When A Bird Lover Returns Home, His Real Passion Takes Flight

Dec 20, 2019
Originally published on December 20, 2019 6:23 am

Drew Lanham grew up in Edgefield County, S.C., on the farm his grandfather built in the 1920s.

Lanham, now 54, says his father felt a responsibility to stay on the land and care for the animals and crops planted there. "I saw my father, in large, through the land, and I saw the land as my father's heart," he said on a visit to StoryCorps earlier this month.

To Lanham, that family land was intertwined with his fascination for the critters around him.

As a kid, he remembers being engrossed by the wildlife he would encounter on the short walk between his parents' ranch and his grandparents' house. Even though the journey was less than a quarter-mile, he recalled, back then it "seemed like a thousand miles."

"I would stop to investigate whirligig beetles, and Bobwhite quail were usually in some thicket somewhere along the way," he said. "If it was winter, I was breaking ice on puddles that tadpoles had been in in the spring. It might take me a couple of hours to walk that."

Above all, he was captivated by the birds. "From a very early age, I believed that I would be someone who studied birds — who somehow found a way to fly," he said.

Lanham said he lost track of that dream on the road to becoming an engineer.

"Once I left for college, everybody said, 'You're good at math and science. Be an engineer. Make money, Drew.' And for a while, I tried that, but hated every last moment of it," he said.

As a student studying engineering at Clemson University in South Carolina, it was a return trip to the farm helped him circle back to his love of birds.

That's because when he went for a visit, the farm was unrecognizable. Lanham's father had died years before without a will, and disputes between family members meant that the land was eventually divided into parcels.

"I can remember coming back home, all of these wonderful forests that I'd grown up in had been clear cut. And losing that land was like losing my father all over again," he said.

Though much of their home had been devastated, some wildlife remained.

"I remember leaving that day and driving up this dirt road and stopping where the paved road began, and there's this bird called a Prairie Warbler that's singing, this 'Zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee,' " he said.

"It was the most hopeful thing for me."

The bird's song lit a fire under Lanham. After his visit back to the farm, he couldn't see himself returning to work as an engineer, he said.

"I never believed I should be an engineer," he said. "That bird was really sort of my canary in a coalmine. I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' "

At Clemson he got on track to study to become an ornithologist. One of the first birds he researched in the field was the Eastern bluebird.

"The work was often hot and hard and long hours. But there were these moments when I would look up, and there would be flocks of Bobolinks or the songs of Eastern meadowlarks and taking the moment to realize that I was doing what I had always dreamed," he said.

Today, Lanham is still living his dream. He works as a professor at Clemson, where he teaches wildlife ecology.

"I would like to think that my father would see my turn towards the study of nature as carrying a legacy forward," he said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday morning, which is when we hear from our series StoryCorps. And today we have the story of Drew Lanham, who grew up on a farm in South Carolina fascinated by birds. He became an engineer and lost track of his love for birds. Then at StoryCorps, he told his friend John Lane how he found his way back.

DREW LANHAM: My grandfather began to build the farm in the 1920s. And my father saw it as a responsibility to stay on the homeplace. He didn't leave the soil. And I saw the land as my father's heart. My grandmother, she would stand on her front porch and she could holler, literally, from across the pasture, across the holler. That's what I always thought that holler meant (laughter). I didn't know it was a geographical thing.

Going back-and-forth between my grandmother's house and my parent's house, I would stop to investigate whirligig beetles. And bobwhite quail were usually in some thicket somewhere along the way. It might take me a couple of hours to walk that. It seemed like a thousand miles.

JOHN LANE: How far literally was it?

LANHAM: Less than a quarter of a mile.

LANE: (Laughter).

LANHAM: Once I left for college, everybody said, you're good at math and science. Be an engineer. Make money, Drew. So I tried that, but hated every last moment of it. Dad was 52 when he died. There were arguments about what would happen on the land. And I can remember coming back home. All of these wonderful forests that I'd grown up in had been clear cut. And losing that land was like losing my father all over again.

I remember leaving that day and driving up this dirt road. And there's this prairie warbler that's singing - zee (ph), zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee. Zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee, zee. And it was the most hopeful thing for me. I never believed that I should be an engineer. I said, I can't do this anymore, went back to my apartment...

LANE: Dark night of the soul.

LANHAM: (Laughter) I got a big bowl of Fruit Loops and thought about the next steps. I remember first going out to study these eastern bluebirds. And the work was often hot and long hours. But there were these moments when I would look up and there would be flocks of bobolinks or the songs of meadowlarks, and taking the moment to realize that I was doing what I had always dreamed - from a very early age, I believed that I would be someone who studied birds, who somehow found a way to fly. And so I would like to think that my father would see my turn towards the study of nature as carrying a legacy forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT STEVENS' "FOREIGN GHOSTS")

INSKEEP: Drew Lanham is now an ornithologist at Clemson. His interview will be archived to the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.