The Lay of the Land

Place and land and nature: how we tie these things together is critical to our sense of self-purpose and our fit in the world.

Woods at sunrise
[J. Drew Lanham]

Nothing is more beautiful than the loveliness of the woods before sunrise.
— George Washington Carver

I think about land a lot. In fact, I am possessed by it.

I think about the lay of the land, how it came to be, what natural forces have changed it, what human forces have mangled it, how concrete and asphalt doom it. I think about the promise it holds for the future and what history it preserves from the past. I think about how it rises and runs, lifts and falls. I think about hills and hollows. I think about great rifts and grand canyons. I think about mountains and monadnocks. I think about swamps and sandhills. I think about draws and drains. I think about the rivers running through land, the animals burrowing under it, and the birds flying over it. I think about the sounds that come from the land: the whining of katydids and crickets on steamy summer nights, the incessant serenading of red-eyed vireos on newborn spring days, and the chattering of squirrels hiding acorns on chill-crisped autumn mornings. I think about clapper rails applauding at the edge of a salt marsh stage and the teletyping dictations of pinewoods tree frogs in a rain-soaked longleaf savannah. I think about the solace of winter whispered on a northwest wind and the mournful groaning of the bare-boned trees. I think about the soil underneath it all: its shifting sandiness, rough rockiness, rich loaminess, and sticky clayeyness. I think about the perfume of place: the pleasant mustiness of decaying leaves on a Blue Ridge forest floor, the sulfur stink of a Beaufort mudflat at low tide, the drunken sweetness of an orchard in October.

In South Carolina, the mountains are humble beings. I see their rounded shoulders as a testament to persistence and the inevitability of change.

I think about mountains. I’ve been moved to tears by the stark beauty of snowcapped peaks touching heaven. Those western mountains are young, brash spires — bragging and daring us to confront the impossibility of their being. But in my native South Carolina, the mountains are humble beings. They’re less boastful, worn down by the pressures of time and weather. I see their rounded shoulders as a testament to persistence and the inevitability of change, which wears granite and gneiss and quartz to sand and soil.

A two-lane highway — once an American Indian path — that winds like a blacksnake through an Upstate valley called Oolenoy lets the lazy wonder from afar. The stone-bare faces of Table Rock and Caesar’s Head are enough for those in a hurry. The road leads to places with interesting names — Sunset, Pumpkintown, and Tigerville — quaint in the ways you’d expect. There are things to buy and maybe things to see. But I think too much about what lies beyond these snares. I see the Blue Wall and want to push past comfort. And so I go into the mountains from time to time, invading their dim coves and caverns. I cannot see the pinnacles in these places, cannot worship the horizons they make. Where poplar, basswood, hemlock, and rhododendron filter the light to almost constant dusk, I am consumed, swallowed whole in awe. I settle into places with old names like Jocassee, Keowee, Eastatoe, the Horse Pasture, and Musterground. I think about what used to be there: flocks of green-and-gold Carolina parakeets roosting in the cavernous hollows of monstrous yellow poplars, cool creeks running unimpeded by progress, no lakeshore real estate or exclusive gated communities with names made up to sound wild.

Frog on hand
[Matt Bolick]

In the spring, the newness of things up on the edge of the Blue Ridge still overwhelms. Rebirth and renewal are clichés but speak truth anyway. Come summer I am devoured by remnant forests that from far away look uniformly verdant but from within are every shade of green imaginable. In autumn, death and departing are everywhere as canopies fall to the ground in pieces and birds look further south. Winter’s starkness — a drab gray and brown outlined against the suddenly there sky, like pen and ink on ragmade paper — leads me into melancholy and a sense of being that’s deep rooted. In the belly of a Blue Wall forest, every season howls through the hollows and rolls over the hills with a clarity that cries out for worship. I know that I’m in the depths of a living, breathing thing.

I leave the mountains and find the land at the foot of the Blue Wall. I think about the piedmont as I roller-coaster up and down through it. Rolling, undulating, ridge and valley, hill and slope. Things are in pieces here, fragments of what used to be. A bit of forest, a bit of field, a wetland rarely — all surrounded by a sea of cement. Acres and acres of asphalt. Even where I find forest, the trees are often planted like row crops. Elsewhere the loblolly pines have crept like weeds over the landscape. Invaders planted out of desperation and gone wild, they held some of the soil on the old fields so that it didn’t all wash away to the sea. In most places, the thin crust of topsoil that remains struggles to hide the gummy clay underneath. When the infrequent rains do come, the Midlands weep erosively.

Every season howls through the hollows and rolls over the hills with a clarity that cries out for worship.

I think about the oak and hickory that used to be here. I think about the squirrels and blue jays that spread the seeds of the forest and the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys that are thankful for an acorn bounty. In spring I think about the vireos and warblers, and the gobblers that give me the slip on April mornings. In fall I imagine big bucks rubbing cedars on the dim edge of dawn and hermit thrushes settling into the same thicket at eventide. There are Edens to be found in piedmont paradises lost.

As things roll up and down, they will eventually flatten. Ancient dunes, sand, and pine and scrub oak creep in. On the sandhills and in the flatwoods below them, I think about gopher tortoises, which patiently share their burrows with other species, while Bachman’s sparrows sing sweetly in the colonnades of old-growth longleaf. Maybe some of those big trees are rendering sap like candles. Or perhaps they are pockmarked with perfect holes holding the next generation of red-cockaded woodpeckers.

The once expansive swath of longleaf and wire grass woodland is mostly gone — cut down, covered over, and converted. Neither gopher tortoises nor Bachman’s sparrows nor red-cockaded woodpeckers find safe haven in concrete and condominiums. I think about the tragedy in all that loss, and wonder how much of it we’ll be able to salvage.

J. Drew Lanham
[J. Drew Lanham]

I think about the land as I speed by it on busy interstates. Driving at hyperspeed on a four-lane highway to someplace better leaves very little time for looking beyond a blurry wall of trees. Headed downhill from Upcountry to Low the land falls away from the road at the mercy of water: creek, river, swamp, marsh, and ultimately ocean. Here and there I glimpse the trees that tell me where the water stands. Cypress, sycamore, and willow like the wet places. Sand slowly gives way to silt. Things bottom out the further south I go and in the lowest places the water will sit if not drained or diverted or dammed.

The very highway I fly on to get somewhere unimportant really fast is often the dike itself, separating one part of the world from the other. It is also murderer’s row for many four-legged creatures. But in spite of the engineering, the water flows sluggishly. And even when it appears to stagnate, it cooks a wondrous stew of living things. Whirligig beetles dance on the tea-stained surface. Nervous mosquito fish dart away from shadows where bowfin lurk. As I drive by, the gaps in the green wall reveal feathered statues: egrets and herons, maybe a wood stork or two. I imagine alligators cruising in the depths and snapping turtles lying in wait.

Not Mother Africa, but our country here. Backwoods, dirt road, deeply dark, pinpricked with stars at night: who-gives-a-damn-if-you-piss-in-your-own-backyard, hair-raising-hoot-owl country.

Remembering, dreaming, contemplating, even commiserating — land is always somehow on my mind. I think this is because I’m missing the land from which I came; the pastures, fields, woods, creeks, and bottoms of my Home Place. My obsession is born of the land in Edgefield that nurtured me — land in the middle of nowhere that meant everything to me. It is born of growing up on garden-raised vegetables, pasture-fed beef, and the sweet fruits of our own orchards. It is born of some of the best years of my life.

It is born of my ancestors’ sweat equity. These ancestors toiled on the land as enslaved Africans, eventually owned some of it, and then gave away many of its riches for pennies on the dollar. It is born of my frustration with fragmented farms and the families whose lives would be more whole if their land was, too.

But then again, maybe I think too much about black folks denying their kinship to country — not Mother Africa, but our country here. Backwoods, dirt road, deeply dark, pinpricked with stars at night: who-gives-a-damn-if-you-piss-in-your-own-backyard, hair-raising-hoot-owl country.

I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way that I do about land. For so many of us, the scars are still too fresh. Fields of cotton stretching to the horizon — land worked, sweated, and suffered over for the profit of others — probably don’t engender warm feelings among most black people. But the land, in spite of its history, still holds hope for making good on the promises we thought it could, especially if we can reconnect to it. The reparations lie not in what someone will give us, but in what we already own. The land can grow crops for us as well as it does for others. It can yield loblolly pine and white oak for us as it has for others. And it can nurture wildlife and the spirit for us, just like it has for others.

[J. Drew Lanham]

Place and land and nature: how we tie these things together is critical to our sense of self-purpose and our fit in the world. They are the trinity. This is true for people everywhere, but nowhere is it truer than in the South.

Follow the ribbon of Interstate 95 in South Carolina that stretches from the southernmost tip of the state and parallels the coast to the North Carolina line. Beyond the beauty of moss-draped bald cypress wetlands and deep, dark pine forests, below the slow-beating wings of angel-white egrets and an invisible god, thousands of people can’t afford a square foot of the soil that their ancestors paid for with their lives. These people sit tantalizingly close to wealth many of their kindred owned before it was taken away or lost. St. Helena Island, near Hilton Head, stands largely alone as an exception, with much of the land still in black hands and the African culture of its Gullah residents nationally treasured.

For too many, though, third world poverty is the shameful inheritance shared along this corridor. Barely potable water, substandard health care and schools, and land languishing in mismanagement define everyday life here. The government subsidies that pay people to grow trees, protect wetlands, or manage wildlife bypass most of the black landowners. As wealth whizzes by in a luxury sedan at ninety miles an hour, many see any hope speeding by, too.

I’ve been all over the world, now, but my wanderlust seems to always find its way home to piedmont clay, loblolly pine, and prairie warblers. And though I can’t be at the Home Place, I’ve been lucky. I have land, and I think about it. I think about quail calling in the pines that I’ve just thinned. I think about hunting lovesick turkeys in the alley between the cutover and the creek bottom. I think about the comfort of eating food that comes by my own hand and hard work. I imagine the forty acres and the swayback mules so many were promised but never got.

And so I think about land. But more and more I also think about how other black and brown folks think about land. I wonder how our lives would change for the better if the ties to place weren’t broken by bad memories, misinformation, and ignorance. I think about schoolchildren playing in safe, clean, green spaces, where the water and air flow clear and the birdsong sounds sweet. More and more I think of land not just in remote, desolate wilderness but in inner-city parks and suburban backyards and community gardens. I think of land and all it brings in my life. I think of land and hope that others are thinking about it, too.

Editors' Note

This essay is excerpted from The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which is being published this month by Milkweed Editions. It appears here with permission of the publisher and author.

J. Drew Lanham, “The Lay of the Land,” Places Journal, September 2016. Accessed 23 Oct 2016. <>

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