“Why I Write about Birds”

In the opening chapter of Walden; or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Too bleak a statement? Perhaps, but during the past few years many white people have been learning about the quiet (and increasingly not so quiet) desperation of people of color seeking relief from systemic racism in a country that isn’t paying enough serious attention to their suffering. Have Christian Cooper’s periodic birdwatching visits to Central Park helped him deal with any stress he may feel from being a Black man in America – before and (I hope) after the sad events of May 25, 2020? (See previous post.) Cooper lives not only with the frequent commonplace slights and behaviors aimed at Blacks but also with the steady stream of news about police violence against African Americans, an inner burden that he portrays in story form in the newly published “It’s a Bird” (more information). I would hazard a guess that his walks in the Ramble are a much needed refreshment of mind and body.

I don’t know if they ever met, but if they haven’t, I’m sure Cooper would find much to talk about with fellow Black birder J. Drew Lanham. Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, Lanham is a birder, naturalist, hunter-conservationist, and the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. As part of a speaker series offered by the Walden Woods Project, Mass Audubon, and several other organizations earlier this year, he gave a talk he titled “A Declaration of Natural Interdependence or Why I Write about Birds.”1 In his presentation, Lanham admitted that the time he spends observing birds is “a selfish act and a small personal space that I do not willingly share with other human beings.” But when focusing on birds, he can inhabit a stress-free environment: “I write about birds because birds will not profile or persecute or imprison me.”

But he realizes he can’t isolate himself from the “daily toxic stream of news that passes through my mental binocular view. I must write to the violence of my people being killed in the streets.” Instead of writing about the violence being inflicted upon the Black community, Lanham writes about birds and the threats they face from climate change. Indeed, he makes a direct connection between the seriousness of his purpose in writing about birds (his “ornitherapy”) and the harsh social realities facing African Americans today.

It is within this socio-politically fragmented and climate inflamed Anthropocene landscape over which we are all migrating. And so it can’t be ignored. To write about birds and not write about their struggles would be akin to writing about Black people as if enslavement and Jim Crow and police brutality and mass incarceration didn’t exist.

Being a birder and a writer about birds define the essence of who he is: “My Black life matters most to me and I won’t deny my own soul’s wellbeing to make birds small and just something to be seen without deeper connect and feeling.” He’s not interested in simply increasing his number of bird sightings, an activity which motivates many birders, but in taking the time to observe each bird and appreciate its remarkable physical features and behavior.

Lanham is concerned that the sheer number of critical issues demanding our response today prevent us from seeing how deeply related some of them, like climate change and racism, are.

So then, in the stream of so many causes that would seem disconnected from birds and disconcerting enough to cleave us from nature, I write about birds. I write about birds because I need to somehow discount the “dis.” Connection and concert are what I, what we, need most, especially now.

In his closing words, he said “I believe it is our mission to not just watch but . . .to move our action, as Thoreau did, beyond the watching, not just to revere the lives of the wild things but of our fellow human beings, and to see all of us as . . . sharing the same air, same water, same soil, same earth, and same fate . . .”

PS: Highly recommended: Lanham’s conversation with Krista Tippett on her On Being podcast.

1 The following summary of Lanham’s talk is based on my notes taken when viewing a recorded version of his presentation on Zoom. The recording was still available as of 7/31/2021.

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