Excerpt from THE HOME PLACE: MEMOIRS OF A COLORED MAN’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH NATURE. Used with permission of Milkweed Editions. Copyright 2016 by J. Drew Lanham.
It’s only 9:06 a.m. and I think I might get hanged today.
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The job I volunteered for was to record every bird I could see or hear in a three-minute interval. I am supposed to do that fifty times. Look, listen, and list for three minutes. Get in the car. Drive a half mile. Stop. Get out. Look, listen, and list again. It’s a routine thousands of volunteers have followed during springs and summers all across North America since 1966. The data is critical for ornithologists to understand how breeding birds are faring across the continent.
Up until now the going has been fun and easy, more leisurely than almost any “work” anyone could imagine. But here I am, on stop number thirty-two of the Laurel Falls Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route: a large black man in one of the whitest places in the state, sitting on the side of the road with binoculars pointed toward a house with the Confederate flag proudly displayed. Rumbling trucks passing by, a honking horn or two, and curious double takes are infrequent but still distract me from the task at hand. Maybe there’s some special posthumous award given for dying in the line of duty on a BBS route—perhaps a roadside plaque honoring my bird-censusing skills.
My mind plays horrific scenes of an old black-and-white photograph I’ve seen before—gleeful throngs at a lynching party. Pale faces glow grimly in evil light. A little girl smiles broadly. The pendulant, black-skinned guest of dishonor swings anonymously, grotesquely, lifelessly. I can hear Billie Holiday’s voice. More here