Experiencing Oxford with Earth Day Keynote Drew Lanham


Students listen as Drew Lanham gives impromptu lecture while birding on safe places for birds and people.

Green Student Intern, biology major and environmental studies minor Emma Counce reflects on Earth Day Keynote Speaker Drew Lanham’s visit to Oxford

By Emma Counce

Dr. Drew Lanham, a professor of songbird ecology, ornithologist, and creative writer, delivered the UM Earth Day Keynote Address on April 24th during Green Week. The Earth Day Keynote Address is presented by the Environmental Studies Minor. His visit to Mississippi was rich, powerful, and educational.

During his Earth Day Keynote presentation, Drew discussed his book “The Home Place.” He talked about how the relationship with this land, especially in the South, is a complicated and often painful thing for many African Americans. He encouraged everyone to set their personal agendas aside, and open their hearts and minds to find common ground and understanding. His talk was raw, real, and very much needed.

Students, staff, and community members from the Oxford area were in attendance to hear his keynote. A few students even travelled from Rust College, a liberal arts HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in Holly Springs, Mississippi to hear and meet Drew. Alisea Williams, assistant professor in the Division of the Humanities at Rust College, brought several students. She felt that Drew gave a “beautifully provocative talk that wove together historical and social consciousness of the natural environment with personal responsibility and interest” and “provided the students a fantastic example of this mental and spiritual work as he integrated poetry and social awareness.” Williams said her students talked about Drew and his talk on the way home, adding “they were most moved by Dr. Lanham’s commitment to speaking for entities silenced by today’s constant chatter.”

I was able to be part of a small group of Ole Miss students who ate lunch with Drew at Ajax Wednesday afternoon. We talked about conservation, research, writing, home, race, place, the South, and the future. He appreciated the good, Southern food and was happy that they cooked the squash “the right way.”

Afterwards, Rachel Anderson, with whom I serve as a Magnolia Grove Audubon Campus Chapter co-leader, and I took a quick trip to Rowan Oak to take a couple pictures with Drew. We shared a sacred and special moment with a summer tanager in the labyrinth garden, and got to see a fierce fence lizard do some impressive push-ups on a log.

Thursday morning a group of staff, students, and a crew from the National Audubon Society went birding in Bailey’s Woods with Drew. Many breathtaking spring migrants passed through after the rain cleared, allowing everyone to appreciate the opportunity to see birds that travel from so far away.

With the recent creation of the Magnolia Grove and the Rust College Campus Audubon Chapters, Drew’s timing and words couldn’t have been better. Mitch Robinson, conservation education manager at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center and mentor for both campus chapters, felt that “Drew truly represented Audubon’s mission for equity, diversity and inclusion in all of our work, particularly with young adults, brilliantly shown in his impassioned keynote address and engaging presence with students throughout the week.” He also said that after having spoken with Drew at length, it was “apparent the sustainability interns, chapter representatives, and environmental studies students equally made their mark on Drew, and he is already planning a return visit to the area.”

Overall, Drew made many special connections with the people of our community, and it was truly a gift to have him come and speak as the Earth Day Keynote speaker. His words and kindness will have a lasting impact on the students, staff, and community members he met, and all those who have read his lovely book.

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