New book discuses state of nature, state of mind

Peninsula naturalist shares expertise

  • Tuesday, March 18, 2014 6:57pm
  • News

For more than a decade, Joyce resident Jim Stapleton’s home was a peaceful sanctuary – literally.

In 1977, the trained biologist and environmental scientist was asked to be the live-in caretaker of the John Burroughs Sanctuary 100 miles north of New York City.

"The place was being vandalized, so they asked me to come take care of it," Stapleton said, sipping tea in the green room at the Port Angeles Community Playhouse, his home away from home.

For three years Stapleton, who is now a regular on the peninsula theater scene, lived alone in a cabin on the 180 acres of the sanctuary.

"I came to know the place really well," Stapleton said of the property, which is named after the 19th century naturalist and essayist. "The plants, the animals, the seasons … I knew them well."

Though he said "that time was often lonely," Stapleton was no stranger to living alone – after college he said he spent 10 years living by himself in the woods as a hermit.

Three years after he first moved onto the property, wife Diana Bigelow and her two young children joined him – the family lived there for eight more years. Stapleton gave tours, generally to school groups, showing them around the area.

Finally, in 1987, his final year living at the sanctuary, Stapleton decided to keep a journal of his experiences – every day while he made his rounds, he took a notebook with him and wrote down everything he observed and everything he felt.

On Oct. 5 of that year, for example, he wrote, "Full moon tonight, flying squirrels rustling in the treetops."

"For every day, there are little pieces of natural history and an essay," Stapleton said of his writings, which he calls one-part natural history, one-part personal memoir and one-part meditative essay.

After moving out of the sanctuary, which is located in the Hudson River Valley of New York state, Stapleton said he immediately found a publisher for his writings. After many months of collaboration, however, the writer realized the publisher "wanted a different book," and decided to stop working with him.

"That really got me discouraged," Stapleton said. "So I put it in the drawer, so to speak, for 20 years."

During those 20 years, Bigelow said she constantly encouraged her husband to work on it again, bring it back to life.

"I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for these stories," Bigelow said of his writings. "I wanted him to get back to them."

Bigelow coaxed Stapleton to do readings of his stories. Stapleton was hesitant at first, but then said he would do readings if Bigelow, a songwriter, would partner with him and sing some of her songs. The couple traveled from South Dakota to Colorado to Seattle to Seaview doing performances and, encouraged by the audience, has put out two CDs.

The readings were so well received during the performances that finally, about a year ago, Stapleton pulled the book out of his drawer and began reading and editing it. The result: "Sanctuary Almanac: State of Nature, State of Mind," which is self-published through Dog Ear Press.

"I’m really pleased to see it come out," Stapleton said of his book, which was decades in the making. "People who I’ve shown it to have liked it … that really means a lot."

Stapleton is working on his next book, which he said is about his days living in the woods as a hermit.

"Sanctuary Almanac"

Jim Stapleton’s first book is available on, as well as his own Web site, where people can find out more about Stapleton and wife Diana Bigelow’s CDs, as well.

Stapleton and Bigelow will present readings and songs at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13, at the Port Angeles Community Playhouse, 1235 E. Lauridsen Blvd, free of charge. Copies of "Sanctuary Almanac" will be available.

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