As Dr. Joseph Drew Lanham writes in his beautiful and deeply moving memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, from his earliest days growing up in the piedmont forests and fields of Edgefield, South Carolina, he dreamed of flight. This fascination with the aerial journeys of the blue jays that stole his grandmother’s pecans and the crows that invaded his father’s cornfield sparked Dr. Lanham’s lifelong dedication to studying birds and to exploring what it means to be a “rare bird” himself: a Black man in a field that is overwhelmingly white and an ecologist finding freedom through wildness on land where his ancestors were enslaved. In addition to advancing scientific understanding of wild animals, Dr. Lanham has written extensively about the deep and often overlooked connections between how we treat nature and how we treat our fellow humans. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Lanham about how bird lives and Black lives intertwine in the story of the Carolina Parakeet, the language-defying joy of watching swallow-tailed kites, and why Emily Dickinson was right in declaring that “hope is the thing with feathers.”
Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg has spent decades collecting and studying the calls of birds and whales. In the early 2000s, he began playing along with them, taking his clarinet and saxophone to some of the furthest corners of the planet. The result is a new form of music that invites us to question where art ends and science begins. We speak with David about his unorthodox project, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and what it’s like to accompany the sounds and songs of beings who may vanish from the earth.
In the 1970s, scientists proposed what has become known as the Gaia Hypothesis: the idea that earth is best understood not as a passive substrate or background to life but as a life form in its own right. Our guest, journalist Ferris Jabr, believes the time has come to revive that idea. To understand how sentient creatures have evolved on this planet, he suggests, is not only to grasp that animals—human and otherwise—are offshoots of an evolutionary tree; it’s to see the tree itself as one element of a dynamic, interrelated organism. We speak with Jabr about the art of science reporting, the limits of life, and what the white cliffs of Dover are made of.
“Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us,” Robert Macfarlane once wrote. “Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.” Macfarlane’s writing has done this for us and for millions of readers. It has shifted our climates for the better, deepened our sympathies, expanded our understanding of and attention to our moral and physical landscapes, and reminded us of the stakes of being alive. In this episode, Macfarlane joins us to speak about his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. In the book, Macfarlane explores how we humans shape value across expanses of “deep time” — geological time in which the units of measurement are eons and epochs, not days or years — and asks: Are we being good ancestors? “When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert,” he writes. “New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.”
During his travels in South America at the close of the 18th century, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt came upon a parrot speaking the words of a lost Indian tribe. The encounter inspired our guest, acclaimed author and New York Times Magazine writer Charles Siebert, to imagine the echoes of human language that might persist, in nonhuman voices, once we are gone. We speak with Siebert about his reporting on humans’ wonder for and wounding of animals, the reach of metaphor, and what he discovered in the gaze of a chimpanzee named Roger.
In 2007, Dr. Irene Pepperberg said goodnight to her avian research subject, Alex, an African Grey Parrot. “You be good,” he replied. “I love you.” “I love you, too,” Dr. Pepperberg said, to which Alex asked, “You’ll be in tomorrow?” “Yes, I’ll be in tomorrow.” Alex died the next morning, prompting an international outpouring of grief that included an obituary in the Economist. We speak with Dr. Pepperberg, whose pioneering experiments with Alex revolutionized the field of avian cognition, about how she used communication as a window into his mind.