Sunset Camp, Sundown Town: An Interview with J. Drew Lanham
By John Lane
I finally love calculus but it’s the kind I derive from understanding how bird ecology, history, racism, and conservation all move together to converge on a single place or issue.
Over the course of this pandemic, I have talked often with my friend, the writer and poet J. Drew Lanham, about his establishment of a “camp” on a small lake in the South Carolina mountains. I have always been interested in Drew’s relationship to local landscapes and I knew as soon as he bought a piece of property overlooking a lake that he had established his own Walden Pond. He even purchased a tiny house on Facebook Marketplace and hauled it up the mountain, an act as symbolic and 21st century as building his own rustic cabin would have been.
What’s so difficult about owning a lot on a mountain lake? Well, to begin with the lake is in the mountains of South Carolina—a very White place—and Drew is very much a Black man who has forged a formidable intellectual and literary identity online and in books by parsing the interesting idea of “range maps.” He thinks often and deeply about where he psychically/physically/psychologically can and cannot go. We are not talking legally here. There are no official “Whites only” subdivisions or bathrooms anymore, even in backcountry South Carolina—but Drew knows there are physical spaces all over the country where he feels safe, and others where he does not.
Drew, or Dr. J. Drew Lanham, as he is known to the wider scientific and literary worlds, teaches at Clemson University, where he completed bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in wildlife biology. He is known nationally and internationally as Clemson University’s Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, master teacher, and a certified wildlife biologist. As a scientist, Drew has worked tirelessly at two goals: understanding how forest management affects wildlife, and how human beings think about nature. The result has been what he calls “coloring the conservation conversation or connecting the conservation dots.”
Anyone who has read The Home Place knows that outside of race, ornithology, and family, space is one of the primary themes. Drew spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between his grandmother Mamatha’s “Ramshackle” and his family’s house everyone called “The Ranch” just across the pasture. He says he never felt settled. To this day he says he struggles to feel at home unless he’s moving a little. In recent years he’s turned that wanderlust into a spirit driven to travel, to experience—but he also likes to keep one foot on the ground.
What follows was conducted in person, by Facebook messenger, email, and by phone from November 2020 through February 2021. Drew’s answers are honest, wide ranging, and challenging. He thinks deeply about place, space, and particularly, the boundaries of identity. I knew he would be able to update the idea of writerly “retreat” in new and exciting ways.
Being so close to a place with a reputation of not wanting “my kind” there beyond sundown, I sometimes question my own sanity.
John Lane: Drew, in the last year you’ve established a beautiful retreat and you claim it’s becoming an outpost for your sanity, especially with this epidemic raging around us.
Drew Lanham: Yes, and it doesn’t feel like South Carolina. Maybe that’s because it barely is. Map-wise, it sits in the northwestern extremes of the Upcountry—a place that’s ecologically, geographically and in some ways, socially, diametrically opposed to the more familiar Lowcountry. It’s catty-corner to the Atlantic and almost as far away as you can get from sand and surf in the state. It’s wedged into a corner that was infamously known as The Dark Corner, where people used to go to lose the law or other pursuers. I doubt many “flatlanders” outside of Oconee and Pickens County have ever heard of it. It’s still some of the wildest country you’ll find in this state. There are folks in the same county that’ve never heard of it. I like that. As we talk, I find myself reluctant at times to say too much about this place because I feel obligated to keep it a well-kept secret. Off-grid kind of implies hush-hush right? Been thinking in a Faulknerian sort of way and wanting to call it something like, “Tamaknapatawpha.” Fiction protects in some ways and exposes in others. I think it’s a fitting way to talk about Sunset Camp.
John Lane: How does it feel to you up here?
Drew Lanham: There’s a faraway feeling. It reminds me more of a feeling you might experience in the Adirondacks rather than a South Carolina sliver of Appalachia. Let’s call it the nearby-faraway because in less than an hour I can come up here on a whim—and not have my usual thinking-too-long-or-too-hard change of mind to do something more sensible.
John Lane: What most often brings you up to Sunset Camp?
Drew Lanham: Sometimes it’s a matter of a random “need” to fill the bird feeders or see if the evening grosbeak invasion has made it to my sunflower seed offerings, or maybe to go and sit on my little dock, or build something that really could wait that pulls me away from something I should be doing, to something I want to be doing. It’s definitely a responsibility killer. The key is that it’s an option that’s become increasingly necessary.
John Lane: Increasingly necessary?
Drew Lanham: I’ve been a highly migratory being over the last decade or so, traveling all over doing readings, bird tours, and lectures and such. With the quarantine shutting travel down, I’ve missed the freedom of flight more than I thought I would. I love home but I think there’s something within that needs to go and see different places. Sunset Camp gives me the important gestalt of a not-so-distant escape. It’s another choice that gives me options to be truly me. It’s a range expansion but it’s close enough to allow me to snap back into gridded reality that being connected demands.
John Lane: Sunset Camp is a remarkable place. Can you explain the area to us ecologically?
Drew Lanham: It is in the midst of a historic place. This part of South Carolina on the Blue Ridge Escarpment is rich with the legacy of the Cherokee people who had towns and villages scattered throughout the region. Their presence and “ownership” of land white settlers wanted means there’s a bloody history of skirmish, war, and displacement up here as well. Stand still long enough in some of these hollers or fields that might’ve been hunting camps or villages or towns and you can feel something you’ll never see. Not sure there’s a huge Black history in itself, but there was enslavement up here. There was prejudice and racism here. Not too far from here there was a freedmens’ town called Little Liberia. This is still one of the whitest regions in the state but there’s a colorful history to be had. Some of it good. More of it bad. I mention people in your questioning of ecology because I think we need to make sure we keep the connections. Some of those from the past up here probably saw forests of American chestnut blooming white on the ridges and maybe flocks of passenger pigeons feeding on the nuts dropped from those same trees in the fall. Carolina parakeets, though considered more a Lowcountry bottomland bird, might’ve found refuge in some mountain coves. There were bison here. Probably eastern cougars here (folks would’ve called them “panthers”—and still do in the occasional claimed sightings). Maybe elk. All gone now. It’s something to think about when you understand how much is under these Corps lakes.
John Lane: You say “Corps lakes.” Who built your little lake?
Drew Lanham: There are no natural lakes in South Carolina. Except for beaver ponds, oxbows and mud puddles, we’re dependent on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Duke Power for our limnological features. There are the thousands upon thousands of retention ponds—you know, those big mud-holes dug behind shopping centers and housing developments, of course, but they are non-navigable and don’t count as wetlands by legal standards. I call this place Little Lake, and Little Lake is neither mud-hole nor Corps hydroelectric creation. It’s bigger than a retention pond but small enough to be a backwater on the nearby big lakes. It’s only about 40 acres. That’s small! It’s private and came into being back in the 1950s. It lies at the confluence of two small creeks that flow straight out of the mountains to the northwest. There’s a modest dam that stills the gathering enough to keep the lake pretty cold. I’m not sure of the depth. I’ve heard 60 feet at the dam but no one really seems to know how deep it is. Both creeks are supposedly trout-worthy and at one time I believe there was a state record brown trout (a stocked fish) that came out of the lake but the creeks are “trout-worthy” too. Not sure there any brookies (the native trout) left in these streams but there is a site not too far from here where they stock rainbows. Talking to a couple of the neighbors I’ve seen out fishing, they say there are lots of stunted bass and tons of “bream” swimming around. I see a ton of turtles in there—mostly yellow-bellied sliders.
John Lane: Am I right that Little Lake is also surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land?
Drew Lanham: Yes, and in the South, that makes it a refuge of sorts that’s somewhat protected. It’s the Sumter National Forest – Andrew Pickens Ranger District, so there’s a heavy load of colonialist sin, privilege, and exploitation tied up in the name that’s probably under scrutiny somewhere as we speak. Besides the undertow of naming, all of this public land supports a pretty high use pressure—but this area here maybe less so than those areas that are better known. There’s been a good bit of environmental activism over logging practices, river protection, and endangered species over the years in some parts of the district. That’s what happens with “multiple use” philosophy where everybody expects everything out of every acre. That’s a setup for failure and abuse. It’s also meant that some things that need to get done—like prescribed fire and some important science-based management—have been delayed or gone undone.
Fortunately, the land immediately around Little Lake has escaped the “Tragedy of the Commons” cycle. Weird saying that while I grab my little slice on a human-created lake, but it feels like it belongs—almost like a glacier sneaked a little further down than it should’ve to make a secret haven. I feel like I belong too. Funny thing is that my Edgefield Home Place was a “hole punched in the middle of the Sumter National Forest,” about three and a half hours south of here in the Long Cane Ranger District. In a way, I guess I’m returning home. Between eco-psychological wants and needs, I’m dealing in some gray areas myself between the black and white of it all.
John Lane: Is this small, Southern mountain lake an unusual ecosystem?
Drew Lanham: Absolutely. There are special things there. Because there’s a history of gold-mining with deep shafts drilled into the mountainsides, there are Raffinesque big-eared bats and Virginia long-eared bats. There are black bears, beavers, and otters (the Cherokee namesake for the valley). There’s an endangered plant called the sun-facing coneflower up here. There are several spectacular waterfalls just a few miles up the trail. I can even see one of them during the bare-boned winter season from my yard. Because my little compound faces west into the setting sun and that coneflower, I named the place “Sunset Camp.”
John Lane: So it’s not only the ornithology of the place that interests you?
Drew Lanham: The botany of the place has become an ongoing obsession in a little over a year since the place was just patch of scrubby saplings and briars up a hill even the realtor wouldn’t (couldn’t) drive up. I’ve got my own dendrology class going with an odd mix of piedmont and montane trees and shrubs. Then there’s the aforementioned wild menagerie of assorted beasties. It’s grown into this tiny compound now, with a tiny house (really a glorified tent), a couple of decks and a screen house. There’s a tiny dock down on the lake. I keep adding bits and pieces but have pretty much filled up what the little bit of stand-able flatland I own. I’m sure I’ll find other ways to “improve” things though. The biggest thing is to do all this without fucking it up. I want to meld into this place without creating a ruckus that’ll tame it down too much.
John Lane: And of course, there are Homo sapiens. Socially, what’s it like up here?
Drew Lanham: So far so good. Everyone has been super friendly. I do know a couple of my neighbors down the road and the folks across the lake and several people on hikes or paddling by have stopped to say hi. I’ve felt very comfortable and at home. I’ll tell you that when I first thought about buying this place, I almost convinced myself not to, given the history of a nearby crossroads that had a reputation as a sundown town. Being so close to a place with a reputation of not wanting “my kind” there beyond sundown, I sometimes question my own sanity. There’ve been no Confederate battle flags planted, crosses burned, or three-letter calling cards spray-painted on my property.
John Lane: Have you met your neighbors?
Drew Lanham: Yep. In this distance-required age, I’ve met them as we’ve waved from afar and had conversations hollered from me at the top of my lot all the way down to someone paddling on the lake or hiking on the road. I did have a couple of socially distanced bourbons with a close neighbor and watched him feed “his” fish. They were humongous, by the way. “Slabs”—panfish the size of frying pans! I even had a close encounter with a monstrous catfish he claims lurks under his dock like some Dark Corner incarnation of the Loch Ness monster.
Meeting people with their canine companions has become commonplace. One of them has a pup named Guinness (whose name I remember because he was the “stoutest pup in the litter”). Another neighbor’s dog came up the hill to greet and sniff. This has given me a really good feeling about my decision.
John Lane: You’ve told me that as a Black man you had some trepidation about buying a place in the South Carolina mountainous back country. What brought that on that trepidation: abstract fear or lived experience?
Drew Lanham: I took it on too strong an advisement from James Dickey’s fiction. Watch too much Deliverance and you’ll develop a Southern Appalachian psychosis. If your name is “Drew,” as mine is, then that paranoia gets ratcheted up a notch or three. If you’re a Black Drew in a Deliverance-rattled world, then you get the drift. I think it speaks to the power of suggestion through the written word. Leverage that through cinematography and it becomes real in a totally different way. When I worked the “back country” for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources back in the mid to late 1980s, I had my head on a constant swivel. The Dark Corner has a long complex history of unpredictability when it comes to strangers. A Black man up here in many places isn’t commonplace. All it takes is one “near miss” with a threesome of pickup-riding men you think aim to do you and your white woman work partner harm, even if that near miss is only in your head, and you’ll spend lots of energy listening for followers. I’ve had a near miss or two in my past and so it set certain things off that Black People are tuned in to. When someone tells you directions that include “a left at the hangin’ tree,” you take Dickey, Louis, Drew, and the trip to Aintry to heart. I carry lots in my head but then much of it is informed by history so I spend lots of time thinking about belonging. That’s a range map thing that sticks with me.
John Lane: Tell us about “sundown towns” and the one that was nearby.
Drew Lanham: Well, the sundown town filters right through the Deliverance reference. When I first came up to the Upstate, people from back home warned me that bad things were going to happen to me up here. But then I got here and felt mostly fine. The people seemed nice enough around Clemson and Seneca, but then after I changed my major to zoology and started to get out a bit into the out reaches, I was warned by local folks to steer clear of a little town up here—the “crossroads” I referred to earlier. They told me that I needed to be out of there by sundown. I’d never heard that before but the warnings were always serious. “Don’t let the sun go down on you there,” they’d say.
I mostly heeded the advice but it got harder and harder to do that as I worked a landscaping job as a struggling undergraduate (closest thing to slave labor I’ve ever done). One day as we were blowing hay mulch on a newly seeded field, I was told to get some more gas from the little town. As I was driving out (and a cup of tobacco spit was spilling on my lap), this local guy runs me down and says, “Wait! Wait! You’re gonna need me to go with you!” I had the money for the gas and knew where the only station in the middle of “town” was but his intent seemed different than direction or dollars. So he jumped in the truck with me and we went together. That was in about 1985 or so. That tells you that the story of sundown towns isn’t dead.
Just recently I had to back out on staying with a former Ph.D. student of mine and her husband, both amazingly progressive people and good friends. I turned down an offer to stay with them on a trip to southern Illinois when I learned they lived near a sundown town. After reading a story in The Atlantic or The New Yorker or some such that told the story of Anna as a non-Southern sundown town (some of the locals still say that Anna means “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”), I politely declined their invitation. That’s right in my whole range-mapping wheelhouse of things that contract my migratory range. Hate will do it every time. Sunset Camp so far has been a safe haven.
John Lane: So, no fears about being up nearby the sundown town?
Drew Lanham: Not now. Not really. Like I said, I’ve met so many amazing neighbors who’ve welcomed me and seem like super nice people. I do pass a house with a big ass Trump flag on the way in that gives me pause though. I will tell you, though, that I looked up the old community covenants from the 1950s and there was apparently a racist provision preventing Black people from living in this community. The new covenant struck that sometime in the 1970s from what I can tell, stating that “Negroes were no longer excluded” or something like that. I found that covenant after I’d plunked down $40K. Once again, it was a moment when I was wondering, okay—how much has changed here? But then too, I’m learning that so many people have turned over up there coming from elsewhere that maybe the new blood is less hateful. That’s what I’m hoping anyway. Maybe I’m a pioneer, breaking new ground, blazing new trails. Or maybe just a man who saw something he liked and said, “Fuck all y’all—I like this place and have as much right to enjoy it as you do. This cash makes me equal whether you like it or not.”
Maybe I’m a pioneer, breaking new ground, blazing new trails. Or maybe just a man who saw something he liked and said, “Fuck all y’all—I like this place and have as much right to enjoy it as you do.”
John Lane: What signs did you look for when you first visited the lake with the real estate agent and saw the lot for the first time?
Drew Lanham: I was on a Confederate flag count. Because people refer to the area as the “Tamaknapatawpha Crossroads,” I needed to see how much hate was intersecting with that crossroads. I’d told myself, though, if you see more than one flag, maybe even one, the deal would be off. I saw none. So there I am. I have prayer flags hanging at my camp. Haven’t seen too many of those but maybe I’ll set the trend.
John Lane: Did you think about how close the words “Sunset” and “Sundown” are to each other? Is your naming a sort of redeeming?
Drew Lanham: Yep. It’s a little bit of my single middle finger salute to fear. I like to think in some ways I’m testing myself but also maybe forging new ground as some sort of pioneer. I’m not sure what if any kind of Black history Tamaknapatawpha has, but I’m gonna make some.
John Lane: You’re also a poet. Were there any poems written at Sunset Camp in your new poetry book Sparrow Envy?
Drew Lanham: Yes, I’ve written a good bit up here—that is, when I can make myself sit still enough on rainy days or there’s no building project or “patrolling” of the little 0.6-acre lot that I’ve deemed necessary. I’ve got a poem in the new book that’s simply called “Sunset Camp.” It’s one of the selections called “Field Marks” that kind of direct the reader towards a certain disposition or mood. Just so happens I was inspired to write it when you and our good friend David Taylor helped me christen the place with good cold beers, a whisky (or two), and some guitar singin’. Of course, I think most of my poems try to do that but up in a place called “Broody Cove,” it seems fitting that I would be inspired to write some verse up there. I’ve written other poems about other places from there, as well. Just seems my mind sometimes clears to better creation up there.
John Lane: Your next prose book is about range maps. Tell us whether this place is now securely within your range?
Drew Lanham: Yes. The next book forthcoming from Farrar Straus & Giroux is Range Maps: Birds, Blackness and Loving Nature Between the Two. It’s all about blurring the lines between culture, conservation, and how I live my Black life in the midst of those things. Sunset Camp is squarely on my range map now as a home place. I become more attracted to it with each visit. In a little over a year I converted it from a postage stamp patch of sweetgum and poplar saplings to a pretty sweet spot. It was therapeutic for me coming off of my heart stent stuff (I had three installed). It give me a place to focus on with goals directed at making it livable. And so I’ve spent hundreds of hours up there building shit, and inventing shit to do. I remember my post-cardiac procedure therapist (after middle-aged men have heart issues they suggest seeing a therapist to help with the reality of fragility—the fatal end that you dodged by stent or some other procedure or surgery having broken your male ego into fragile pieces) asking me about all the scratches on my arm once when I went straight to her office from clearing brush up there. I think she thought I was scarifying or something. But then she said I was glowing. When I told her the deal with Sunset Camp and how good the physical labor made me feel in the context of my heart issues and some home flooding displacement stuff I was dealing with, she “prescribed” my continuance. So yeah, it sits in my range as a place that I’ve invested time, effort, and energy in. When a bird settles into a place that it deems a portion of its territory, it sinks investment in that isn’t just about survival, but thriving. This place is helping me thrive, even during this fucked-up, plague-filled time.
John Lane: Both your parents were teachers, but I get the feeling the summers weren’t laid-back vacations at places like Sunset Camp because of the family farm they also owned and worked. When you were growing up did your family go on vacations much?
Drew Lanham: I remember one vacation that was supposed to be a weekend up in the Great Smoky Mountains. I vividly remember us getting to this hotel and my father spending a lot of time inside while we waited on him to come out so we could all offload for the night. I also remember the vacancy sign suddenly changing to “no vacancy.” We left without my dad saying much. He found a spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway and tried to sleep in the trunk of our car. That didn’t work so the next morning we headed home. We didn’t even stop to eat on the way home from Tennessee or North Carolina back to Edgefield. He kept promising my mother he’d stop but he never did. In hindsight I think he was angry at the situation—whether racism or whatever that had created the issue the night before. Anyway, we drove almost six hours back home and Mama cooked dinner. I don’t remember another vacation after that. I was probably seven or eight then. I have a picture of me on that trip. My one childhood family vacay photo. In my own family I tried to change that. We spend a week or two at the coast and it’s an essential survival tool for us.
John Lane: I know you applied some surprise impressive prize money to secure this project. Do you ever think about “privilege” when you are up here and how might this experience be different for a successful Black man? Do you think of it as an escape or a hunkering down?
Drew Lanham: Yep, some of the finest conservation prize money I’ll ever receive went into making this place happen. I’m truly grateful for it, but I didn’t want to have that kind of cash flow all end up being responsibly meted out. I did a lot of “necessary” things at home (new roof, new basement from an epic flood, new garage doors, etc.), took the family on an extended two- week Edisto Island Beach vacation and back for Christmas. So I think I did right by home. But like you, John, I wanted to be able to touch the writing I’d done. I wanted tangible evidence that wasn’t just a bill that got paid.
That I have a secure academic post and a successful writing career are borne of my hard work. I have to keep telling myself that none of it was given to me. There’s always a bit of imposter syndrome lurking so I have to fight that off. Even when I got the award my thinking was, “Why me?” We’ve talked extensively about how to “invest” in ourselves and our craft. Our conversation about your Tower and other writers’ shacks helped convince me that I deserved to have this place. My privilege is mostly tied up in disposable time. I have an endowed chair at Clemson and am pretty well-established there so mostly people leave me alone. I do make a good salary, but I earn that. I also know that any privilege that I think I have like you or any other white man can be erased in a single police stop or some redneck coming over the hill who doesn’t like my skin or that I have something he might want. So my privileges? Ephemeral as a spring puddle—so like a tadpole I’m trying to grow legs and lose my tail before the world goes dry.
John Lane: Yes, putting prize money to good use is a noble tradition. You know I have a plaque over the door of my cabin that says, “Brought to you in part by funding from the National Geographic Society,” because of two articles I wrote for them.
Drew Lanham: Yes, I love that. I also think about this money and land as a kind of hybrid reward and partial reparation. The lake itself is 40 acres and there ain’t no mules, but goddammit, it’s a start.
John Lane: On a more serious note, this has been a terrible year. Since George Floyd’s death has your relationship to this place changed?
Drew Lanham: It’s more of a refuge now than it’s ever been. Odd as it may seem, I have to drive up through a homogenized demographic to find peace within. In a way it’s become a sort of private protest. I no longer want to be ruled by fear. Even if there were people up there who didn’t want me there, I’ve decided it’s where I want to be. That’s a change for me in this whole range mapping life. I used to think about: “Funny, my older brother Jock, once lived in a place called ‘Sunset,’ just 20 minutes up the road.” I think about his courage sometimes to be up in a place where he was the only Black man. He loved it there. I love it here. Sunset and Sunset Camp not so far from a (former?) sundown town. Wondering if there’s something in our blood that makes us take these dares? Deciding to break convention, to be somewhere someone might not want you to be, is a form of range-expanding protest.
Living life outside the prescribed lines of expectation is a kind of protest. Henry David Thoreau and I share our living of wild lives just around the corner from convenience but within the confines of current events. He was in a country deep in the midst of legal chattel slavery. I live in a nation that seems at times to be coming apart at the seams because we never fully resolved those issues “Hank” (hope his ghost doesn’t mind me calling him that) was living with and writing against. There’s that nearby-faraway thing again. Maybe there’s something to be said about finding one’s voice in the wildness, even if it’s close by.
John Lane: I know you are in demand on the Zoom circuits. Do you have enough service up here to participate in remote video?
Drew Lanham: Zoom? Only as fast as I can zoom away! Man this place is mercifully sketch when it comes to connectivity. There’s a corner of the upper deck that will give you a half bar if you face southeast in the morning on a clear day half the year, when the leaves are off the trees in winter. Otherwise, you can sometimes get two bars. When that happens, I purposely move somewhere the coverage drops. I’m “in a hole” up here and Zoom can’t get to me. An old school dial-up modem and Netscape would be faster here so I don’t contaminate this space with that kind of obligation. The hardest work I’ll ever do up here is write, hammer, and saw. Otherwise responsibilities beyond breathing and watching birds I try to leave back down the hill.
John Lane: It took James Baldwin a long time to find a home. He finally settled in a house near Nice. I know one of the tensions in The Home Place, your multi-award-winning memoir from Milkweed, is your back and forth as a child between your home and your grandmother’s home. Has Sunset Camp settled any of that struggle about place?
Drew Lanham: I think about my transitory life more and more and how I never really had a place of my own. I lived half the time growing up with Mamatha, my grandmother, in the Ramshackle and with my parents and siblings at the Ranch. I slept at Mamatha’s house in her bedroom. I slept in her bed until I was probably seven or eight, then moved to a flimsy aluminum cot just across from her in that the tiny bedroom. I was supposed to share a room with my older brother Jock but that sharing was in theory only. I didn’t get time in that room until I was 16 or 17 and then I was off to college. I had a roommate every year I was in college and got married while still in undergrad and have been married since. I bought a little repo storage house that sits in the side yard back in Seneca that I call “The Thicket” and it was truly the first exclusive space I ever had. Ever. It’s kind of Thoreauvian in that it looks wild and woolly but it’s got an electrical and WiFi umbilical cord to the real house so while I’ve got a shit ton of my stuff in there—books, sculptures, papers, carvings—all sorts of bric-a-brac that define me in many ways, it’s accessible and adulterated with work and responsibility in ways Sunset Camp isn’t and hopefully will never be.
Like I told you before, John, it’s distantly close and disconnected.
John Lane: Exactly. So this is your wild place?
Drew Lanham: I think that being here is as essential for me sometimes as wildness. In fact it is wildness. I’m surrounded by national forests: yeah, there are roads and other people but there are also bears and deer that roam through here. There are lots of snakes and rare bats and frogs calling from the lake. I regularly hear a barred owl call during the evenings. There are turtles that seem to think the tiny yard up here is some sort of nesting ground worth climbing up a very steep hill for and I’ve got birds all over the place that act as if I’m mostly just another tree. All kinds of sparrows, warblers, thrushes, finches, vireos… it’s a damn birdy place! I’ve already had a raven bless this place not long after I moved in and I have a feeling one day I’ll hear a ruffed grouse drumming on the slopes behind me. At that point it’ll be official. So yeah, there’s some sweetness to feeling like you have a place you earned and can call “your’n.” I’d like to see Baldwin’s Nice place and soak that in. I’d like to have him at Sunset Camp too. I think we’d have a helluva time!
John Lane: You almost majored in mechanical engineering in college. How does this place bring out your latent engineer?
Drew Lanham: That was a dreadful time in so many ways because my heart was never in engineering. But I did take lots from it—mostly philosophically—that help me daily. I tell folks I understand stresses, strains, and mechanical failure in different ways. I finally love calculus but it’s the kind I derive from understanding how bird ecology, history, racism, and conservation all move together to converge on a single place or issue. But I do like to design and build shit. That’s not so much anything I learned in a classroom at Clemson as I learned from farm “engineering” and design by reckoning (“I reckon that might be two inches,” “I reckon one screw will do”). I’ve been busy as the beavers that used to den on my shoreline here. It started with getting the tiny house up here, which almost killed me. That’s a whole other story but let’s just say that ego, steep slope, impatience, and two tons of tiny house can’t be solved with a come-along. From almost day one I’ve been building steps and decks in various configurations up and down from the crust of my pie-slice shaped parcel along the shore to the tip up at the top. I needed access in accessible places so I made way. It’s damn satisfying to have a design in mind, then maybe with just a boost from YouTube or some video, to come up here with just yourself and a bunch of battery-powered tools, chainsaw, grit muscle, and sweat to build what you’ve dreamed.
Now it’s about getting the “conveniences” in here. I’m wanting to get it all solar run and water off rain catchment. Seems in many ways like I’m replicating my father’s constant tinkering with water pumps and pipes and such. His was out of absolute necessity to keep the Homeplace functioning. I’m lucky in that my tinkering and following Aldo Leopold’s advice of keeping every part (I have so many wood scraps and shit I won’t throw away because I’ll need it someday) isn’t for a family’s survival, it’s for my “thrival.” Funny how that works though. Seems like there’s some kind of tinkering gene runs from Daddy through me (and my brother Jock). He is the genius (my brother) in being exact and building tube amps that can give almost perfect sound or maybe kill you if you touch ’em in the wrong spot. I think that dude has a miter box and slide rule built into his head. But me? I measure once and cut twice—three times if necessary or splice if longer is needed. I build stuff, then have to deconstruct it because I left something out. I curse but after a few “goddammit ma’fuckers,” I’m good to get back at it. Sunset Camp is kind of a regressive lab then I guess. It’s an ode of sorts to my father.
John Lane: Do you enjoy the manual labor that goes into establishing a homestead like this?
Drew Lanham: Jesus yes! I love the manual labor of building, digging. Whatever. I sweat hard up here and feel all the better for it! Best sleep I get is after a day putting in time with tools up here. I love that you call it a “homestead” by the way. Makes me feel like an Alaskan in the Arctic or some guy setting up to live by his wits in outer Montana or somewhere. I’ve always dreamed of something like this, John. Every time I get to spend time here I’m grateful to the universe for what it is and what I get to be more fully by owning it. And to see what comes of it as it possesses me.
John Lane: You mentioned Thoreau earlier. Do you ever think you’ll write a book about Sunset Camp?
Drew Lanham: Yeah. It’s inevitable. I’ve already got several essays started and when we talk and I let some story slip out about my experiences up here, you often tell me: “Write that down Drew! That’ll be one for the Sunset Camp book!” So I think it’s important to get this story down of how this all happened and the incredible impact it’s having on my life. It’s not a story I expect everyone to understand or get, but maybe in years to come, people will talk about how I claimed Emersonian self-reliance and Thoreauvian simplification up here. It’ll just be through a Black prism. Ol’ Henry David’s got me on size though. Walden is about 60 acres. Little Lake is actually smaller by a good bit, but it’s no less impactful on my psyche as a Black man living in a world of all kinds of woe. Maybe this is my Anthropocene fallout shelter and it’ll help folks see how some of us are making it through. Whatever gets out there, I do know that I’m better for having this place and I know some good writing will come out of that—if I can just resist my beaver mind to let things be for a while, the words will pour over the dam.
John Lane: So what’s next up here?
Drew Lanham: Well, I’ve not got much more room to build unless I go up. So I just finished a new, high deck I call “the Crow’s Nest.” It takes me another 30 feet above the main camp and about a hundred feet above L-3—“Little Lake Level.” It feels as though I’m almost eye-level with the ridge across the lake when I’m up there. I can see the sun fall behind the pines stippling the hogback and catch birds soaring there too. It’s good for watching warblers in the spring from a hammock I might hang up there. Beyond the perch at L-1 (Lake Level) I’ll enlarge the tiny dock so I can more comfortably flycast off of it and launch a kayak or slip in for a swim. What then? Well, then, I need to learn how to just sit and be. That’s what I bought it for. Just being.
John Lane is emeritus professor of environmental studies at Wofford College and was founding director of the college’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center. He is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose. His Coyote Settles the South (University of Georgia Press, 2016) was one of four finalists for the John Burroughs Medal and was named by the Burroughs Society one of the year’s “Nature Books of Uncommon Merit.”