J. Drew Lanham Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Renowned ornithologist, wildlife ecology professor, author, and Orion contributing editor J. Drew Lanham is here to tell us about which birds bite, what a loggerhead shrike and harpy eagle have in common, and the meaning of the word zugunruhe.


There’s a spider in the room; what do you do?

I’m wondering what kind it is. Venomous? It’s gotta go. Nonvenomous? We’ll negotiate a lease. If it’s resigned itself to some corner, we might be able to live in an octolegged, bipedal state of quasi harmony.


What is your most treasured comfort meal?

Pot roast and gravy over stone-ground grits.


Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not?

Nope. Too much space here I haven’t experienced. Send me to New Guinea for birds of paradise, instead. I don’t want to be any closer to Musk or Bezos than a Tesla in the parking lot or an Amazon box.


Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic?

Yep. My neighbor’s corgi nipped my ankle. Various songbirds captured during my research would nip my fingers with their beaks. Titmice, cute as they might be, love cuticles. Cardinals, sometimes redder than blood, love taking hold of the meaty pad between your thumb and forefinger. So those are technically bites, even though birds ain’t got no teeth. And occasionally when I’m removing a rat snake from a neighbor’s yard, I’ll get nipped by all those little needle teeth some snakes have. They’ll musk me sometimes too, basically shatting a foul-smelling slimy substance that makes you not want to handle them. It’s an effective antipredatory tactic.


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

Salt marsh—so technically edge of the ocean where it grades into salt marsh and then into forest. I know, I cheated. I claimed an ecotone.


My favorite tree in the world is ____.
The American sycamore.


Nature would be better without ___.
Us fucking it up.


What is something you’re looking forward to?

My next sabbatical and finding free time with no deadlines.

Revisit Drew’s 9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher here.

Do you like scary movies?

Not really, maybe really intense psychological thrillers. Something with more questions at the end than neatly wrapped endings.


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

I’m an empath—or so I’ve been told. Kind of like a quasi superpower that can get kind of heavy. I’m a bird-watcher who doesn’t really like listing birds anymore.


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Aldo Leopold.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

Yep. Quite a few. I do a pretty good barred owl. Also a damn good Swainson’s warbler. I was a child with waaaay too much time on my hands.


What are some of your favorite words?

Indefatigable—that would be the name of my boat. That or zugunruhe (the experience of migratory restlessness). I love words like arboreal, cursorial, fossorial, crepuscular, nocturnal, diurnal . . . all the ecological terms that define the time of an activity or behavior. And hollow (or, holler—the place, not the loudness).


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston. My ancestors who made it through enslavement, Jim Crow, and America in general. The ancestors who were courageous enough to throw themselves overboard into the ocean, rather than be enslaved.


You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

Damn. So many places. So little time. Do I get a total hall pass or just time? I’ll keep this one to myself.


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it?

A high-ABV IPA—not too hoppy though.


Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I’m at my best and brightest from about 4:30 a.m. to noon. So, a morning person.


Are you optimistic about the future?



Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?

Depends on what the heavier pour is. I’ll go with where the drenching is most likely.


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

The fresh rut stank of a whitetail buck in the autumn woods.


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

My grandmother, Mamatha, my father, James Hoover, and my brother, James Jock. And the nameless enslaved Black man (and his recently found scattered family), whom John James Audubon claimed he had re-enslaved after he met them in a Louisiana bayou one night.


Where did you grow up?

Edgefield and Aiken, South Carolina.

Read how bird lives and Black lives intertwine under the long shadow of history.

Are you the same person you were as a child?

Yep. Just more aware of my idiosyncrasies and insecurities. Also many times heavier in body and mind.


What song or album reminds you of high school?

“Just Be Good to Me” by S.O.S. Band. But then I was a band geek too (bassoon and percussion during marching season), so there are all these classical and band tunes stuck in my head. And yes, I did band camp. And yes, I have albums.


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager?

I was at home, mostly wishing I wasn’t me. Remember, I was a band geek living in rural isolation. I fantasized A LOT on Friday nights.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Second home would be on a Lowcountry salt marsh, Montana prairie, or in Alaska somewhere.


Do you step on sidewalk cracks?

Not when I’m thinking about it.


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

A lighter, a multitool (Leatherman), and an aluminum pot. And How to Stay Alive in the Wild or something like that.


What would you like to be most remembered for?

Making a difference in how people feel and think about nature and those different from themselves.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?

Coneflower or trillium.


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

Bird-wise, a loggerhead shrike. Or maybe a harpy eagle. Mammal-wise, a grizzly.

A native of Edgefield, South Carolina, J. Drew Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. He is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist who has published essays and poetry in publications including OrionAudubonFlycatcher, and Wilderness, and in several anthologies, including The Colors of NatureState of the HeartBartram’s Living Legacy, and Carolina Writers at Home. An Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University, he and his family live in the Upstate of South Carolina, a soaring hawk’s downhill glide from the southern Appalachian escarpment that the Cherokee once called the Blue Wall.