Name one person you can ask about longleaf pine planting, herbicide treatment for invasive pasture plants flourishing along a wooded stream, prescribed burning, endangered songbirds and rare butterflies of the Southeast?
Is that person also willing to take two days of annual leave to help you find the perfect crawfish sampling site for a university biology lab you’ve been asked to lead and also drop everything he is doing to plan an entire Saturday sharing natural resource career advice with your 15-year-old cousin, including hands-on examples of what forestry and wildlife professionals do in the field?
Will this person repeatedly come to your aid when storm-damaged trees need removing from the ranch working pens, including, but not limited to, times when the daily temperature exceeds 100 degrees, and then spend hours just petting your dogs, listening to your personal family drama, and watching the sunrise from your front porch swing after keeping watch all night to ensure your personal safety?
In what feels like a culture of uncertainty and distrust, Mike Caylor exemplified the exact opposite. He was a Southern Paul Bunyan, always rolling up in a pickup loaded with outdoor essentials he would gladly share—from outerwear for people of all ages to chainsaws and flagging tape to a cooler full of bottled water and other “adult beverages.” A forester, biologist, leader, mentor, friend, and family man, “Big Mike” lived a life of giving, a walking vessel of God’s love poured out on everyone who crossed his path, from Alaska to Alabama.
His circle of admirers grew bigger each year he was on earth, climaxing with a career as a biologist with the United States Forest Service serving on Alabama’s Talladega National Forest Oakmulgee Ranger District. He excelled at managing partner projects with the private sector, the nonprofit world, and other government agencies and left an impression on everyone he met.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jeffrey Drummond aptly summarized his experience with Big Mike: “A jack of all trades, master of ALL. His passion for natural resource management was contagious. The skill and devotion in his craft is written all over the Oakmulgee District’s incredible landscape of longleaf ecosystems and flourishing Red-Cockaded Woodpecker populations, both of which he managed with pride. Mike has left a legacy that can be seen during a walk along the ridges of Talladega National Forest, through the down listing of RCWs, while working with his former colleagues, and in conversations with his friends and family.”
With a work ethic passed down from his beloved parents and integrity sharpened by an upbringing on the family farm in Bullock County, Alabama, Big Mike appreciated the value of an honest day’s wages but never saw his efforts as being labor.
“He loved and lived in the woods his whole life, but far from being a hermit and just loving the woods he also loved the people he worked with and those people he met along the way,” said Big Mike’s mother Pat Caylor. “He had a heart as big and as large as the body of the woodsman he became. He loved his boys and his family and was never embarrassed to let us know.”
Everyone in Mike’s world knew that his heart belonged to his two sons, Michael and Alex, and their mother Leslie. He lived his life with the purpose of making the world a better place for them. I was blessed to cross paths with this incredible family a few years ago and they “adopted” me into their fold, making me a direct recipient of that Big Mike magic.
I knew he would do anything in the world for me, and even though I knew I wasn’t the only one he helped, somehow he always made me feel like I was. That skill might have very well been his true gift. From the thousands of acres of longleaf pine forests he meticulously managed to the tiny red cockaded woodpeckers he held so gently in his massive hands to every human blessed to receive his signature bear hug, we all felt special to be under his care. We still do.
I guess I’ll see you in the woods, Big Mike. I still have a few questions about thinning that stand of timber you and the boys marked.