Haughton native finding state's largest trees

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.