Listening to the Land: The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as Oral History
Although there have been oral histories made of wilderness activists such as Wallace Stegner, oral history and pristine wilderness are seldom paired. Wilderness, as defined by the 1964 Congressional Act is, “ in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, [wilderness] is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. ” Given this definition, human history is often neglected in wilderness literature. This is especially true of places like the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the third largest of such areas in the continental U.S. as well as one of the most remote. Yet, however, “ untrammeled ” this landscape appears to be, in fact it has a complex human history. Representing this history is best done through the medium of oral narrative since orality holds the ability to preserve a sense of time and place, and sound is the fullest way to transform a real space into an imaginary one. Oral narratives of the Selway-Bitterroot, and by extension many American wildernesses, are vital to understanding the interconnectedness between cultural and natural environments. These narratives get closest to the experiencing body in real time, which is what understanding wilderness requires. I wrote this essay, Listening to the Land, for the Oral History Review.
The Free Play of Natural Forces: The Wild Methods of Oral History in Documenting Wilderness Areas
While the Wilderness Act is documented—though somewhat erratically—in official archives like the National Archives and Records Administration, I argue that oral history methods are better suited than traditional methods to documenting Wilderness. Consider the langauge of the Act itself: Wilderness is a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The most important word in the Act is “untrammeled,” an archaic word specially chosen by Howard Zahniser, the author of the Act, to mean “not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces.” Although oral history has methodological conventions, part of those conventions rely on the “free play of natural forces” as subjects reach into their memories and find experiences, as they select events and replay emotions, and in so doing, arrive at a kind of truth for themselves and for the historical record. The interviewer has some measure of control by asking pre-prepared questions, but compared to other forms of historical knowing, oral history happens in the moment through natural forces of sound, voice and memory. This essay is in the collection Oral History and the Environment, edited by Stephen Sloan and Mark Cave, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
I conducted fifty oral history interviews for the Selway-Bitterroot History Project. Talking with these individuals has been one of the highlights of my career. Listen to the podcasts of the interviews, created by Erin Jepsen.