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Self-publishing is hard work, but Juneau author and consultant Carol Biggs has found it creative and refreshing after working 17 years for the state Legislature.
Sick with chronic fatigue syndrome, Biggs left her legislative post in 1989 in order to schedule her life around her energy levels. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and founded Alaska Nature Connection. Through her business, Biggs has become certified as a facilitator of nature-connecting activities, a program developed by naturalist Michael Cohen. She has also published two pocket-size trail guides and has a third in the works.
"Going into business for myself was kind of a forced issue," said Biggs, who has lived in Juneau off and on since 1960. "I was trying to regroup, and searching for a new direction in mid-life. I ended up going back to school."
"I have always been an outdoor person, and I always wanted to know why I felt better outdoors. So I tried to identify some of the qualities of nature in my thesis - motion of clouds, things that would capture my attention, things like the sun, birds flying and singing. Nature took me out of my small self and into something larger." Her 1994 thesis, about how nature acts as a therapeutic agent in establishing harmony and balance, has become the theme of Alaska Nature Connection. She is also completing a master's program in applied eco-psychology.
"A friend suggested making a product to support myself. I have always wanted to print a little book, a pocket trail guide. It has been an avocation for over 25 years, because most source books were awkward or heavy to get into the field. I didn't want to kill a plant just to bring it back to identify it," Biggs said.
With the aid of a mentor, she learned to take her own color photos.
She published "Wild, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Pacific Northwest Rain Forest Vol. I" in 1998 and "Wild, Edible and Medicinal Plants Vol. II" in 1999. The first printing of 1,400 of the first volume sold out immediately. "The comment that I have heard most is, 'I love to have your book out with me, and I have identified plants' with it."
"The whole natural world is an integrated system," Biggs said, noting that she is neither a botanist nor a physician and cautions readers to read "lots of books" before they begin dosing themselves with twisted stalk or devil's club, or try to differentiate between look-alikes such as cow parsnip and water hemlock.
"There are absolutely fabulous plant books out there that have far more content than mine, but my books are filling a little niche that hadn't been filled before. So there were places I wanted them to be because they are an educational reference - like Butchart Gardens and the Royal British Columbia Museum. It was very hard to get into the Pacific Northwest Interpretive Society shop, but they finally ordered them and they were a big hit," she said.
Biggs' books are carried by the Alaska Marine Highway gift shops, the Alaska State Museum, the Royal British Columbia Museum, Glacier Gardens, Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, and the Hurricane Ridge visitors center on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. They have been reviewed by Business News Alaska and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and earned an "editor's choice" designation in the Alaska Natural History Association's catalog.
The book project required learning about photography, international book numbering systems, copyright, the printing process, marketing and distribution. Each subject was daunting. "Sometimes I say, 'This is too hard,' and I just lose heart and go outdoors. Then an order will come through from somewhere I never heard of and I will get excited again."
Some of Biggs' helpers along the rocky path to success include Myron Reimer and Adele Hamey. Reimer, owner of Golden North Printers, helped with layout, design and initial printing as well as finding an Oregon printer for subsequent larger runs. Hamey, proprietor of Taku Graphics, acts as a sales representative.
The books earned her a stint with Alaska Geographic, writing an article for their "Living off the Land" issue.
"My healing (from chronic fatigue) is happening by following my passion, and I thank my illness for bringing me here," she said. "This has been the hardest thing I have ever done, and yet from a spiritually satisfying point of view, I wouldn't change a thing."
Biggs will be teaching nature classes in a variety of habitats 1-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons through the summer.
One session is $40; two, $35 each; three, $30 each. For location and other details call 586-2453.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.