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.”
Author and sailor David Barrie voyaged around the globe and through scientific literature to learn about the awe-inducing and still mysterious navigational powers of animals. Barrie writes of mysteries such as how birds employ “map and compass” type navigation, how Box jellyfish use some of their twenty-four eyes to keep track of trees and other above-water landmarks, how sweat bees can detect and find their ways home using single photons of light, and how Sahara desert ants measure their turns and count their steps in a process humans call “dead reckoning” — in addition to relying on visual landmarks, patterns of light invisible to the human eye, wind micro-vibrations, scent, optic flow, and the earth’s magnetic field. Animals’ navigational feats reveal an extraordinary awareness of the environment around them — a form of perception that is often far different from our own. In his new book, Supernavigators, Barrie describes the navigational intelligences of other species, which often exceed our wildest imaginations, and issues a call for humans, too often “blinded by vision,” to better respect and celebrate these animals’ abilities in an era when human behavior is increasingly impeding them.