Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Life in Hand," a new poem by J. Drew Lanham!

A Sand County Almanac has been one of my most treasured books since I first read it in 1975. And when I first met my friend J. Drew Lanham, author, poet, and wildlife biologist at Clemson University, where he holds an endowed chair as an “Alumni Distinguished Professor,” I knew he was a kindred spirit because he loves Aldo Leopold, too.  

When Drew's  beautiful book of poetry, Sparrow Envy, was published in 2016, Drew read four of them for my podcast. I had a splendid year that year, what with my Cubbies winning the World Series and me getting to go to Peru, Cuba, and Uganda, but Drew’s sharing his wonderful poems with my listeners sticks out as a major highlight of the whole year. I keep my most lyrical books about nature on one shelf, alphabetized by author. I love that my copies of his two books, The Home Place and Sparrow Envy, sit side by side with Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.  

Last week, Drew wrote a new poem that he shared with his friends on Facebook. It touched something deep in my soul, as a former wildlife rehabber who has held a great many tiny critters in my own hands over the years. I talked to Drew about what made him write the poem.  

We have a cat. I call him a 110 percent indoor cat because he’s never been outside. The closest he gets to outside is the screen porch. Really, he’s still a kitten. His name is Tres, which is French for three. His full name is Ezekiel Lanham. He’s the third Zeke cat that we’ve had. He’s a very social little kitty that we rescued from a shelter a while back. He’s about ten months old now. In the morning I go out to have my coffee on the screen porch and Tres, he’s winding around my legs and feet in the morning, ready to go out, cause that’s his outdoor world, that screen porch. He can see all kinds of stuff and I imagine smell stuff and I always look at him wandering around when the ferns are up because it looks like he’s in a little jungle. He sees things that he could never get to.  

Well on this particular morning, I looked out as he went out and immediately, I saw this frog jump. And he leapt after it. I distracted him and was able to corral him and get him in before he touched this little gray tree frog that by then had gone into this position of sort of flattening itself against the floor of the porch. I hear gray tree frogs trilling around the house, around the water features especially. I can never see them because they’re so well camouflaged. So I picked this little frog up, and it didn’t struggle. It just sort of sat there. And I was thinking as I took it back outside to release it just how fragile life is, especially at this time when we’ve had to deal with so much news of death and people not being able to breathe and loss of life that it just hit me in that moment that there was this responsibility in my hand. I suppose I had saved a life somehow—that this frog was going to be able to continue to breathe. That it wasn’t going to have to struggle for breath. And so, in that moment of releasing it back into these ferns and this place where hopefully it can trill and get lost again in plain sight, I thought about “Life in Hand.”  
It came at the intersection of that moment on that back porch. It probably took me 15 minutes to think about it and to write it. It was important for me because I’ve really been in a semi-depressed state for a lot of this quarantine. We’re talking about a hundred and thirty thousand people now that are dead. We’re talking about more that will die. We’re talking about people dying at the hands of police and killing one another. So that one life that I was able to extend a hand to was important enough to me to try to get the words down.  

J. Drew Lanham's “Life in Hand” will appear in the third edition of Sparrow Envy, along with 14 other new poems and essays, to be published this fall.