“Whether wings and feathers or hands and fingers”

It’s Earth Day today and I’m thinking about J. Drew Lanham, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, the subject of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. I was happy to see that he received a MacArthur Fellowship genius grant last year for “creating a new model of conservation that combines conservation science with personal, historical, and cultural narratives of nature.” In its appreciation of his work, the MacArthur Foundation pointed to Lanham’s particular focus in his teaching and writing: “Lanham believes that the combination of scientific facts and emotional connections to nature can more effectively encourage conservation action.” As a natural scientist, Lanham conducted research and published in his field, but as an African American who grew up on a family-owned farm with a history of slavery and Jim Crow era oppression, the Foundation noted he “also writes and speaks powerfully on the implicit and overt racism people of color often face when engaging with their natural surroundings.” This aspect of his work is powerfully expressed in his creative non-fiction and poetry.

In one of his creative pieces, Lanham imagines a correspondence between Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr. in which King invites Carson to the Penn Center on St. Helena Island in South Carolina’s Low Country. The invitation comes at a time when both the civil rights and environmental movements were gaining strength and King believes that

we might congenially discuss what I trust will be our shared mission to make this world better for all beings—for every living thing. Our singing birds. Our fight for civil rights. I know that you may have had your fill of all things political. I’m asking not that you commit to marches or more congressional hearings but, rather, to brainstorm with me on how to expand this movement and enlarge the one that I believe you’ve set fire to. Thinking on it, I find it hard to see how one can love the earth but not fellow human beings. And also, it seems incongruous that one could love humanity and exact sins of degradation against nature. I think we’d be closer to getting this act passed with more pressure and some political will, which might happen if we could stretch the concept of civil rights to the very air we breathe—the air we share with your beloved birds.

Describing the Low Country as “the center of so much pain and misery for the Gullah people—those closest in heritage and blood to West Africa,” King concludes his letter by writing

I’ve not visited [St. Helena Island] yet, but I have it on good word that spring is wonderfully not silent* on St. Helena and no alarm clocks are required for awakening, as the birdsong will do the work of rousing us. I believe a bit of a time-out might do us both some good. In bearing witness to freedom as it exhibits itself in wildness, there are lessons, perhaps, to be gained. Whether wings and feathers or hands and fingers, we share the same air, same water, same soil, same earth. We share, regardless of color or condition of skin or plumage, the same fate. I believe a gathering might empower the moment in mighty ways. 

*A playful reference to Carson’s Silent Spring

After imagining Carson’s positive response to King’s gracious invitation, Lanham reflects on the possibility of the two movements’ convergence:

The two movements would’ve seemed disjunct at first glance: Black people demanding equity, justice, and enfranchisement as full citizens in peaceful protest; white people demanding wilderness recognition, clean air, and protection for dwindling species in hearings and op-eds. But looking deeper, both movements, then and now, contain a prevailing desire for a better world built on sustaining good for all. Social justice and the movement to steward and protect nature rise from a similar foundation: a belief in building a better future by being selfless, by sharing and supporting the greater good through sacrifice, by planting the seeds of trees under whose shade you may never sit. These movements share common ground—a clear moral code that (if uncorrupted by ego, profiteering, and power plays) offers a path forward that stretches toward a common cause. King’s “long arc bending toward justice” points to the radical need to sustain moral consciousness at all levels of human integration. This means, by default, care for every living thing: both humans and the environment on which they depend.

I am grateful to Drew Lanham for pointing out that there is a fundamental unity underlying antiracist and environmental concerns in his wonderfully imagined letter. Convergence of the two movements makes so much sense given the similar obstacles presented by systemic and individual resistance to doing justice in both human and natural realms. Perhaps this imagined letter has stimulated some conversations that may have not happened otherwise.

An example where the two movements have come together is the environmental justice movement which has been defined as “a social movement to address the exposure of poor and marginalized communities to harms from hazardous waste, resource extraction, and other land uses from which they do not receive benefits.” [source] Air, land, and water pollution, the targets of the environmental justice movement, are of course part of climate change as the report “Racial Disparities and Climate Change” by Princeton undergrad and grad students makes clear. I think opportunities for progress in addressing racism and climate change can only be enhanced if people currently struggling under different banners join forces. If particular situations call for a combined effort, let’s hope that happens. Just imagine what that conversation between Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr. might have been like, what ideas and strategies for effective change they might have come up with!

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