A Letter to Hank
by J. Drew Lanham
Dear Henry David,
May I call you Henry? Or perhaps Hank? Apologies if this is too forward or familiar, but I know you to be one who cuts to the quick, and now is the time for those of us so bent towards truth and love to speak it. “Henry David” seems, in the current falling-apart time we call the “Anthropocene,” a little stiff, and I hope in this note for us to become familiar in a different way. My name is Joseph Drew Lanham. You may call me Drew. I have academic degrees that some might use with my name, but I don’t really take those letters to heart or put much stock in their use except among those who might discount me without them. A “Doctor” sounds like someone who ought to be saving lives, after all, and I’ve saved nothing more than myself so far. Drew is fine. By way of introduction, I am a kindred spirit, a fellow devotee of the wild world and humane good around its edges. How to send this note over the decades, more than a century and a half gone past, you gone along with it, is a dilemma I’ve considered for some time. I do not know of your belief in the supernatural, but the sympathy of our mutual interests spanning all these years convinces me that you are somehow listening. I have a question to ask of you—several questions along the same line—related to our common love of nature, but then too, concerning the movement you started.
“What movement?” you ask? It is a way of thinking and being, about the world we live in and how we treat nature and the nature of us. That’s the “movement.” I think of it as a spring ebbing from deep within and then finding its way by rivulet to creek and progressively seaward. It was not a new philosophy, but one pieced together from other traditions native to this continent long before white people invaded it, and it has deep roots in the Old World as well. Suffice it to say that it transcends the separate and makes the equal paramount. It belonged to the nature noticers coming forth to proclaim the divine in everything living, old as wonder itself. It magnified us in the interactions among all the wild things and the realm of forests, mountains, meadows, ponds and streams. It is at the center of what you and I live for. Putting high priority in nature and our care for it washes down these days to be called environmentalism and conservation. Narrowly these terms refer to the “saving” of the earth and its wild beings, as if they were separate from us, though of late concern about the warming atmosphere, which predicts both a globe drowning in polar melt and humanity melting on islands of despair, has us struggling to find our way to a greater good again. I call it the “Age of Woe” and too, the “Age of Whoa!” Both fit, as far as I’m concerned. But now to my questions, Cousin. For all the worry and angst-driven hand-wringing, there seems to be little room given to thinking on prejudice and improving the non-white human condition. That so much is so white, concerns me. That so much has been built up to exclude and keep exclusive, is on my mind too. That too many cannot see the connections between humanity’s wholeness and wild things prospering, means the mind and heart are walled off so that “others” are left out.
So dear Henry (or Hank, if I may?), I’m wondering, where has the courage of the nature-noticer gone? Why has the eye of the wild watcher closed shut to truth and justice? In the years since your convergent caring words for our being were written, much seems to have been edited out. It is as if half your story is told (except by those scholars who desire to move the whole forward). To most, who’d tie your life to some one thing, you are only Walden Pond and wandering in the wild. But dear Henry (or Hank?), we know you were much more than that alliteration would tell, don’t we? Some of us do know your water runs wider and deeper than the Great Pond.
I’m one of the tens of millions, a constellation of souls, who’ve read and been inspired by your words of solitude at your pond and wonder of nature in and around it, for which you’re best known. The quotes from that time you spent at Walden flow freely upward like the spring feeding those wet acres you wandered—“Tonic of wildness . . .”; “Living simply . . .”; “. . . heaven under our feet . . .”; “. . . infinite expectation of the dawn . . .”; “to live the life . . . imagined”; and on and on—these spell your legacy as the deep taproot of the conservation and environmental movement sprouted up and through a half century, a whole one hundred and fifty plus years hence. That your words have carried this weight for so many, and that so many organizations would claim your kinship, is testament to the power of your thinking. And so, I am only one in those numerous legions clinging to your faith in what nature might deliver to us—through us. I am grateful to be in that number.
But then, dear Cousin Henry David, as is so often the case, a certain number of liberties have been taken with your words and the worth of your whole being. This is where I believe the way narrows for your following and the numbers dwindle. You see, Henry David, when you left this realm much too soon, the nation was only beginning to reckon the great many injustices laid upon Black backs. The resulting upheaval that this nation suffered, and continues to this day to endure, was a necessary repercussion of the wrongs wrought. I speak of course of enslavement, that peculiar and perverse institution that the United States was built upon and still, all these many years past your protests and the South’s surrender, roils in the sins of—still benefiting from the toil and toll taken. You spoke most eloquently and forcefully towards not just the abolition of it, but also the seeking of equality beyond its destruction. That, Dear Cousin, is where the road narrows even further to two-track and the way between us grows tighter still. For in all the quotes that others will parrot from you, most seem to have forgotten your heart afire for not just the thrush’s song, but also the black bird’s unencumbered flight. You said once that “A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” Well, as you remember, during your time (“ante-bellum” would be the historic period to which I refer), there was much political wrangling over whether the manifest destiny-ing nation would extend slave-holding beyond the existing sinful boundaries or whether new territories would remain “free,”—whether a liberated or free-born Black person could be (re-)enslaved by law in these places, or would be left free as the birds overhead. Mind you that even as freedom or chains were being debated for Black people, Native peoples were being murdered and their home grounds “discovered” and taken. There was a pincer movement afoot to whiten this nation, as Black and Indigenous bore the sanctioned ill will to be bondaged, second-classed, dehumanized, dispossessed, and killed.
I believe that what you penned in “Civil Disobedience” is as critically important as any words you wrote, prose or verse, about nature love and wild adoration. In fact, I believe your opinions on these two things to be intertwined and braided streams flowing towards the same deep sea. “Civil Disobedience” is a masterful digging into what needs uncovering. As you said, “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.” That singular plurality is the power of personal advocacy, Henry. It held you to the high standard of your own righteous conscience; it convinced you (and us) that even a single individual can and should take on the law of the land when it is corrupt. We can catalog through history: a mighty uncivil war fought entirely on the basis of what value Black Bondage held in holding a nation together; a brief period of promising reconstructive progress followed by nearly another century of segregated subjugation underneath the wings of an evil corvid called “Jim Crow”; then some relief by civil unrest and peaceful protest; to these new millennial days of back-and-forth oscillation over identity and respect (or disrespect) for it, with those entrusted to serve and protect murdering, and ultimately with those keeping the legal books at the highest levels doing little. This has all occurred in those years since your writing, your speaking and protesting, and in spite of the sparks from so much grinding between the ideals of democracy and the realities of it in this country, the nature-loving souls who would claim moral high ground in protecting and preserving do so with only birds and beasts in mind. They claim care for life and conserving but have leveraged caring for wildness over humanity’s well-being. And then, that caring for nature is often biased to their own backyard concerns or the faraway places they have most capacity to visit. Inclusion has not been the hallmark of this movement.
It seems to me that Black lives mattered to you as much as white ones or wild ones AND you were willing to say so. Am I wrong in that?
The questions: I would ask you then, where is the environmentalist’s contempt for racism that you boldly modeled? Where is the courage to speak for beauty in autumnal kaleidoscopic tint while at the same time speaking forcefully for the equal rights regardless of human epidermal tint? What is the stick jammed in the one-way wheel of conservation that would have us believe that wild and white are the paradigms we must continue to practice? A few privileged and powerful white men have had all the say in what we revere as wildness. Yes, they have done some good, but then all the stories of how we come to this point need to be told. This movement to claim and protect as “wilderness” what Indigenous Nations already stewarded and protected is deceit. Stealing to possess and protect is larceny. Lying by broken treaty to appropriate by bayonet and canon what was not yours is armed robbery. Taking farm and field and the places once avoided as wasteland from Black hands, to turn those pilfered places by overburden of racist bias into wildlife refuges, parks, and communities only the wealthy can afford to visit or live in, is gentrification. And meanwhile, those locked out have not been asked what it is they desire. What is the piety in environmentalism that keeps it so high and mightily away from the necessary work? Why can we not understand, Cousin Henry, that to live by your edict to “live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth” is a commandment of confluence rather than one of exclusion? Because of these failures, though I may claim “same air, same water, same soil, same earth, same fate” for us all, I must condition “same” to times yet to come.
As the air of Brown, Black, and the poor are too many days unbreathable; as the waters of too many Black, Brown, and poor are tainted to unpotable; as the soil of those same darker hued or impoverished people is poisoned to sterile or stolen away by broken promises and unfair policies of tax lien and loan denied, we are all one day to be victims. The broken levee that spills over first onto the unfortunate of color will eventually inundate the privileged as well. And then, when a movement that is so shoddily constructed of just a few pieces rightly breaks (from internal strife and the Earth’s own warming, extincting, fragmented habitats’ wearying retribution), we will all suffer in the rising tide we saw coming but turned our eyes away from in denial—or that we did not see at all, so intently were we looking at the warbler in our binoculars. We’ll have a full list of birds, coal mine canaries included, that tried to tell us before they were gone forever, to be wary of singular hateful and profitable intents.
By the way, I call you “cousin,” Henry David, across our dissonance in space, time, race, place and any such affiliation, in earnest attempt to communicate my affection and adoration, a perceived spiritual proximity. I don’t believe this closeness has any name or label or religion. I do think it transcends any name we might give it. Perhaps I would better call you “brother,” but we’ve seen Cain slay Abel and fraternal relations degrade from there. I believe there to be in cousinage some better chance. Given the intertwining of humanity’s collective double-helixed miscegenation, the idea that we are distant cousins seems not so far-fetched to me! Our kinship is the spring that will become a raging river. The current that arises from spring trickle to become raging torrent is our convergent urgency. These truths are braided rivers twisting between us. Me here now. You there then. Urgency, immediacy, and purpose dwell in the current.
These demands are urgent as the perseverance of the salmon—hump-backed, hook-jawed, and snaggle-toothed—as it rushes in reverse of the water’s wanting, pulled to natal pebbles and slacking pools, to loose egg and milt in fatal spurts of a future it will never see. That is faith we would do well to emulate.
They are urgent as the flight of the feather-weighted warbler at moonlit midnight, guided by stars and instinct. Passing over abysmal gulf and land expanses, that might or might not be, to land in a random tree. What tells it where to come down? That is a hope we would do well to seek.
It is urgent as the call of the frogs in our respective waters, singing and calling to make more of themselves. That is a purpose of replication that is undeniable.
There is something urgently out there, Henry David, that brings life and force together. Much we can see; some we can explain by science. But then volumes are unknown to us. Cause and effect become guesses more than not. The mysteries between known and unknown feed our fascination.
The wonder that makes every life precious is what fuels the best in our humanity, too.
It is urgent that Black people not be shot down for being Black by those tasked to serve and protect.
It is urgent that every hue be seen and respected as a gift and not discounted to some misconstrued color blindness or “content of their character” assimilationist supremacy propaganda.
It is urgent that we want better for everyone, because downstream of the Truth will be all our eventual conditions. Our collective ecologies will demand we find some unity and break down the silos in which we’ve become ensconced. Clean Air. Clean water. Nourishing soil. Whole foods. Green space. These are as much civil rights as any other thing.
Cousin, remember when you asked, “Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality—that it never secures any moral right but considers merely what is expedient”? And you remarked, “The fate of the country does not depend on who you vote for at the polls . . . it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” Do you recall that?
To me that passage assigns a moral imperative to not just the masses marching peacefully in the street, but to each one of us waking in the morning and seeing ourselves in the mirror. Each dawn we rise is the chance to make the world better than when we laid down the night before. That we must do by birds and trees. That we must do by human being.
Yes, I believe as you do, that social movement begins in the mirror. Insomuch as we recognize that something is wrong in the way of policy or practice—here related to human-to-human interaction and/or human-to-nature relationships—there needs first to be introspection, recognition, and self-activation that collects personal ethic and motivation. This convergent way of thinking is where the trail becomes narrow enough for only a few at a time. I happily join you, Henry David, as an unquieted malcontent on that path. It is “The Ecology” of us all, that another kindred spirit and cousin named Marvin sings of. Like your writings, his verse (set to music) has been persistently true. The word now (not sure it was then) is “activism”: to act with intent of change. I don’t think that working to make our environment better can happen without activism. I know that achieving equality for all people can’t. Don’t you agree?
I sit in a different seat than you, Cousin. Though many call to pipe down and let history lie down and die, so many years having passed, I cannot. My life is still suspect to some, marginal to others, and worthless to too many. Black is still black, and in this nation it merits not much more consideration or care than it did when you walked the narrow path.
When asked by a friend to explain the trail of my life and my writing, with respect to both the wild and my Blackness, I responded: As far as I see it, my life lies at the intersection of three axes—identity, place, and nature. More specifically: My Blackness. My southern rural-ness. My love affair with wild birds and their environs. My job is to have people see those three things as valuable and viable. It’s a complex and messy but necessary task to bring the three into a light that doesn’t get swallowed up by convenient cleaner narrative—to not get whitewashed out or colored over. I do that by writing to it as beautifully and as forcefully as I can.
I wonder if those who call themselves environmentalists and conservationists would dare lift the veils and go forward for human rights as well as environmental ones. I can’t see the separation between clean water and a knee on my neck, between the open polling place and the green space for the thrush to land and sing. They all seem connected to me. But then binoculars can become blinders when we choose to make them so. It is then that we fail to see the bigger picture and let the world around us go where it will. For wildness, this is the way. For humanity we must grab hold of the reins. I am for all the wild that remains but I cannot ignore the wider view, the need to consider what we do to each other, as I know you could not. But now, my friend and ethereal cousin, it seems that all you were beyond loner, nature-noticer, and pond circumnavigator has been largely forgotten. Why? The reasons are myriad. Simple and complex. I think, standing where I do, that it is far easier to reduce the environmental work to only what we wish to see, and not what’s truly before us.
I’m grateful, in my Black American skin, for your words and voice. For your refusal to be singularly focused on “one bird” but to be of a heart and mind to see the whole landscape of concerns and injustices. I am in the way of one wanting to make a different kind of difference, grateful to be kin. You did build your heaven, right? You declared that you would “. . . build [your] lodge on the southern slope of some hill and take there the life the gods send [you].” Well, I’ve built my Sunset Camp on an eastern hill in a Southern place, and in spite of a bitter history against my race I’ve tried to accept the gifts the birds, the beasts, and kind neighbors bring to me, by simply accepting my being. It has often been great remedy. We both have small waters to look out upon and for that privilege in our respective places, I’m grateful. We both have voice too, beyond what others will choose to hear. I’m even more grateful for that larger view. Thank you, Henry David.
Your Cousin in Spirit Across the Ages,
P.S. – Henry David, I referred to you first as “Hank” in one or two instances, reverting to the familiar (perhaps too familiar). For that I apologize. I did this out of a deep affection for you and what you’ve stood for all these years. Even as the corporeal has moldered, your spirit thrives in me, Henry David. Identity is critical and I know that. It shall be. If it need be Henry David from here on, then so be it. I feel confident you will not put aside the bond for betterment. I eagerly await your ethereal reply.
• J. Drew Lanham is Alumni Distinguished and Provost’s Professor of Cultural and Conservation Ornithology at Clemson University and author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed, 2016 / Tantor Audio, 2018) and Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts (Hub City, 2021).