In the heart of Louisiana, far away from the raucous streets of New Orleans and the towel-laden beaches of the Gulf, lies a pristine piece of nature. Thick groves of lanky pines grow on hillsides and gurgling streams bubbling with wildlife trace wearied grooves through the land. In the Kisatchie National Forest, the wilderness of Louisiana—what might have become a paradoxical phrase—remains intact, preserved some ninety years ago by Caroline Dormon.
Dormon was born in 1888 in Briarwood, at the northern corner of the Natchitoches Parish. As a child exploring the tempered and loamy glades of Louisiana, Dormon developed a prickling interest in nature. Local plants and wildlife piqued her interest, from the humble mushroom to the towering pine. Early on she began studying and cultivating wildflowers, experimenting with which could be transplanted into her own yard and which fared best in the wild soils of the forest. She harbored and fertilized her own passion for nature within the shady woodlands of her childhood.
College took Dormon east to Alabama, where she studied literature and art at Judson College. Following graduation, Dormon returned to Louisiana to teach in the stuffy halls of schools. But nature beckoned. She returned to Briarwood in 1918, where she recommenced her childhood habits of collecting and preserving local plants. The hobby she had fostered in her youth gradually turned to something more, and in 1921 she became the public relations representative for the Louisiana Forestry Department. With her move out of her cabin and into the official position with the state, Dormon did something much larger than pursue her own life’s passion: she became the first woman in the country employed in forestry.
Dormon wasn’t just a naturalist by name; she genuinely sought to preserve the natural land she had always loved. With those intentions in mind, she approached the US Forest Service in 1922 (a mere year after her employment with the state’s chapter began) about creating a national forest, protected for centuries to come, in Louisiana. She needled higher-ups about the importance of preservation and the natural beauty of her home state, tempting them with visions of sweeping, tree-covered hills and rocky streams preserved for generations to come. Her plan worked.
Over the following years, Dormon worked closely with Representative James B. Aswell, from her own Natchitoches, to establish the new national forest. And in 1930 Kisatchie National Forest was designated and preserved for the public.
Although she was met with unerring success early in her career, Dormon’s work in horticulture and preservation was far from over. Her expertise in native nature was uncontested and her services requested across the state. The 1940’s found her working as a landscape consultant with the Department of Transportation and later the Huey P. Long Charity Hospital. Over the years, her green thumb left its verdant mark on landscapes the state over, from landscape design to preservation.
In addition to the Kisatchie National Forest, Dormon’s influence inspired another conservationist landmark: the Louisiana State Arboretum. It was Dormon who first proposed and spearheaded the campaign for the state arboretum, which opened in 1965. Located in southern Louisiana near Ville Platte, the arboretum isn’t just a testament to the state’s varied vegetation, but to the unerring passion of Dormon, for whom the visitor center is named.
Today Dormon is remembered across Louisiana as a botanist, horticulturist, ornithologist, historian, naturalist, and, of course, preservationist. Upon her death, she donated her home at Briarwood to the public. The aged and creaking log cabin serves as the headquarters of the Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, which calls the Kisatchie National Forest home. But the true homage to Dormon lies not in the manmade edifice but in the soft swish of the pines, the sway of a pollen-heavy wildflower,and the clean rush of a creek, preserved for years to come.