A scholar of 19th century literature, Debbie Lee was immersed in the archives of London, England, in 1999 when her dying grandmother gave her a box that changed the course of her life.Inside were photos of a wilderness area in Idaho and Lee’s grandfather, a man she never knew and who was never spoken of, an American Indian forest ranger who homesteaded one of the most remote areas of the U.S.
Her interest piqued, Lee traveled to the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness area where he once lived.
She was a city girl, raised in Seattle, who’d never heard of designated wilderness. She volunteered there for six weeks.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” recalls Lee, 52. “I’d been at Oxford and Cambridge working on all these esoteric subjects. I left it all behind and made this my personal as well as scholarly and intellectual world.”
Lee, now a professor of English at Washington State University, is working on the final draft of her book, “Bitter Roots: Memoir of a Wilderness,” a personal and human history of the roadless area.
She and Moscow historian Dennis Baird have collected thousands of documents and photographs for the Selway Bitterroot history project. Its products — her historical book, a Web exhibit, and an archive of documents, photographs and oral histories — will help preserve the area’s history.
The two will speak about their work Saturday at the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation’s seventh annual Winter Gathering and Fundraiser in Lewiston.
The Selway Bitterroot was one of the first areas to be designated wilderness after the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Forester Bob Marshall, founder of the Wilderness Society, called it the greatest of all wilderness areas. At 1.3 million acres, when it is added to the Magruder Corridor and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness it totals 3.9 million acres, an area roughly the size of Connecticut covered with thousands of trails.
The human story of the wilderness has never been compiled, Lee says.
“I think that when we talk about the wilderness areas being untrammeled — that one word is quoted over and over — in doing that we’re kind of erasing the fact it is a storied wilderness, it’s trammeled by human narrative and human story.
This wilderness in particular tells the story of hundreds of people making decisions on the side of protecting it rather than destroying it,” Lee says.
The project is partially funded by a $200,000 We the People grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Documents are being preserved at the University of Idaho.
Lee hopes to have the book published by 2014 for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. People with stories to share about the area can contact Lee at (312) 354-0677.
What: Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation’s 7th Annual Winter Gathering & Fundraiser
When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2
Where: The Orchid Room, Morgan’s Alley, 301 Main St., Lewiston
Of Note: The event features live music, wine and desserts and a silent auction and raffle featuring fishing and float trips; cabin rentals; framed photographs, carvings, hand knits and weavings; outdoor gear; trout and steelhead flies; and more.