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The Grafted Steward

By Katie Sloan
In Center Block
Nov 30th, 2017

Ann Bloxom Smith may not be a native of northeastern Louisiana, but that hasn’t stopped her from transforming this corner of the world into home.

Article by Michael Devault and Photography by Brad Arender

Ann Bloxom Smith recalls long walks with her grandfather, Walt. For much of her youth, Ann spent her days tramping in the woods on the family property, in the rural area just south of Shreveport.

“My parents were always upset when they wanted me to go to church, because I would be out in the woods with my grandfather, tramping,” she says. Eventually, her mother and father acquiesced to their daughter’s time plying the trails that crisscrossed woods on the family’s 200-acre plot of land. Roughly half the property was virgin forest, while the other half had been sectioned off into a working pecan orchard. It was here, in this bucolic corner of Louisiana, where Ann became an avid naturalist, a life-long habit she attributes to her grandfather.

“He knew the names of every plant and animal on the property – and had all of the folklore to back it up,” recalls Ann. While her grandfather tramped, he often hunted rabbits and squirrels, which her grandmother would prepare into hearty stews. Though Ann had her own gun at a young age, she was never much of a hunter, leaving Walt to do the rabbit hunting while she shot at cans or other non-living targets.

“I don’t have anything philosophically against eating or shooting animals,” she says. “I just can’t do it.”

On the family’s plot, she learned valuable lessons about stewardship – the idea that Man is to tend the earth, and tend it well. It’s an idea that was not at all foreign to the land before the arrival of Christians. Native American tribes all practiced organized stewardship of some form. Along the banks of Brushy Bayou, which bisected the property, Ann hunted for arrowheads near a long-abandoned Native American encampment. Nearby, she tried to decipher markings on “signal trees” pointing ancient peoples in various directions.

“I thought ‘my’ woods were magical, haunted in a good way, by those that fished and hunted there,” she says.

Stewardship wasn’t just an idea her family borrowed from the former stewards of their property. For avowed Methodists like her grandparents, stewardship wasn’t just a good idea. It was an edict from God.

“We sat at the dinner table discussing stewardship a lot,” Ann says. Those dinner-table discussions instilled valuable guidance she’d call on for the rest of her life. “Part of our job as human beings is to take care of the natural world and those less fortunate than us.”

After graduating from high school, Ann pursued an education. She studied first at LSU, but soon transferred to school in New Orleans, when her husband entered the military. After a stint in New Orleans and points beyond, she and her husband returned to Baton Rouge, where she completed her education, eventually earning a Masters degree in English Literature, with a concentration in American Literature and Linguistics.

Their degrees secured, and military life behind them, they could now begin building their lives together. The only question was “where?” and the answer presented itself in an offer from her husband’s family. They offered a small piece of land in the woods at Cheniere, close enough to town to be convenient, but far enough away that they were confirmed country folk.

Upon arrival, Ann and her husband set about building a small house, “with our own four hands,” as she recalls. The home they build was nestled into the trees, and it followed a plan she had begun drafting while still working on in college.

“Since it was a house built by English majors, we’d read on what needed to be done, and then we’d do it,” she says. “We were never more than a couple of steps ahead in knowledge of what we were doing.”

With a rural base in western Ouachita Parish established, Ann’s transfer to northeastern Louisiana was well underway. Over the next 30 years, Ann would become an integral part of the community, through her work as an educator, community volunteer, and, eventually, as a naturalist.

All told, Ann spent more than 20 years at ULM, retiring from the Business Department as an instructor of Business Communications in 2011. Along the way, she divorced and moved from the home she built in Cheniere to a craftsman in Monroe’s historic Garden District neighborhood.

For the first time in her life, Ann found herself living in a city, surrounded by other people, and in desperate need of a place in the woods. Driving home one day, she found the answer to her needs on KEDM. Wildlife agent Kelby Ouchley had recently been named director of the newly formed Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge. The fledgling refuge was in desperate need of assistance from the community, and Ouchley was recruiting the inaugural members of a friends’ group – a non-profit that could work with the refuge to improve the facilities and access to nature that the refuge offered.

“I fell in love with Black Bayou the minute I went there,” Ann says. She was among the first people to join the Friends of Black Bayou organization at their first meeting. That was the summer of 1997.

“I was living in town, and I needed a ‘place,’” Ann says of the earliest days of the refuge – a word that has a special meaning for her. “I needed nature and a place to take care of. I didn’t know that’s what I needed, but I did.”

Over the next 20 years, Smith served on the board of directors of the organization, first as vice president, then as president for five years. Along the way, Ann was instrumental in helping secure a farmhouse as a visitor’s center for the refuge. She credits others in the organization – Bob Eisenstadt, the first president; George Mauk; and Ouchley, among others for the effort, downplaying in characteristic fashion her contribution.

“I’m certainly not single-handedly responsible for it by any means,” she says. “But I do love it.”

For his part, Bob concurs that teamwork played a huge role in the early days of getting Black Bayou up and running. However, he says Ann’s contributions have been immeasurable – but in a slightly different manner.

“I think Ann’s leadership, her enthusiasm, her energy, her drive, were all singularly important to creating the public relations atmosphere that got the community excited about every project out there,” Bob says. He notes she leveraged considerable media savvy to drive the refuge’s message to an ever-wider audience. “She has a way of drawing people into that project and enfranchising them, empowering them to be a part of it.”

hough Bob, not Ann, served as the first president of the Friends of Black Bayou, his time at the helm of the organization owes a significant part to Ann. Bob recalls that first meeting, as the group was just beginning to form. “Ann and I were arguably the founding members of the friends’ group,” Bob says. “The only reason I was the first president was she was there, poking me in the ribs because I wasn’t raising my hand at the right moment.”

For five years, as Ann worked as president of the Friends of Black Bayou, she was instrumental in helping develop an educational curriculum for the facility, creating engaging community programs and activities. The impacts of those are immeasurable, and as far as Bob is concerned, the second five years under Ann were more important than the first five under his leadership, precisely because she focused so much energy on building an educational and community outreach program to draw people to the refuge.

“Those are the kinds of things that connect people to the refuge, not buildings or building projects,” Bob says. “I attribute that to Ann and her tenure as president. The things – buildings, walkways, whatever – are important, but ultimately, it’s through the programs that people feel valuable.”

Bob points out Ann’s leadership skills have moved far beyond Black Bayou, which he acknowledges is her first and greatest love. Through work with the Kiwanis, the Downtown Arts Alliance, and a host of other community projects and organizations, her reach has extended far beyond the woods and waterways of Black Bayou.

For several years, Ann served as the public relations director for the Downtown Gallery Crawl, a bi-monthly event that brings visitors to downtown Monroe, Art Alley, and the galleries and artists who call the area home. When the gallery crawl first started, events were sparsely attended and ill-promoted. Bob notes Ann changed all of that, through monthly columns in regional publications, appearances on television and radio, and a dogged effort to distribute posters throughout the region. By the time she stepped aside as public relations director just this past August, the gallery crawl had grown into one of the region’s premier arts events, drawing thousands of art lovers to more than a dozen downtown galleries. All the while, it’s the work of a quiet, unassuming woman who likes to spend time in the trees. “She’s quiet,” Bob says. “But she’s tenacious.” That tenacity means getting involved, working hard, and encouraging and empowering others to do the work, as well. This tenacity has served her well in one of her more recent endeavors. For the last three years, Ann has been a mentor for the national wildlife refuge system, visiting and working with friends’ groups and staffers at refuges across the country.

“I loved doing it,” she says. “Each of the 600+ national wildlife refuges throughout the U.S. are very special places, and the people who work for them are amazing – so dedicated in the midst of cuts and various disasters.” Just this past August, Smith traveled to Nebraska, to visit Fort Niobrara and other several other refuges that are part of the Sandhills Prairie Complex. Previous excursions took her to the Loxahatchee Refuge in the upper everglades. On one excursion, she stood with a refuge manager amidst a herd of buffalo. On another, she took an airboat ride through the River of Grass in the Everglades. All the while, Black Bayou has never strayed far from her heart.

As she scales back her efforts on the volunteer front, Ann continues to be avidly involved at Black Bayou. She kayaks the waters regularly – was in fact preparing for an excursion later in the afternoon of the day she visited with BayouLife. She hikes, brings visitors to the refuge, and enjoys the outdoors.

She’s also spending more time with her family, too. Her son, Walt, whom she named for her grandfather, now occupies the house two English majors built in Cheniere, with his wife, a recent transplant herself from Cambodia.

Some might look at Ann Bloxom Smith, the work she’s done in  northeast Louisiana, and say she’s done quite well for a transplant. But another botanical metaphor more adequately describes her place in this region: she’s been grafted here.