Nathan Wilson | Reporter
The Briarwood Nature Preserve between Readhimer and Saline hosted its busiest Tom Sawyer Day event in recent memory Saturday, Feb. 19. The ample attendance comes months after Briarwood selected its new curator, Bayli Quick, in December.
A native of nearby Chestnut, Quick is the first employee of Briarwood not related to its original curator, Richard Johnson Sr., who was chosen by Caroline Dorman to care for the site after her death. Having recently graduated from NSU, Quick studied for a very different career, “When I went to college, I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps of being a cop, and so I got my degree in criminal justice.” she began, “I saw that this job was open… and a couple months later I got the job: the day right before graduation.” Elaborating on her preemptive career pivot, she pointed out, “I also grew up in Kisatchie and have been here my whole life, and it’s always been an interest to me.”
Discussing her preparation for the role, Quick credits most of her experience with her participation in Future Farmer’s of America during high school, “I competed in forestry competitions, nursery landscaping, floriculture, agronomy so all my background of knowing plants and trees and everything of that nature was from FFA.”
Quick outlined the distinct mission of the preserve and how it differed from the larger Kisatchie National Forest founded by naturalist Caroline Dorman, “We are in Kisatchie,” she began, “but this was her (Dorman’s) home place, and she wanted to preserve all the native plants right here… you have rare plants to the whole state of Louisiana, and you have some irises that she hybridized herself.”
Among the notable plants found at Briarwood, Quick pointed to one she finds important. “My favorite one is the Torreya taxifolia… the Florida Yew.” She said “There are three or four of them here, and they’re the only ones in the state of Louisiana.” Listed as a critically endangered species since 1998, the Florida Yew was planted in the preserve by Caroline Dorman after she found them during her travels.
A member of Briarwood’s board of directors, Dr. Margaret Cochran teaches ecology at Northwestern’s Louisiana Scholars’ College. She remarked on the Florida’s Yew’s significance while showing a group of volunteers around the preserve. Its rarity in its native habitat, she said, went unrecognized during periods of rapid development in Florida because the male and female trees have distinct appearances. The trees, and others from the same family, have been found to contain compounds used to treat cancer. Today, the Florida Yews found in Briarwood are cross-pollinated with trees outside the state to maintain their population and genetic diversity.
As volunteers assembled, they were divided into teams to address different tasks. Chief among these was clearing roads, trails and garden areas that had not recovered from a tornado that struck the preserve in 2019. After years of work, evidence of the destruction has grown more faint, but events like Tom Sawyer Day provide help the staff needs to tackle some of the park’s biggest projects.
Describing her vision for the preserve, Quick pointed to her efforts toward engaging with the community, “My main goal is to get Briarwood more publicized, more active on social media, more involved with high school and college students, because this is the perfect place for students to come and learn or study the plants… host some events for the community, get more organizations like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts involved.”
Richard Johnson Jr., her predecessor, retired and couldn’t attend, but the original curator, Johnson Sr., could be seen coordinating activities. Other members of the Johnson family were out in force too; Eli Johnson used a loader to gather limbs and debris that had encroached on the paths criss-crossing the preserve. Remarking on his skill with the equipment, he noted that he had helped out at the park, “since the time I was 12.”
Quick would like to see more frequent Tom Sawyer Day activities scheduled in the future; to quote from Mark Twain’s story, “Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”