Remembering James Wilson

One of our founding members and great friends passed away suddenly on July 15, 2015. Below are a few words about him. None could possibly be enough.

James at Mono Lake, photo by Ali Sheehy

James at Mono Lake. Photo by Ali Sheehy.

The Eastern Sierra has suffered an unimaginable loss with the passing of James Wilson. Like the Sierra he loved, James was a constant in our lives, shaping the community in which he lived, stewarding the landscape, working on behalf of the birds which captured his imagination and passion and offering the gift of friendship and counsel. More than twenty five years ago, he joined others in forming our Eastern Sierra Audubon chapter and he continually lent his leadership, energy and wisdom to the organization, serving as President, Director and other officer positions, Conservation Chair, the head of many projects and escorting hundreds of elementary school children on birding trips. In all of these roles, he was a star. During my time as chapter president I often had occasion to turn to James for advice and I always profited from his experience and insight. For anyone connected with the chapter he is a source of inspiration due to his passionate connection with the land and its critters and his empathy and concern for the people of the Eastern Sierra. James Wilson is forever woven into the fabric of this region and he will be deeply missed.

In 1972 we moved to the Owens Valley and very quickly heard of James Wilson, a Renaissance man and lover of all things wild and bringing people together to make it even better. Our paths began crossing at Eastside Sports and in the field. We were always awed with his intellect, compassion, and persuasive ideas. We moved overseas for a decade and returned, back into the fold with James at the helm. We grew closer and relied on each other for ideas and support of various environmental and conservation projects. The 25 years since our return has sped by like a bullet for all of us, and while some judge the accomplishments as highly successful, many of us feel that we've only just begun. James had so much he wanted to do.

So many have done so much for so long for the Eastern Sierra that to single out one person, or one couple, for recognition seemed to us to be undeserved. We were coerced by Barb Kelley and Mike Prather to accept such an award for our avian contributions. Then we were told that James would be making the presentation. We are so grateful that it was our decades-long friend whom we adored who would make this embarrassment bearable. We are equally grateful that Skandar Reid videotaped the entire afternoon and has edited out James's powerful and poetic presentation for all to enjoy (See video). While James gave us countless gifts, this speech and the long hugs that came afterwards gave us love that you usually only get from some family members! A beautiful giant has fallen but his echoes will reverberate as long as there is an Eastern Sierra.

It is hard to know how to convey the loss of someone so close to our hearts. It feels as if there has been "a great disturbance in the force" this week: one of our founding members and advocates for good in the Eastern Sierra, James Wilson, has died. We are terribly saddened by his loss. At the same time, we so very grateful for his long and valuable presence in our organization, our community, and in our lives. He was a wonderful human being who left a positive legacy in the world. He was loved and admired, yet always remained down-to-earth and humble. He made a difference.

In the video clip below, he is giving a heartfelt presentation to Tom and Jo Heindel for their many contributions. He says some beautiful things about life, friendship, and birds in this talk. Life is, indeed, short.

He will be missed deeply.

Video by Skandar Productions

James Kepler Wilson's passing is like a great, spreading, deep-rooted tree falling: it shakes you whether you are close or not, and leaves a huge gap in our community. That gap will fill because of the many seeds he planted. I knew him as fair and generous business owner; wise and eloquent Audubon president during my tenure as newsletter editor; and essential liaison between the conservation and climbing communities. I remember his soft voice and kind, level gaze creating an island of calm in my day whenever we chanced to meet. The Eastern Sierra without James Wilson will only resemble the place it has been with him because his legacy will live on.

I lost an incredibly close friend this evening and I feel such deep sadness. I miss you James and all the fun that you brought to all of us. I will always look for you on the trails and among the birds that we love.

Love everyone that you are with and never take anything for granted. Appreciate all you love every day

All of the Owens Valley - and beyond - grieves over this news. James was a mentor, friend, colleague ... the one you looked to and thought "that's how it's done". The saddest of news ...

James at Red Peak Pass

James at Red Peak Pass

I've never felt so crushed by the loss of a friend I wish I could have known better. His commitment to the protection of land and his love of wildlife is unmatched in my experience. Paula and I saw him on the Chocolate Lakes / Ruwau lake loop and walked out with him two weekends ago...feel blessed to have seen him one more time and had a chance to tell him he deserved his retirement after his work helping protect the world around us. Goodby James.

The board and staff at Inyo Council of the Arts are deeply saddened to learn of the loss of James Wilson. Our hearts go out to Kay, Rose, Bayard, Ansel, and all of those who were touched by James. In addition to James’ love for wild places and the Eastern Sierra, he was also a champion of music and art. James and Kay brought the Banff Film Festival to Bishop 20+ years ago as a fundraiser for the Millpond Music Festival. We don’t know if Millpond would be celebrating its 24th year without their efforts. We were proud to dedicate the 2007 Millpond Festival to James and Kay. In addition to the many thousands of dollars donated over the years, James shared our passion for bringing world class music and film to our remote area that he loved so much. James loved that his support brought performers from around the world to all of our local schools to share their art and cultures with Inyo County students. His easy approach to life, love for his family and community, and generous spirit inspire us all. His impact on the Arts Council, and the entire Eastern Sierra is immeasurable. Thank you Mr. Wilson, we love and will miss you immensely.

James at Mono Lake, photo by Ali Sheehy

James at the headwaters of the Merced River
Photo by Rosie Howard

The passing of James into the ether has been a shock and loss to all of us at Friends of the Inyo. He was an incomparable colleague, mentor, leader, sometimes father figure and above all the ultimate local champion for all things wild on the Eastside. Our family of staff and board is small and close. James' absence leaves a gaping crevasse in our hearts as well as our leadership. Our lives at FOI will, of course, go on but all of as well as our members and supporters will miss him in ways yet unknown.

James passed away July 15th, 2015 in Reno, NV. Our condolences go out to his life long love and wife, Kay Wilson as well as his daughter Roseanne Catron, son-in-law Bayard Catron and Grandson Ansel who brought incredible joy to James and Kay.

James walking upriver in Costa Rica

James in Costa Rica, 2011. Photo by Chris Howard.

Thank you, James, for your friendship, leadership, and love for our community and environment. May you forever dance with the Cranes and sing with the Trogons.

Debby Parker commented that, "this photo is symbolic of how James went against the current to help make our world a better one to live in."

Yesterday I took a walk in the mountains with friends. It seemed the most appropriate and best thing to do. So we carried James and Kay in our hearts as we walked. Behind us not far from the trailhead, a Hermit Thrush started to sing, a bird heard many times through many miles with James and Kay in the Sierra. As we walked up the trail, its song followed us. I turned around to try and find movement in the lodgepoles but saw none and kept going. The song continued to follow. Turning again, the beauty landed just over our heads on an open branch and sang and sang the beautiful harmonic ethereal other worldly song. In all my years, never has a hermit thrush landed in plain view and sang. It made me cry. We continued. Seven hours later we returned. The beauty was in the same tree still singing. I think from now on I will call our beautiful mountains "Jamesland." Sing on, James.

~~~~~ Story ~~~~~

One of James' favorite birds was Cinnamon Teal. He could often be heard singing (you gotta think Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl"), "I could be happy, the rest of my life, with a Cinnamon Teal." With this as inspiration, I rewrote the lyrics.

Once a month us birder folks would gather for Bird Study Group at Tom and Jo Heindel's house in Big Pine. This was the opening night venue for the "Cinnamon Teal Choristers," James and Kay Wilson, Chris and Rosie Howard, and Barbara Kelley. I truly wish I had a video (without the audio) of the five of us practicing in the car from Bishop to Big Pine. We performed with gusto much to the delight of our birder friends, but were never booked in a different venue.

Cinnamon Teals, photo by Rosie Howard

Cinnamon Teals


A wing of blue feathers, when you take to flight,
When you are up-ended, your butt is not white,
You're my Cinnamon Teal

You females get confused with Blue-winged it's true,
But you've got no eyeline and surely they do,
You're my Cinnamon Teal

The first ones to come back alone in the spring,
No beauty do you lack, a "WOW" do you bring,
You're my Cinnamon Teal

I could be happy the rest of my life with a Cinnamon Teal.

More words...

Memorial Website:

James Kepler Wilson, 1948-2015 Forever Missed

Articles and tributes from local media and organizations:

Eastern Sierra Loses James Wilson - The MonoLogue (Mono Lake Committee)

Eastside Mourns James Wilson - The Inyo Register (PDF for printing here: Eastside Mourns James Wilson)

James Wilson Remembered - The Sheet

In Memory Of Our Dear Friend James Wilson - Kay Ogden, Landlines (Eastern Sierra Land Trust)

We were so fortunate to have known him, to have spent time in his company, to have had him as a member of our community in our beautiful eastern Sierra. Thank you, James, for a life well-lived.

James and Kay, Australia, 2007

James and Kay
(In Australia - photo by Barbara Kelley)

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