Reflections on the Orion Environmental Writers’ Workshop

By Dennis Liu, Vice President for Education, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

I’ve known Drew Lanham for several years now, and it was an honor and a privilege to listen and learn from him at the 2023 Orion Environmental Writers’ Workshop. I first encountered his essay in Orion Magazine, “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher,” a rueful commentary on the challenges that a Black American nature lover can face. I appreciate his writing, sensibility as a nonurban Black biologist and welcoming humor. I then read his memoir, “The Home Place” and have since recommended it to our Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassadors. It is a beautiful telling of growing up in rural South Carolina, full of nature lust, grandma stories, and challenges of personal and community identity. A recent re-reading still brought some tears. It stands on my shelf next to Naturalist, by E.O. Wilson, among the great coming-of-age nature memoirs.

Dennis Liu takes a selfie with Drew Lanham
Dennis and Drew at Orion Workshop

A Shared Loved of Nature

In fact, Drew tells an Ed story in The Home Place. Craving change from his own lecturing, he writes:

“I took a group of graduate students…to see the preeminent conservation biologist E.O. Wilson speak. I’m not a star chaser but Dr. Wilson, a fellow southerner and naturalist, is a supernova, a once-in-a-generation mind whose ideas shine like the sun in the conservation world. He introduced the ideas of biodiversity and biophilia to the world… His voice, even amplified through a microphone, never rose above the quiet surge of a low-tide surf. Yet he was irresistibly compelling, magnetic. I was entranced. I looked around – everyone else was drawn in, too. There were nods of approval, and more than a few eyes glistened with tears. It was church like I’d never imagined it. There was no damnation or guilt, but simply a heart-felt plea to notice, nurture, and care. After the talk, I approached Dr. Wilson to thank him for sharing his brilliance and to ask for an autograph. I don’t recall much of what he said, but I do recall the deepest, kindest gaze. It was a caring look that made me feel singular in a room full of admirers. In my book he drew a tiny ant alongside his signature.”

Connecting Over Craft

As someone who knew Ed well, I love the way Drew captures his essence. I had reread The Home Place in preparation for attending the Orion Environmental Writers’ Workshop in June. The workshop gathered more than 80 participants to read, write, and discuss nature, the environment and conservation in a summer camp setting over five days. Participants were an amazing, eclectic group of poets, scientists, conservationists and educators with a shared love of nature. By chance, one fellow participant was Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador Liz Dengate, also a prestigious Knowles Fellow and environmental science teacher in Minnesota. One evening, Liz presented her essay about being a third-year teacher, revealing her passion for students, the peccadillos of her fellow teachers and her writing talent. Her reading received a standing ovation.

A theme throughout the days was how to engage and persuade more people to care through the craft of writing. From my strongly science-based and conservation perspective, the conversations concerning what we even mean when we talk about nature, the environment or wildness were compelling. We shared readings and writings from authors including, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and E.O. Wilson, as well as writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Willa Cather, who are not typically included in the nature writing canon. I gained powerful insights into how I might engage diverse people to deepen their biophilia and specifically think about biodiversity in the context of the environment.

Omega dragonfly resting on a plant
Dragonfly in attendance
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