Jim would rather paddle a canoe than drive a car and prefers watching birds to watching television. His passion for exploring the intersection of human progress and wildness drives him to capture and ponder wild moments with pen and lens. He has worked all over the country as a naturalist, guide, storyteller, writer, and photographer, and has performed his original one-man play Aldo Leopold – A Standard of Change in theaters from South Carolina to Alaska, sparking conversations about conservation of wildness.
Reading the stories and essays of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac when he was in his early twenties, sealed the deal for Jim: he had to write. Early on, his writing mostly fed his storytelling. Years later, it led to his one-man play. Though he says he mostly writes because he “has to,” he has been published in papers, magazines, and blogs, and is always promising he will get more of his writing “out there.” Currently, along with regularly penning about his latest adventure, he has two books underway—a children’s picture book about humpback whales, and a novel set in Southern Appalachia during the American Chestnut Blight. “One day I will finish one of them,” he says.
It was Jim’s first experience with the wilds of Alaska in 2015 that led him to picking back up the camera after nearly two decades since putting down his Kodachrome. “I saw Denali appear through the clouds, and had no tool to capture it. It was frustrating,” he says. When he got home, he bought his first digital SLR and began obsessively photographing the birds, frogs and butterflies around the little farm he cared for in NW Georgia. In 2017 he traveled to NE Georgia to photograph the total solar eclipse. “On my way home, traffic was backed up, so I stopped at a sushi restaurant where I pulled out my laptop and started sorting through my photos.” By the time he left the restaurant, Jim had sold three photos. “There has been no looking back,” he says. Jim still looks at the sky through his lens—mainly when there is strong aurora borealis activity in his new home of Juneau, AK—but it is his passion for seeing the wildness in the eyes of birds, bears, and whales that attract his attention most often.
Jim was working as a volunteer educator for Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Scottsdale, AZ, when a single phone call changed his path. “I think it was 1993. Could have been ’94…” he says. The gentleman on the other end of the line asked him to “tell his bird stories” for an upcoming event. “I told him to call Liberty and arrange a program, but he insisted that he did not want birds. He just wanted me, telling my stories about hawks and owls. I thought he was nuts, but I showed up sans birds, told my stories, and it was a hit.” Over the next twenty years, storytelling became more and more of Jim’s livelihood. During that time, he recorded two CDs of his original, personal stories, performed on stages all over the country, and produced Uncommon Storytelling—a storytelling series for adults at Uncommon Ground Coffeehouse in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood.
When the economy crashed in 2008, Jim quickly learned just how expendable storytelling is in people’s budgets. “I decided that if I wasn’t getting the gigs in schools and special events that had been paying my bills, I would devote my time to creating that one story that had always haunted me.” Jim sold his house, and used the money to fund countless trips between Georgia and Wisconsin researching the life of Aldo Leopold. In 2012, he debuted his play, and over the next five years performed it in more than half the states in the country. “It felt like the culmination of all my life’s work at that time.” Following every performance, Jim opened the floor to conversation. “For the first time in my life, I was having a conversation about the most important issue we face: How do we foster human progress and preserve wildness? Jim is no longer promoting his play, but he says that if he ever gets the call again, he will dust off his pipe, get a haircut, and bring it back to life. “I wouldn’t be able to say no to the opportunity to have that conversation again.”
Jim’s first guide job was as a rafting guide on the Snake River in Wyoming, From there he went on to be a staff naturalist at multiple nature centers, ran a hostel in northern California, and created a naturalist/guide program for the Tennessee Aquarium. These days, Jim takes Alaska visitors into the Tongass National Forest, where he teaches guests about the Pacific Coast Rain Forest and it’s amazing fauna and flora. From black bears, salmon and humpback whales to devil’s club, salmon berries and Sitka spruce trees, Jim weaves the words of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey into that conversation about human progress and wildness that has consumed him his whole life.
Writer, Photographer, Storyteller, Playwright, Naturalist, Guide. These are all things Jim became over a lifetime of exploring the world outside, but it is the landscape within that steered him in all of these directions. Though he didn’t always have the language to define it, there was not a time when he was not a Conservationist at heart. When asked about how he got where he is today, Jim often tells the story of sitting in the back seat of his parents’ station wagon as they drove home from his grandparents’ house in the 1970s. “It was dark out and I watched the neon lights and asphalt lots race by. Beyond the asphalt, concrete and stone walls dictated the path of a creek that once charted its own course. I didn’t have words for what I felt that night, but I knew things were broken, and breaking further every day. Things should be wild, I remember thinking, and they aren’t.”