Read narrowly, “The Home Place” is a consideration of the land in Edgefield, S.C., on which J. Drew Lanham was raised. He observes keenly all the flora, taking note of centuries-old perennials, and the fauna — animals that wandered through as well as the ones that occupied the land with his family. We are introduced to his interesting grandmother. She lived in a separate house on the same property and took Lanham in as a housemate when circumstances suggested it. We also learn about Lanham’s parents and siblings. As we do, we see the landscape and skyscape through the eyes of a trained scientist and born naturalist; we come to understand fully what sources Lanham’s deep regard for the outdoors.
But Lanham’s scope is broader than that. As the narrative unfolds in a series of essays, “The Home Place” achieves the noblest aims of historical documentation. “Home” takes on a larger meaning and so does “place.” Ultimately, Lanham’s collection of essays, many interdependent, some less so, leave us with a rich understanding of how he became who he is — a “colored” man, a father, a scientist, a wanderer. His consideration of Edgefield and South Carolina and the South is filtered through a catalog of natural wonders, especially birds, but even cows. Eventually, he looks into the soil and considers his roots; we learn how deep our histories run, how tangled up they are.
“The Home Place” is also the journey of a writer. There are some caterpillar essays in here, beautiful in their way, but suggesting growth toward something different. Early on, too many nouns are asked to carry unnecessary adjectives, alliteration abounds, endings have extra sentences that subtract more than they add, but this earnest labor is on its way toward some lovely monarchs. Essays like “Digging,” “Thinking” and “Birding While Black” are spectacular. Only the hardhearted won’t be moved by the ultimate piece, “Patchwork Legacy.” Make sure to read the acknowledgments. They’re lovely.
When you’re done with “The Home Place,” it won’t be done with you. Its wonders will linger like everything luminous. You may want to hang out with Lanham so you can ask him how he put all of this together. Perhaps you’ll want to go hunting with him, even if you don’t hunt. You might find yourself hoping for a world where every family has a J. Drew Lanham in it. Someone to say, “We were right here once and this is how we arrived and this is who we were and this is how we lived and this is why we matter.”
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul.
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair With Nature
By: J. Drew Lanham.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 216 pages, $24.
Event: Book launch, 7 p.m. Sept. 29, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.