the hunter and the hunted, the love and war of what lives around us and in us, the best and worst thinking of those that came before us. What better gift, what more can we ask of a writer, of an artist? Even in the pain of the past Drew seeks a bond with nature and with his fellow man.
And he knows a Fox Sparrow from a Song Sparrow by only a poorly worded description over the phone.
Shari: Great writers; nature or nurture? Are great writers born or built by teachers, experience, and circumstance?
Drew: It’s mostly an amalgam I think. Writing comes from within but it is both hard-wired and learned too. The hard-wiring is the instinct to turn a word—to love words and putting them together artfully in ways that make stories that people other than you want to read. The learned is the honing that you do by doing and then having others sharpen it by their perspective.
Writing is where you’re from womb-wise but then what soil your feet first touched too. We can travel all over the place and write deeply about it but I think it always comes back to home. Writing is a primal thing that can’t be forced—unless you’re willing to be called a journalist.
Yes, there are people who influence you—people who raised or praised you. People you love and love you and then too, the people that failed and flailed at you. All those comforts and conflicts and coming and going is what makes the story go. Writing is a tensed spring that should slowly uncoil—or sometimes maybe suddenly and violently undo itself onto the screen or page. I’m trying to nurture that tension as best I can. Nature is at the center of each and every story I write.
Shari: I often defend some of my stories by saying that hunters and farmers were the first environmentalists and tree huggers are late to the party. Explain the balance between protecting wildlife while being a hunter?
Drew: I believe that one loves deepest the finite thing. Life is a finite thing. Understanding the limits of it help us love the limited nature of it. Looking at tree rings on a stump that used to be some old tree should take us through the decades like Leopold taught us in “The Good Oak”. But then looking at some big old granddaddy tree clattering bare-boned in a winter wind or seeing warblers coursing through new green spring leaves like feathered lifeblood ought to give us an appreciation for seasonal abundance that will one day die. As a hunter, I am in the woods seeking venison for my body and virtue for my soul. Funny thing is I’m out there as so many things are dying—or at least going dormant –going towards some state of suspended animation. I’m also out there as deer—bucks and does are in the midst of tryst. They are trying to make more of themselves and there I am trying to stop them from doing it—so that I can make more of me. They are trying to procreate and I’m out there in some sort of buckus interruptus trying to intercept hormonal urge and end it so that I can eat. It’s like being a voyeur on life and seeing the limits from the long view. It becomes an immediate and emotional thing when I do kill. I realize in the moment I shoot—then retrieve—and maybe have myself elbow-deep inside the warm body of a formerly living being pulling out its guts that I am closest to life—the end of it for the deer—and the continuation of if for me. That on a personal level gives me a greater appreciation for life. I can tell you that I let way more deer walk than I let into my freezer. I am fully out as an omnivore and so in that claim I need to know that the meat I eat once blinked. That’s a link to life and maybe helps complete some sort of circle for me. As a conservationist, I know that hunters –ethical hunters—have literally paid and paved the way for conservation to go forward in ways that have saved a shit ton of habitat and staved off the extinction of some species. Note that I stress ethical hunting. Hunters on the other side of that word have done a great deal of damage that on occasions have done the opposite of conservation—degradation. I’m proud to be on the good side of issue. A deer or two a year is what I take--usually a buck and a doe in most years. The venison becomes food for friends and family. My time in the stand rejuvenates and centers me. It’s essential.
Shari: Who do you most want to read this book and what do you want them to take from it?
Drew: I want everyone to read it. Everybody should buy it! I think there are elements in it that will appeal to everyone—especially southerners. I used the word “colored” in the title because at some level we are all “colored”. But then too, I want folks to understand how being black—or a person of a darker color—unbalances the conservation conversation. Being a southern black American dispossessed of land can lead to dire consequences. There’s the syndrome of the diaspora where we try hard to reconnect to the mother that raised us. That’s why I said earlier that good writing as far as I define it begins with a home story. Home might be a house—an address. But then that house sits on soil. It doesn’t have to be hundreds of acres or even rural land. But that connection to bedrock—whether under asphalt or some agrarian or wild landscape somewhere—there’s connection we crave. And so I want black folks to read this book and see that what we have in the South is a chance to regain that reconnection. I think our reparations are in part soil-bound. I want us all to be a part of the conversations about how we move forward sustainably with respect for nature and its role in our lives and our role in making sure there’s abundance left for generations to come.
Shari: You’re being compared to both great outdoor writers and the gods of Southern literature. Are you inspired by the comparisons or daunted by them?
Drew: I’m humbled. Truly humbled. I write because it’s the closest thing to art that I can do. When someone reads my words and compares them to anyone else who’s had some sort of deep impact I am inspired too. I am inspired to be different and make a different difference. I’m new at this creative writing thing in many ways and so any traction that I can gain to go forward in ever more evocative ways is what I’m after. I’m grateful for any comparisons to greatness. I want to work really hard to earn the good that comes from such expectations.
Shari: You’re a man of science who practices in the magic of words. How do you see yourself, more as one or the other?
Drew: I’m a hybrid. I cruise the narrow edge between objectivity and advocacy. I like to think of myself as literally crepuscular. Science is seeking. As a conservation scientist that means I’m looking for “data” and descriptive phenomena that lead to a deeper understanding of nature or better and more effective ways of sustaining it. What I do with words is to describe that journey in ways that hopefully draws others to nature in some more appreciative mode. I think conservation has to be advanced by both head and heart—thinking and feeling. That connection then has to be pressed forward to action—our hands. The connection of the three—head to hand to heart—is what my a few of my closest friends and I call, “the sweet spot”. Our words can be a huge part of that sweetness. And so as a “man of science” who’s goal is conservation, I must necessarily be an edge animal living life on the borders of several different realms. Writing is my corridor among them.
Shari: Is Life on Book Tour the way you imagined it?
Drew: The “tour” has been a sort of fragmented thing that’s taken me to lots of cool places meeting lots of different people but it’s been less structured than I thought it would be. It’s been wonderfully validating to have people come up to you and ask for your signature as they tell you how much they like your writing. That’s a heady thing. It’s been a life changer in some ways and I want more. I’m greedy that way. I love people and hearing their stories too. It all makes a great deal of difference to my life to have my work beyond the science that I’ve always done, appreciated. I love traveling but then I need to re-center back home on the regular. I do hope that I’m able to spread the word of “The Home Place” further and wider in the coming months.
Shari: What’s next?
Drew: I really want to stretch the “Home Place” as far as I can. But then there’s the next set of stories I’m already working on. I think that the untold conservation stories are the ones that connect people to nature. I think many of those connections come through culture. I want to write stories that delve deeply into who we are as southerners—of all colors—and how those identities connect us to nature. And so I’m searching for those stories and writing them within my own quests in wild and birdy places. And so I’ve got at least three more books in mind—one of them is a novella that takes pieces of the Home Place and stretches it into the fictional realm. And—I’m still working on my poetry and want that to evolve into something that’s as accepted as my other writings.
What he's reading now: the books on Drew's bedside table:
J. Drew Lanham was born and raised in rural South Carolina. He is an Associate Professor and Certified Wildlife Biologist in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Clemson University. While he is widely published in his scholarly field, The Home Place is his first book for a general audience. He lives in Seneca, SC.
Shari Smith, author of I Am a Town, stories from her adopted hometown of Claremont, North Carolina, and a contributor to The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul also is the producer of the “Shoe Burnin’ Show”, stage production of authors and music.