Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Although my evening time on the porch gives me a view of a lovely woods that include white oaks, maple, dogwood, and tulip poplar trees, I miss the tall pines that edge my front yard in New Iberia, Louisiana. I grew up in the piney woods of southeast Louisiana and have always enjoyed the sharp scent of pine needles and the cheerful appearance of those straight-backed conifers.

Yesterday evening while I sat looking out at two fat white oaks, I thought about the Louisiana botanist, Caroline Dormon, whose picture of her hugging a large pine tree appears in my book, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN.*  Dormon probably would have agreed with Chinese practitioners of medical massage who believe in the healing abilities of trees—they tout that trees absorb the earth's energy and the universal force from the heavens and help humans channel and cultivate calm. The practitioners advocate that pine trees radiate Chi, nourish blood, strengthen nervous systems, foster long lives, and are the "immortal trees."

Caroline Dormon would have added that they also nurture the human spirit. She lived on a 120-acre tract of piney woods called "Briarwood" near Saline, Louisiana, received a presidential citation for her work in conservation of trees and was the first woman in the U.S. to be elected an associate member of the Society of American Foresters. In 1921, she also became the first woman to be hired by the Louisiana Forestry Service.

As a child, Dormon spent her summers exploring longleaf pines on her grandfather's property near Arcadia, Louisiana, and pines became a lifelong interest that led to the establishment of Louisiana's only national forest, Kisatchie. During the early 1900's when the harvest of timber had peaked, Dormon, then a schoolteacher, began to lobby for the preservation of a tract of longleaf pine in the Kisatchie Hills area. Those hills and surrounding area were later recognized as a national forest. She describes her enchantment with the area that developed into the national forest:

"The great pines came 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..." And for over a decade she 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 Preservation Committee purchased 75,589 acres in three districts of Kisatchie, Catahoula, and Vernon, and Dormon called it "Kisatchie," which became its official name. The forest now contains approximately 600,000 acres of "green gold."

Like the Chinese practitioners mentioned above, Dormon regarded trees as anthropomorphic, writing of them to a close friend: "Those pesky lumbermen were here again today trying to convince me that 'grandpappy' (a 300-year old longleaf pine tree) wouldn't outlive me...oh my, the tales he could tell of his rugged survival through the storms of life." Then she sat down and wrote Forest Trees of Louisiana (1943).

Dormon's home place, Briarwood, was recognized by the American Horticultural Society as a sanctuary for the flora of the South and remains a large natural laboratory sustained by the Caroline Dormon Foundation. During the last years of her life, the ailing naturalist lay abed beneath a bright quilt in the bedroom of her log cabin, looking out the back window and communing with her beloved trees. Dormon felt that trees were immortal and she also had an abiding interest in plant life, believing that if herbaceous plants were hybridized, they, too, would never die!

A note for porch sitters and tree lovers: Chinese practitioners believe that a human can interact with trees by sitting and communing with them silently, and the silent, subtle energy leads a person into the wonders of the tree's inner life. But tree climbers are discouraged from doing any careless climbing, and tree lovers advocate open and respectful behavior, rather than pressing the trees to serve selfish purposes (does this include building tree houses?).

And so much for backyard meditation, developing a relationship with trees, and collecting energy from the so-called most spiritually advanced plants on earth.

*Photograph of Caroline Dormon hugging a tree was reprinted in THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN by permission of photographer Curtis Guillet of Natchitoches, Louisiana
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