Several years ago I was a part of a panel at the Decatur Book Festival. I, along with another author, were set to speak on the topic of nature writing. The other author was Drew Lanham, a wildlife biologist at Clemson University whose first book, "The Home Place," had just been published. The subtitle of Drew’s book is, Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
I bought Drew’s book and had him sign it for me. Based upon the hour we spent in conversation in front of a room full of people, I suspected I would enjoy "The Home Place." It was only when I got home and read the epigraph: “For all who wander and love the land.” that I knew I would. And I did.
In the years since, I’ve paid attention when I heard or read Drew’s name and a few weeks ago, during one of my prolonged perusals of things on the internet that I have come to call “escape in the time of pandemic,” I came across a video of his keynote speech at the 2017 Audobon National Convention. He spoke, in the speech, about range maps, that is, maps of specific species of birds that indicate where they can be found. The range of a particular bird is always determined, he explained, by where the bird can find clean water, shelter, prey to forage and others of their species.
Even as I read the sentence I found myself racing ahead and asking, Do people have range maps? And, then, as though reading my mind, Drew asked the question, “What sort of habitat requirements are needed for humans?” Which led me to ask myself, What sort of habitat requirements are needed for me?
I have long said that the land is my anchor and the ocean is my tuning fork. Land and ocean share wide skies and a pulse created by the sounds of nature. Land and ocean provide a scale by which I can measure my own smallness. Land and ocean gift me with metaphors that deepen my knowledge of truth.
But there is more to a range map than geography. There is — in addition to water, food and shelter, all of which are geography-specific — the need for “others of my species.” That is, we need the opportunity to be together, to engage in behaviors that enable us to find commonality.
Anthropologists from cultures all over the world are in agreement that humans need ritual more in times of anxiety. What, I wonder, is a ritual but an act done in unison with others? And what is a pandemic but a time of anxiety? What we need most has, by the very nature of the disease, been stolen from us. Four months (to date) of truncated graduations, cancelled weddings and family-only funerals. Four months without the sacrament of communion, which by its very name calls us together. Four months without the common thread of fandom — no Kentucky Derby, no baseball, no Summer Olympics.
As I count the things I’ve missed — Easter lilies on the altar at church, fireworks at Mill Creek on Independence Day, the funeral of a family member and another of a friend of over 40 years — I realize that what I have done in their absence is to create my own rituals — lighting a candle as I sit down to write, keeping a vase of something live on my desk, sharpening pencils to a tender point before approaching the newspaper Sudoku. In doing so, I have recognized and acknowledged my range map.
I cannot live in a place without rhythm and order. I cannot live in a place where there is no distinction between days. I cannot live in a world without the solemn, healing ceremony of ritual.
Baseball is back. School, in one form or another, is starting soon. We are beginning to put things on the calendar again, even if written in pencil. We are moving, slowly and carefully, toward the day that our habitat is, once again, populated with each other.
And when that day comes I intend to approach each hug, each handshake, each wave as the life-giving ritual it is.