Friday, September 5, 2008

A TREE HUGGER

Leaves have been falling for a week here in Tennessee – mostly bright yellow poplar leaves that litter both porches of my home and remind me that Fall approaches. I’ve always been enamored of trees and often think of the tall cheerful pines of my childhood and also the lordly oaks in Teche country, Louisiana. One of my novels ends with the words, “if trees could talk, the stories they’d tell, but, as Confucius says, ‘silence is a true thing and never betrays.’”

This morning, I look at the poplars and oaks in my front yard and remember a book of mine published in 1984, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN. Among the profiles in that book was one about a real tree hugger, the imminent botanist who lived at Briarwood, Louisiana, Caroline Dormon. During 1983, I spent many weeks in her domain, researching her life and enjoying treks on a 120-acre tract of piney woods called Briarwood in north LA near Saline. “Miss Carrie,” as she was called, was a 20th century Thoreau who lived simply in a small log cabin on this 120-acre tract.

In 1921, Miss Carrie claimed the distinction of being the first woman to be hired by the Louisiana Forestry Service. She deeply loved longleaf pine trees, and in the early 1900’s she lobbied for the preservation of a tract of mature longleaf pines in the Kisatchie Hill area. The area contained outcroppings of Grand Gulf sandstone that created stony bluffs not unlike those here at Sewanee. Small waterfalls and streams flowed on this domain, and Miss Carrie eloquently described the place: “Because of its heavy forests, on the oldest maps it is designated the Kisatchie Wold, a name as musical as the wind in the pines…the great pines come right to the water’s edge on these lovely clear creeks, with only an occasional magnolia and dainty wild azalea and ferns… There the idea was born – this unspoiled beauty must be preserved for future generations to enjoy…” For over a decade, Miss Carrie urged congressmen, senators, judges, and the U.S. Forest Service to purchase and preserve the pinelands of north Louisiana. On June 10, 1930, the National Forest Reservation Committee purchased 75,589 acres in three districts called Kisatchie, Catahoula, and Vernon. Caroline Dormon selected the name “Kisatchie” for this national forest, and it was officially designated that name by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The Kisatchie National Forest now includes almost 600,000 acres of “green gold’ in seven LA parishes, and that acreage can be regarded as the end result of Miss Carrie’s efforts.

Miss Carrie authored WILDFLOWERS OF LOUISIANA and FLOWERS NATIVE TO THE DEEP SOUTH, rendering her own watercolors and line drawings and using live plants as models. She also loved birds and wrote another book entitled BIRD TALK in 1969, often climbing out on limbs to survey bird nests for her research. She kept a display of bird nests on the back porch of her cabin, and in the apocrypha concerning the lovable naturalist is the tale that birds plucked hair from her bright red braids to build their nests. She wore a large hat with nuts around the brim from which birds fed. Miss Carrie wrote about her beloved trees in FOREST TREES OF LOUISIANA, and for half a century she grew native and exotic plants, corresponding with botanists around the world. Briarwood now contains the most complete array of native southern U.S. plants in their natural setting in the nation. Her plant kingdom was recognized by the American Horticultural Society as a sanctuary for the flora of the South. Briarwood remains an expansive natural lab sustained by the Caroline Dormon Foundation. Miss Carrie died in 1971 at the age of 83. Her last days were spent lying abed beneath a bright handmade quilt in a sparsely furnished bedroom containing only a bed and a bureau. In that setting, she gazed out the window at her beloved trees, plants, and birds until the light faded.

Those who want to read a more complete biography can search for a copy of THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, published in 1984, and, very likely, this book is in your public library. Miss Carrie’s good friend, Louisiana author Lyle Saxon, once wrote an epitaph for her: “In Memorium,/ Caroline Dormon./ They will build monuments where you have trod/for sometimes you’re Audubon… and sometimes you’re God.”
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