Clemson professor’s article chosen for prestigious ‘Best American Essays’ anthology
CLEMSON — Various sketches, images and models adorn Drew Lanham’s office walls in Clemson University’s Lehotsky Hall. They depict what he calls “Gone Birds”: ivory-billed woodpeckers, passenger pigeons and others.
But they aren’t just decorations. As a writer, birder, hunter, naturalist and Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Lanham spends much of his time pondering the lessons of the birds’ extinction and what they mean for how humans treat the Earth and act toward one another.
So when Lanham was approached by “Orion Magazine,” a leading environmental publication, to write an essay on the centenary of the Carolina parakeet’s extinction, the answer was an easy yes.
“I had no idea how long they wanted or whatever,” Lanham said. “I just knew I wanted to write a piece.”
The writing process came even easier.
“It was close to 6,000 words and it spilled out in about a day,” he said. “Because I had been thinking about Carolina parakeets — they had been on my mind and in my heart for so long and I’d read so much about them — that the words just sort of flew out of me. It was one of those things, after I finished writing, it was almost like I held my breath the whole time.”
The subject that resonated so deeply with Lanham evidently did so with others, as well. His essay “Gone Forever” has been chosen for the prestigious “The Best American Essays 2019” anthology, placing it among the 20 finest essays of the year among all U.S. authors. “The Best American Essays” is an annual anthology of magazine articles published in the United States that was started in 1986.
The essay, which can be read in its entirety here, begins by imagining how the headstone of the last Carolina parakeet, named Incas, which died at Cincinnati Zoo aviary in 1918, might read:
“— INCAS —
Here lies the last Carolina parakeet.
Died February 21, 1918.
His life done and barely known,
doomed to the dark swamp hereafter,
a bird forever gone.”
Lanham said he had long been intrigued by Gone Birds, not only because many of the species were incredibly abundant at one time, but also due to the circumstances of their demise, due largely to the actions of humanity.
“Passenger pigeons darkened the skies at one point in time,” he said. “And I can imagine, just as people do now as we’re out birding and somebody sees a really common bird and they stopped counting it as if it will never cease to be, somebody did that with some of these birds.
“So with Carolina parakeets, in part because it was a bird that was sort of named after where we live, but then that it was this exotic, social, intelligent bird; it’s captivating. So that’s the inspiration really for loving these Gone Birds because it’s a lesson in sin we shouldn’t commit and pushing things to extinction.”
In many ways, Lanham said, it was the Carolina parakeet’s intelligence and social nature, along with the circumstances of the death of the species’ final living member, that led to the essay’s mournful tone.
“I wonder if somewhere in Incas’ memory, there was some sort of memory of other Carolina parakeets,” he said. “It had a mate who preceded in death. But then this bird — and parrots are so social that they often take on the psyche of their partners or people who quote-unquote own them — but that this very lonely bird was in this cage alone, this aviary alone, is sort of a sad end.”
Lanham is an acclaimed speaker and was honored by the National Audubon Society with this year’s Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership for his advocacy to protect birds and build a new generation of conservation leaders.
He also was granted a joint appointment to the Department of English at Clemson earlier this spring.
Lanham’s work focuses on a passion for wildlife, wild places and the personal and societal conflicts that sometimes put conservation and culture at odds. His award-winning book, “The Home Place-Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” exemplifies his mission to define environmental sustainability and conservation in new ways by bridging the gaps between advocacy, education, inspiration and conservation.
As his book title alludes, being a black Southern man — a rarity within his field — is another filter that cannot help but influence Lanham’s perspectives. The essay on the Carolina parakeet, he said, is no different.
“People would shoot Carolina parakeets, and some of it was probably sport at some point … but then their interaction and living on the edge, finding safety in these deep swamp forest where others really didn’t want to go except for people like maroons, these escaped enslaved who would find refuge in swamps because people didn’t want to chase anybody into a swamp,” he said. “There are snakes, there are bugs there. It’s scary, it’s foreboding. But that escaped enslaved and Carolina parakeets would find refuge in the same place, it’s a point of empathy between human condition and wildness.”
For Lanham, that confluence, or interaction, between a bird, the landscape and culture is the sweet spot of his passion and perspective on conservation. It’s what he calls “the holy trinity.”
“We have these conservation conversations about restoration — so rebuilding or rethinking landscapes and what that reset point is, but then those landscapes are absent important characters like Carolina parakeets,” he said. “And how do we move forward absent these Gone Birds? How do we move forward absent Carolina parakeets? Well, we can’t move forward without them. Even as people talk about things like the extinction; we can’t move forward without them, without understanding how we lived with them and drove them to extinction in the first place.”
But with that understanding and by sharing that inspiration, Lanham believes he can continue to inspire a new and diverse generation of conservationists and environmental stewards through his writing and leadership in diversifying birding and conservation.
“If I can talk to young black school kids, rural school kids about why conserving swamp forest is important and I can point to the history that maybe some of their ancestors lived, then suddenly they’re thinking, ‘You know, I have ownership in this, and if I have ownership in it, then maybe I need to protect it,’” he said. “And maybe there’s some kid out there thinking like I thought as a kid about birds and these sort of fantastical ways that makes birds real to them and connects to them in ways that they want to study them. I think when you can find points of empathy between human condition and wildness, then what you began to get again is a different level of caring and maybe you get a different level of caring for people who haven’t been included in the conservation conversation.”