They saw in the water many of the serpent-kind,
wondrous sea-dragons exploring the waters,
such nicors as lie on the headlands,
who, in the mornings, often accomplish
sorrowful deeds on the sail-road,
serpents and wild-beasts.
So concludes the epic poem Beowulf. Speaking Old English, storytellers composed Beowulf extemporaneously and shared passages from person to person for thousands of years until they were written down sometime between the eighth and the eleventh centuries. Beowulf is very much a poem about animals, so it’s appropriate to translate its last word, “wilde-or,” as “wild-beasts,” though the word forms the root of “wilderness.”
As the ethnobiologist David Abram reminds us, our indigenous ancestors and many aboriginal people who maintain an oral tradition see language arising from wild nature. In this understanding, people, coyotes, crickets, salmon, and pine trees all speak. Speech is both personal and universal. It is carried on the air of our breath and through the atmosphere between people. As a form of air, it is part of the mystery of all of creation. The wind, especially, is full of sounds that are spiritually meaningful.
At 1.3 million acres, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness drapes across the border between Montana and Idaho in the northern Rockies. On the south it meets the much larger wilderness called the Frank Church River of No Return. Together, they form the largest wildland complex in the lower 48. But the Selway-Bitterroot has a special place in the history of the fifty-year-old Wilderness Act and the current Wilderness Preservation System.
The land was home to the Nimiipuu and Salish hunter-gatherers for some 10,000 years before Lewis and Clark’s 1805–06 expedition opened it to white men. Yet underneath its surface, a geologic formation barren of minerals called the “Idaho Batholith” made the land unattractive to miners as well as farmers and ranchers who needed good soil. As one forester wrote in 1925, this backcountry included “some of the roughest, rockiest country in America,” with “no resources except scenery.”
That perception kept the Selway-Bitterroot free of roads until the 1920s. Although some people did want to punch more roads through the mountains and down the rivers, the area was temporarily protected when it was designated a primitive area in 1936. For the next twenty years, its National Forest Service supervisor, Guy Brandborg, resisted pressure to build.
The father of the National Wilderness Preservation System, Bob Marshall, favored the Selway-Bitterroot. He spent so much time hiking there that it was originally supposed to bear his name. In 1935, Marshall joined the ecologist Aldo Leopold and a few others to found the Wilderness Society. Shortly thereafter, Marshall visited Brandborg to talk about the concept of a wilderness system that would span the entire country. Brandborg’s son Stewart, only twelve at the time, remembered clearly the visit from a man with a face burned beet-red from the sun (Marshall had just been on a 30-mile hike over the Bitterroot Mountains). Two decades later, Stewart, who had become an officer in the Wilderness Society, helped environmental activist Howard Zahnizer shepherd the Wilderness Act through Congress, protecting the Selway-Bitterroot and other areas. Zahnizer died just a few months before the signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House, and so Stewart—a Selway-Bitterroot boy—took his place.
In 2010, I and Dennis Baird from the University of Idaho received the first grant in the history of the National Endowment for the Humanities related to a wilderness: $200,000 to preserve the human story of the Selway-Bitterroot. We wanted to protect its documentary history with the same passion that others have brought to protecting the land. We traveled far and wide, collecting 16 linear feet of photos, diaries, policy memos, letters, and handwritten personal reminiscences, which we archived at the University of Idaho. We found the materials languishing in tiny Forest Service buildings, or buried in massive repositories like the thirty-acre National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Some were privately held by individuals. We followed clues that often led to documents that had been destroyed.
The work that meant the most to me was interviewing more than fifty people who had worked and lived in the Selway-Bitterroot and locating a dozen historic oral histories taken in the 1970s. Listening to them reminded me that wilderness as a concept originated with oral tradition. We heard a variety of voices—young, old, middle aged, men and women, tribal members and white people, rangers, packers, artists, inholders, rafters, biologists, firefighters, and teachers. A fraction of our material is posted as podcasts at selwaybitterrootproject.wordpress.com. Through their careful observations, these people gave the land itself a voice.
The Selway has its own moan. You can hear it when wind travels at a certain speed through tree snags. Elizabeth Wilson, an elder in the Nez Perce tribe and relative of Chief Joseph, recalls the sound in an interview in 1971 at the age of 90. The interview was conducted by former WSU music professor Loran Olsen and held in the WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections. In the interview, she is helped along by her son Angus:
Angus: In the valley now you get that effect … at times it will sound like there’s a band of sheep at a distance, maybe 50 or 100, and it’s just the wind … the way the wind whistles down …
Elizabeth Wilson: … tell ’em about tiye-pu.
Angus: Well, tiye-pu … the wind going through a dead snag.
Elizabeth Wilson: Just whistling
Angus: You only hear it in the mountains where fire has swept through. And even one snag will make noise. But where there’s a bunch of them, you just hear [starts to make a moaning noise].
Elizabeth Wilson: Yeah, sad noise. I’ve heard that.
Those of us who value wilderness value its mysteries. A young trail crew leader named Mack Bohrmann told me many stories, but at the same time he considered storytelling a compromise with wildness, much like a trail. Although marked trails aren’t as disruptive as a road, they are an invasion nonetheless. So Mack doesn’t want to see too many trails and, he says, “I don’t share every story.”
He might as well have been talking about his family or a lover, reminding us that intimacy requires some privacy.
Those of us who love wilderness see communication in any number of signs. Art Seamans, the wilderness ranger in the Selway-Bitterroot in the summer of 1979, told me about his work recovering bodies from the river after a plane crash. Twenty feet down, under strong currents, sand moving at the bottom of an eddy released the bodies so they emerged briefly from the water before sinking back down. The search-and-rescue team sent down a diver with weights, who came back saying he’d never seen anything like it before. “The sand was moving in such a way that these [bodies] would rise out of the sand in the bottom of the river,” Seamans said.
I can’t forget that story, for it shows us what we can see if we look closely, and yet how much remains buried; how nature confides its secrets, grieving, struggling to express itself.
WSU English professor Debbie Lee has conducted 50 interviews with people connected to the history of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Her efforts, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be part of two forthcoming books: Bitter Roots: Memoir of a Wilderness (a nonfiction work), and The Land Speaks: Voices at the Intersection of Oral and Environmental History (a scholarly book).