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Afternoon sunlight on the Bitterroots

Haunted by the Wilderness: An Interview with DJ Lee

By Melissa Sevigny

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If every place is haunted, wilderness gives you a different sense of hauntedness—especially the wilderness of Idaho and Montana.
 

Introduction

The wilderness is not an empty place in DJ Lee’s memoir Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots (Oregon State University Press, 2020). It’s crowded with people, dogs, mules, and wild animals—but also with ghosts, graves, and the layered memories of generations past. One woman is drawn back to a place she hated. Another vanishes without a trace. Spanning generations and reaching back into the memories of the dead, Remote follows twisting, half-forgotten trails that all lead to the Moose Creek Ranger Station in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

DJ Lee
DJ Lee.
Photo by Dennis DeHart.

Lee begins her narrative journey when she inherits a box of old documents from her grandmother, which sparks a 15-year-long quest to understand her family history, and its deep, sometimes troubled relationship with a corner of wild country in Idaho and Montana. Lee’s debut memoir shows an accomplished writer at work, weaving threads of regional history and her own past into a rich tapestry that explores all the different ways of belonging to a place. 

Lee is a Regents Professor in the English Department of Washington State University and divides her time between Moscow, Idaho and Oak Park, Illinois. She’s author or editor of eight books on history, environment, and exploration, including most recently The Land Speaks: New Voices at the Intersection of Oral and Environmental History (Oxford University Press, 2017). Her award-winning work has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies. Lee directs the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness History Project and is a scholar-fellow at the Black Earth Institute.

Being human means confronting our fundamental aloneness.

Interview

Melissa Sevigny: Remote took 15 years to write. Take me back to the first moment when you knew you had a story you wanted to tell. 

DJ Lee: I’m a scholar of 18th and 19th century literary history, so I’ve spent a lot of time in archives in England and the U.S. When my grandmother gave me a box of stuff on her deathbed, I realized it was a kind of archive—a family archive—and I automatically thought: this is something to study. A few years later, after having gone back to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness a few times, I saw there were thousands of documents at Moose Creek Ranger Station, this place so remote it’s 25 miles from the nearest dirt road. Some of the documents were in the Forest Service attic and covered in mice feces. Rangers didn’t have time to sort them out. But being an archivist, I knew these things needed to be preserved, and I knew how to preserve them. So I partnered with a colleague at the University of Idaho and we did a huge project. That, to me, was originally the story. I just knew this history had to be saved. 

As I was doing this, I was also really engaged with my family’s history in the place, but it wasn’t until later that I realized my story was part of a larger wilderness story. I thought, I’ll merge these two narratives. It’ll be easy! But of course it was really hard. 

Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, by DJ LeeMelissa Sevigny: So your friend Connie’s disappearance happened when you were already in the process of writing this book about the Bitterroots and your family. That became the thread that everything else was built around. How did that happen?

DJ Lee: I had finished a draft in 2012, and Connie was already a huge part of it. I thought I’d never publish it because it had a lot of narrative problems. Then an editor at Oregon State University Press who was really interested in the Bitterroots urged me to revise it. So I started working on it again, and I finished the manuscript in the fall of 2018.

I was camping in the Bitterroots by myself every weekend that year. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from where I live, so Friday afternoons—my car was permanently packed—I’d drive down there. I’d hike a few miles and camp close to the wilderness boundary, all by myself. Connie loved to camp alone in the wilderness. I was never comfortable doing that. But that fall, for the first time, I felt fine being back there alone. I was thinking about her all the time, things like: I’m finally like Connie!

All of a sudden, she went missing in another part of the wilderness. It was devastating. I felt weirdly responsible because I had written so much about her, and the book is about what goes missing in the wilderness. When the search and rescue crews couldn’t locate her, I knew I had to incorporate her disappearance into the story—to commemorate her, and because her story reflects so much of the human experience in that place.

Melissa Sevigny: Your stories of women in the wilderness include vulnerability—like a moment with the mules, when you’re not sure you can control them and you’re a little afraid of them. It’s difficult to show that on the page, show that you’re human and up against things you’re not ready for. 

DJ Lee: Isn’t that one of the great things about the wilderness? No matter who you are, you’ll be up against those things. The people who get in trouble are the ones who think they are invincible. But no one is, back there. I’ve had experiences where we’ve gone over huge rockslides, and since I’m really short I just dance over them, but other people who are fitter and more competent struggle. You never know what you’re going to come up against and where you’ll excel based on your body type, and your ability to take risks or be cautious. It’s so empowering.

DJ Lee in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness
DJ Lee in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Melissa Sevigny: The book is empowering to women, absolutely—which is a hard thing to carry off in a book that’s framed around the disappearance of a woman in the wilderness. 

DJ Lee: Connie is one of many women who love that place. She was known as someone who completely championed women. And also men. But she always mentored women. She would give young women these scarves that said, “A woman’s place is in the wild.” Her disappearance is something women especially are still trying to come to terms with. I hope women who read the book will take it as a love letter honoring our place in the wild. 

Melissa Sevigny: The idea of aloneness happens in all these different ways in the book—physically, camping alone or hiking alone, but also being emotionally alone, being estranged from your family. Tell me about how those themes came together for you.

DJ Lee: I do think being human means confronting our fundamental aloneness. When we pass from this world, we have to do that all by ourselves. I think the wilderness prepares you for that. But in the wild, even when you’re by yourself, you’re not really alone because there’s the plants and the animals. Like the chapter where I’m camping at my grandfather’s former property, and I have an encounter with a pine marten. It’s like you travel through the instability of loneliness to calm, to being okay with yourself, being okay with the solitude—which then, isn’t lonely at all. It’s one of the most engaging experiences you can have. It’s not solipsistic, you’re not sitting in your living room gazing out the window ruminating. It’s very active. You’re engaged in trying to survive.

And then there’s the loneliness that happens in a family, where you’re supposed to be really close with people you’re related to by blood, and that can make you can feel more alone than if you never tried to have intimacy in the first place. Intimacy always involves pockets of estrangement. We’re so separate. We can’t merge completely with anything—until we die and become one with the Earth, I guess. 

Melissa Sevigny: You’re unflinchingly honest in talking about your relationship with your family, particularly your mother. I’m sure you’ve shown them this book. Was that difficult? 

DJ Lee: I didn’t show it to my family beforehand, and I’m not sure how many of them have read it. When writing isn’t quite formed, it’s not a good idea to show it to people you’re intimate with. You don’t want someone changing it, you want to go through your own discovery process first. Even though I didn’t show my writing to my mother, I did discuss with her everything I wrote. She’s really the hero of the book. I’m not a fan of therapy writing, but I feel like the book was a huge healing process for us. I don’t know if we would have had those conversations about my grandmother’s mental illness, my grandfather’s silences, or gone to the Bitterroots together, if I wasn’t so keenly interested in figuring out the mysteries of the family and the wilderness. It helped us get to know one another better.

When the search and rescue crews couldn’t locate her, I knew I had to incorporate her disappearance into the story.

Melissa Sevigny: Talk to me about the process of mining your own family history. You reconstructed and really discovered for the first time the story of your grandparents and their connection to the Bitterroots. 

DJ Lee: Because I’m a literary historian by training, I was careful to not bend anything my way. Something that’s tempting for a historian is to cherry pick details to fit the narrative you want to tell. I was overly cautious to not do that. As a result, the first five or six drafts read like a report or historical inventory. I had to learn how to turn it into story. A lot of it was pulling out documents, oral histories, and talking to people, including my mother, visiting sites, and finally at some point I was able to say: “This is what I learned, but here’s what I imagined.”  

Melissa Sevigny: You get that box full of documents and you could treat it just as evidence, but you treat it as an emotional artifact of your own life. It’s hard to lean into that and be vulnerable in that way. 

DJ Lee: It is. One thing I know, no matter how hard it was, I just could not stop. The research and writing became an obsession. I felt like I was meant to investigate this story and all its threads, and I just could not stop. 

Melissa Sevigny: The archival research you did turned up all these bizarre stories about ghosts and graves. The book is literally haunted all the way through. Talk to me about where those stories came from and why you felt they needed to be in there.

DJ Lee: With any history, any place, even Manhattan—the most populated places on the planet—you’ll find stories of people whose lives have ended in these intriguing, fascinating, bizarre, unknown, haunted ways. I think such stories stand out in the wilderness because it is a lonely, dangerous place, and it can feel spooky. Of course, thousands of people walk through wildernesses every year and nothing happens, and you never hear about them. But the strange, eccentric stories, they end up getting written down.

I uncovered a lot of reminiscences, from old-timer foresters and from the Nimíipuu, the Native Americans who live there. I’d be reading this dull reminiscence of some early forester—snooze—and then suddenly I’d come across a character like Martin Moe. He was an immigrant from somewhere in northern Europe who travelled the wilderness with a partner, another man. When that man went missing, people saw Moe walking the ridges by himself and then he disappeared. And I’m like, wait a minute! Those strange narratives stick out. I’ve always been drawn to the inexplicable.
 

Bitterroots panorama
Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains from Bear Creek Overlook.
Photo by Scott Wilson Photography, courtesy Shutterstock.

 
Melissa Sevigny:
In a weird way, you’re writing a ghost story—you’re writing about Connie and the ghosts of your own relatives in the Bitterroots.

DJ Lee: I didn’t realize I was doing that until quite late in the process—writing about people who to me were still very much alive in the place, but who were gone—had passed away or disappeared and nobody knew what had happened to them. I don’t want to be simplistic and say wilderness is haunted, because I feel like every place is haunted. I mean, this house I’m sitting in right now was owned by a guy who died on a bridge in Oregon. He stopped to help a woman whose car broke down, and he leapt over the railing and went into the Columbia River, and they didn’t find him for six months. But if every place is haunted, wilderness gives you a different sense of hauntedness—especially the wilderness of Idaho and Montana, with the granite peaks and thick forests and deep valleys and wild rivers. You know people have been there before, but you can’t see traces of them. And you have time while you’re walking to think about these things, you’re not distracted by the gadgets and conversations and to-do lists of the front country. 

Melissa Sevigny: The scenes with the animals in the book are beautiful—the pine marten, the salmon, the bear. It’s interesting that you got a criticism that “wild animal encounters are clichéd” and we shouldn’t write about that anymore. How do you get around that? How do you write a meaningful encounter with animals when that’s been done so many times before?

DJ Lee: Maybe they are a common topic for writers, but the thing is, they’re so powerful when you experience them! You’re changed. Especially with an animal like a bear or elk or wolf, that have a lot of symbolism, or a marten—that’s a very shy creature. My first draft of that scene, where I locked eyes with this pine marten without really knowing what I was seeing, came off as pure fan-girl: “I had this wild animal encounter, isn’t that cool?” I hadn’t taken the time to describe what it meant to me, and why. I had to dig deeper. Yes, keep writing about animal encounters. But then dig deep into why that matters to you: what the land means to you, and what the land means to that animal. Stories like that need to be written in this day and age, when we’re all rooting for these animal habitats to be preserved.

Melissa Sevigny: You say at one point in the book that the wilderness that excluded you and the other women in your family also gave you a sense of belonging. That’s an interesting tension when it comes to ideas of protecting the wilderness. You write about having a possessive relationship with the wilderness, yet we have to understand that we don’t own it or control it.

It takes an enlightened person, and an emotionally mature relationship, to not want to invade the other in some way.

DJ Lee: It is an interesting tension. You have to feel like it’s a beloved, but you also have to let it go. Which is true about love, too. If you’re in love with a person and become very possessive and want to control them, well, that usually ruins a love relationship. We are an invasive species. It takes an enlightened person, and an emotionally mature relationship, to not want to invade the other in some way. I did come across a lot of people—even Connie toward the end of her life—who felt they had some special right to the wilderness. She wrote that she felt possessive of the wilderness, but she knew that you can’t be. It’s a paradox.

Melissa Sevigny: There’s that sense that nobody can love a place as well as you love it.

DJ Lee: Yes! Connie actually wrote those very words. With wilderness, people love it for what they don’t know. I’m fiercely for wilderness protection for all kinds of reasons, for wildlife habitat, but also for something undefinable.

I talked to a senior scientist of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, and he told me they think about how to manage a wilderness for spiritual resources. That idea has always stayed with me. That’s an elusive thing. You can measure how unpolluted a river is for salmon habitat, or how much heat is released during a forest fire, or whatever—but to measure a place for its spiritual qualities, how do you do that? You can look to Indigenous traditions. Still there’s a sense that you can’t really quantify spiritual value. But that’s one of the big reasons people go to these places, and why they protect them. 

Melissa Sevigny: Did writing the book change anything about your relationship to the Bitterroots? 

DJ Lee: I’m still very drawn to those mountains. I actually haven’t camped there since the book came out because of the lockdown, but as soon as I can, I will! It’ll be so nice to go there and not feel like I have to record my impressions for a book. 

Melissa Sevigny: It’s almost a working relationship.

DJ Lee: Exactly. A working relationship and a second home. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel 100 percent comfortable back there because there’s always an element of danger. Wilderness should be that way. It should make you feel challenged and a little decentered.

DJ Lee on the river
DJ Lee on the river.

Melissa Sevigny: What are you working on now? 

DJ Lee: The thing I’m most excited about right now is a monthly miscellany I put out called witness~ wilderness. My sense of “witness” comes from Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, who talks about the artist as a noticer of moments, a documentarian, a meaning maker. The idea is to bear witness to all kind of wildness, even a blade of grass growing from a city sidewalk, and use that as inspiration to create. It features writing and art-making practices, handmade maps and map-making prompts, celebrations of Indigenous lands and practices, and interviews with “earthworkers”—people who either write or make art in collaboration with the natural environment. I’m currently collaborating with a team to expand it to include service-learning projects for teachers and outreach to underserved communities in and around wilderness but also in urban centers. 

I’m also putting together a collection of essays. It’s nearly complete, and it’s called The Edge Is What We Have: Tales for a Changing Planet. Some of the essays I’ve already published, like the piece “Life after Life” in Terrain.org a few years ago, and others are brand new. Each essay is an encounter with a person, with the wild, and with the beyond. And “beyond” can mean the spirit world, it can mean mythology or history, or, since I have an interest in astronomy, it can mean the mysteries of the cosmos.

“The edge is what we have” is a line from a Theodore Roethke poem where he talks about how emotional darkness can make way for clear-eyed vision and even action. Moving from hopelessness to vision and action, that process he calls the edge. That’s a process we all can embrace. I like to think the collection is structurally edgy, too. The essays are braids. It’s a broken form that brings unlikely things together. Like Nicole Walker says, pulling together disparate ideas allows for surprise. For transformation.

 
Connect with DJ Lee at debbiejlee.com.

 
 

Melissa SevignyMelissa L. Sevigny is the interviews editor for Terrain.org. She is the author of Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016), Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016), and the forthcoming nonfiction book Brave the Wild River (W.W. Norton). She writes about science, nature, rivers, and space from her home in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Read essays by Melissa L. Sevigny appearing in Terrain.org: “The Bighorn’s Dilemma,” “On the Trail of Mountain Lions,” and “The Thirsty Tree.”

Header photo of Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot Mountains by Nicholas Courtney, courtesy Shutterstock.

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