Making friends was
James Donaldson’s special gift
By Marcy Stamper
When people speak of James Donaldson, there is a remarkable consistency about who he was and — perhaps more important — what he meant to his extensive community of friends.
His friends all described James’ uncanny gift for connecting with others. People immediately felt safe in his presence, said Leahe Swayze, who was a close friend of James’ for four decades.
James died early this month after a lifetime of creating and sustaining profound connections in the Methow Valley and around the world.
James was intensely interested in others — he had an ability to draw people out, said Maggie Coon, who was also a close friend since the 1970s. “He had a way of seeing deeply who they were as people,” she said.
James possessed a level of grace and ease that was very disarming, said Mike Price, another long-time friend. “James could walk into a mini-mart anywhere, and the person behind the counter would be telling him their life story within a few minutes,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out how he did it — I think it was a gift.”
James used that gift to help people recognize their own passions. Coon said James’ belief in her had inspired her to speak out about things she cared about. “He inspired you to be the best person you could possibly be,” she said.
At the same time, it could be very difficult to get James to open up about himself. “He would always turn the conversation to you,” said Coon.
James studied theology and history and played a key role in the civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. He later worked in publishing, before committing himself to the back-to-the-land movement when he cofounded a school in sustainable ecology. That project took shape on Libby Creek, where James and others built community and grew garlic.
James was widely read and was on a first-name basis with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., said Coon. But — in the vein of not talking about himself — he never dropped names, she said.
Kari Bown, another long-time close friend, said she thought James was concerned that his own story could get in the way. “He didn’t want to be a celebrity. He had a quality of being present with other people,” she said.
James always remained humble. It took years to get stories out of him about his activism, said Logan Price, Mike’s son, who knew James throughout his life. “He always wanted to know what other people were thinking — that’s what satisfied his curiosity,” said Logan.
James’ environmental awareness began at a young age, when his family had to leave their land in Oklahoma after a creek was poisoned. He was shocked to see squirrels die and always carried a deep sadness about the experience, said Bown.
After his work in the civil rights movement and in publishing, James focused his energies to learning to live better on the land and in the community, and to teaching others to do so.
James kept up a copious correspondence with people all over the world, said Mike Price. “People are walking around the Methow Valley with five to 10 pounds of paper — old letters of James’, articles for review,” he said.
“James was very important in my life — a grandfather, basically,” said Logan Price. “We bonded a lot over politics — he was very interested in social movements. As he got older, he never lost that desire to be a part of something, nor that urge to deeply question our social system, government and corporations.”
For some of us, he was the last link we had to living history of the civil rights era — he was at the lunch-counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement, said Swayze. “He considered political action to be sacred action.”
James saw civil rights struggles as continuing today. “He was always telling people to ‘stay in the streets’ — it was one of his favorite things to say,” said Logan Price.
“He was a complex person. He was equally at home in high society, a night club, or a garlic field,” said Mike Price.
“His passing is like the end of an era,” said Coon. “He was one of the most important mentors in my life, and there are many people who felt the same way.”
“The main thing is, James followed his heart. He never gave up on his ideals, and never stopped trying to fight for a better world,” said Logan Price.
James was a dedicated writer and poet. His own poetry sums up the ways he entwined his connections to land and people with his social activism.
A harder time is here
The respite is over.
Soon we drive the greedy out of the sacred places.
Save the fishes.
Assure the children.
A harder time is here.
Resist! Look ahead.