Ask him how to identify himself, and John Michael Kelley will tell you he lets others work on that. Whether that’s his modesty or his acquiescence to academia is uncertain.
His boss Rusty Scarborough, manager of Walter Jacobs Nature Park, thinks it has more to do with humility.
“He doesn’t give himself enough credit for the volume of knowledge that he does possess,” Scarborough said. “Ecologically, botanically and soil chemistry, the things that are in his mind ...”
Scarborough’s description of Kelley is that of a walking encyclopedia (think of Google in multiple printed volumes if you’re under 45) when it comes to botany.
“I graduated with a wildlife conservation botany degree back in ’89 and he makes me feel at times like I don’t know anything about botany,” he said.
Press the 23-year-old native and resident of Haughton and he’ll say he guesses he’s a naturalist, amateur botanist, independent researcher, but he’s comfortable having someone else choose which one.
For now, Kelley works part time at Walter Jacobs Nature Park in Caddo Parish and pursues old-growth forests in Louisiana. In that pursuit, he also could be considered a “Big Tree Hunter.”
His path to botany, which is all self-taught, began when he was about 4 or 5, Kelley said, when he read his first chapter book, “My Side of the Mountain.” The book is just shy of 200 pages at a third-grade level. His next book was a 500-page survival manual that he drank in until he was about 8.
“I never put it down,” he said.
By the time he was old enough for scouting, Kelley declined because a Scout couldn’t use a knife until he was 10. He had been using knives already, having learned many of the techniques and safety practices taught in his survival guide.
“So I skipped that and got really into outdoor skills, bushcraft, and wild edible plants and stuff when I was young,” he said. “By the time that I was in my sophomore year of high school, I was being asked to teach at herbal schools in Arkansas and occasional little talks with Master Naturalists, things like that.”
Soon he would discover a map of the natural heritage areas of Louisiana and learn that all of the areas considered “natural” with “conservation value” were some of his favorite places to hunt squirrel. That propelled his interest in natural areas, rare species and conservation biology.
“I just learn from books and stuff,” Kelley said.
The amount of knowledge Kelley is able to take in and retain from those books, however, is something Scarborough says is astounding.
Christopher Reid, Ph.D., an instructor for the past 10 years at LSU agrees, but as for Kelley’s title of “amateur” botanist, that is a misnomer.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a pro,” Reid said.
Kelley puts this knowledge to use, for example, by teaching at the Coastal Plains Outdoor School, where in March he will be an instructor for a course on Old Growth Hardwood Forests of the South. He also has the occasion to give instruction at Master Naturalist programs. Reid said Kelley’s path will be in doing professional work of a botanist through contracts with non-government organizations and government agencies, as well as likely publishing his own work.
In his spare time right now, Kelley searches for big trees in Louisiana, hence the moniker Big Tree Hunter.
“I spend time that I have off looking for big trees, prairie, old growth, rare species, unique habitat, things like that,” Kelley said. “Big trees are part of that because they key you in to old growth forests and less disturbed areas.”
What drives this young man in his quest for old growth areas of Louisiana is the excitement of finding natural areas that appear to be habitats as they were prior to settlements.
“I think its finding areas that were previously unknown which are really high value ecologically,” he said. “So, concentrations of rare species, a couple of acres of old trees, pretty much finding areas we missed or didn’t know about yet. We think we’ve found all the best areas to protect, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
With apparent great patience, Kelley will search areas using Google Maps where large trees are visible and confirming their age through old topographical maps. If a place looks interesting to him, he will seek out the landowner and ask permission to enter the property. Sometimes that search can take some time, but his persistence often pays off.
“Areas of old hardwood, like over 120 to 150 years of age that were not recognized for being that age or older, I find those probably once or twice a year,” Kelley said. “Sometimes they’re one acre, two acres behind a church somewhere, but they have rare species in that one or two acres. Sometimes they’re 10 acres or 50 acres. I find a lot of small strips of forest that are not regarded as being old but maybe it’s impossible to determine their age.”
One time Kelley found a patch of several hollowed white oak trees that if cored would have only about 6 inches of wood before reaching a hollow center. The rest of inner part of the tree was gone, but in the 6 inches that could be assessed, rings indicated about 90 years of the tree’s life.
“So (there were) 200- to 300-year-old white oaks scattered along a hillside, on the edge of a church’s property and nobody knew they were there,” he said.
The depth of knowledge about botany isn’t the only thing that impresses, said Reid. Kelley has a special talent for relating to the landowner. In fact, Kelley confidently says that when he finds something worth exploring and he can track down the landowner, he’s in. Tenacious in his search, he’ll try to find a relative, no matter how distant, and find a way to contact the landowner.
“Typically if they can hear me on the phone and know what I’m saying, they’ll give me permission,” Kelley said.
They way he approaches it is through the familiarity with the property, not in a scientific way, but through emotion, a memory or sentiment of sharing something with a parent or grandparent.
Reid said Kelley’s ability to put a landowner at ease is a particular strength, in addition to his vast knowledge of botany and ecology. That ability is often better than someone from academia or a government agency might do.
“He understands the science and ability to build a relationship with the landowner is a huge asset,” Reid said. “Time will tell, but those relationships will be long-term and will be valuable.”
Every couple of years, Kelley will find some “knock your socks off” type of old growth, he said, but although there is excitement about those old growth areas, he isn’t necessarily surprised in finding them.
“I think there’s a misconception as to what old forests look like,” he said. “The people who exist today are not old enough to have seen our virgin forests. We don’t have the cultural memory of them and they’re not common enough in our state parks and things that we have a good reference to go look at. ... No kids in Louisiana are taking field trips to old growth forests to see what they look like.”
For Kelley, he can see himself working as a botanist, which from the sound of his voice is pleasing and exciting to him.
Studying plant life in his native Louisiana, providing information to organizations concerning conservation and writing scientific papers on the interesting and high ecological things in the state could likely fulfill his hope of working professionally as a botanist.
“I have a little skill at assimilating knowledge, so when it comes to naturalist conservation, seeing things happen and understanding a little bit of what’s going on, I can probably outrun most on that,” Kelley said.