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Environment: Clemson professor works on cure for Nature Deficit Disorder

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

As an engineering student at Clemson University, Drew Lanham was miserable. He was studying mechanical engineering because he thought his real passion, nature, wouldn’t lead to employment. What was a black zoology major going to be? A zookeeper?

Lanham changed the course of his life when he changed his major to zoology and has set about trying to bring a more diverse audience to conservation in general and birdwatching in particular during his 19 years as a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson. He calls this “coloring the conservation conversation” and he’s not above joking about his own ethnicity. One of his rules for the black birdwatcher is “Don’t bird in a hoodie — ever.”

Lanham’s goal is to expand the definition of a birder. “Color doesn’t limit birds; it simply enhances their lives and our enjoyment in seeing them,” he said. “I think it should be the same with us.”

Lanham taught a birdwatching course, a Palmetto Pro Birders class, at Hobcaw Barony and Huntington Beach State Park last weekend as part of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation curriculum. “He just has an infectious love of nature,” said Sarah Wilson, a teacher at Coastal Montessori Charter School and a member of the class. “He can relay his awe for the natural world.”

Wilson hopes to pass along some of Lanham’s tips about how to identify birds by their songs and flight patterns to her own students. They watch two bird feeders through their classroom windows and make pictures with new cameras they got recently through a Donors Choose grant. “Anything to do with looking out the window or getting kids outside is a perk,” Wilson said.

Lanham said Hobcaw Barony and Huntington Beach State Park, where wetlands abut the edges of forests, are among his favorite places to visit. “Those edges are extraordinarily rich places for life in general and birds as well,” Lanham said. “Where you find wet meeting dry, salt meeting fresh, high meeting low, you find an abundance of life. Hobcaw has all those. You have this perfect sort of confluence of habitat in relatively small and compact spaces to see most of the birds in South Carolina. Then combine that with the culture and history of the place. It’s unbeatable, in my opinion, in terms of the confluence of nature and culture and history coming together. The Lowcountry has that in a way that’s unique not just to South Carolina but unique to the country.”

The vista at Hobcaw’s salt marsh provides an unmatched view, Lanham said. “I’ve always considered myself a mountain guy. I love them. They are beautiful places. But when you get on a salt marsh, you got oysters and shrimp talking to you and wood storks, you can see forever. The sunsets and sunrises are like paintings, just awesome.”

Lanham said he can’t visit Hobcaw without stopping at Huntington Beach. It would be like a seafood platter without the hushpuppies. “They are very similar but with different vibes,” he said. “They are obviously Lowcountry, Pee Dee places, but Hobcaw Barony has a sort of different spice than Huntington Beach has. In order to feel satisfied, I have to set foot on Hobcaw and those 300 years of history and walk in the footsteps of all manner of folks, then being at Huntington Beach, in a place that is unique and known for its abundance of bird life. For me, it’s the total picture. It’s something that a lot of folks, quite frankly, don’t know about. They bypass them on the way to do other things that are obviously important for our state and tourism, but nature is a superlative we have in South Carolina that we do not talk about loudly enough. It’s something I’m proud of and I brag about.”

There’s no denying Lanham’s enthusiasm. Wilson said he was jumping up and down at Huntington Beach after spotting some frigatebirds flying over the waves. They are rarely found north of Georgia, she said.

Class member Jody Davison of Rock Hill said she had never thought about the fact that birds have both calls and songs. “They sound quite different in the same bird,” she said. “He used a chickadee as an example. Its little call is a short staccato chic-chic-chic, while its happy song is a melodic ‘cheese-burger’ sort of tune,” she said. “I was amazed at Drew’s ability to recognize birds by sound so quickly, then to spot them and describe their typical behavior, differences between male and female, adult and juvenile, and nuances between similar species. We saw a phoebe by the marsh, with its typical tail-pumping going on, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons and little blue herons, cormorants and yellowlegs, among others.”

Lanham said he grew up in the country near Edgefield, the son of two teachers, without the distractions some children had. His family’s TV got just three channels. “Birds and other wildlife were entertainment for me,” he said. “It’s kind of in your blood, I think. A lot of people try to experience it virtually these days, but I’ll take fresh salt air and the sun on my skin any day.”

Lanham likes the idea of using nature to teach all subjects. “In a bird’s life or in habitat, I can integrate science, technology and math,” he said, “and the environment stretches across the breadth of those things. We learn best what we know best. It sounds odd, but this is home. That makes it relevant for children, for them to understand. Oftentimes, the bad filters through, and we forget the good we have.” Lanham said Belle Baruch is a heroine. Her story is history that has meaning to students once they visit Hobcaw.

“Any time we can put nature in the curriculum, connect to history, math, technology, art and music it goes from being relevant to being essential,” Lanham said. “It addresses the Nature Deficit Disorder with children. We need to pay attention and know nature is close by, a ready source of inspiration and education, there for the enjoying.”

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