An abandoned white Honda Civic was found in the parking lot of Caumsett State Historic State Preserve, in Lloyd Harbor, New York, on Saturday, January 9, 2016. The car belonged to the 22-year old Stella Y. Lee, of Great Neck, New York, who had been missing since she left her home on Thursday, January 7, at 3:27 a.m. The preserve was closed as investigators searched for the young woman.

I first learned of Stella Y. Lee’s story through a Facebook post by a female psychotherapist acquaintance and Long Island resident on Friday, January 8. Immediately after the post went up about Stella, Long Island women began responding furiously with questions: “Was it a rape?” “Was she abducted?” “Was it a serial killer, the one who killed the Gilgo beach girls and was never found, the serial killer they thought was a cop?”

The news of Stella’s disappearance terrified me. I live only fifteen minutes from the park–so I locked my doors and hoped the killer was not lurking in my neighborhood. I imagined danger all around me.

Should I be concerned about walking my dog alone on my solo rambles in local parks, beaches or my neighborhood, I wondered?

I called my ex-husband and told him the story. He told me to “Relax, you’ll be fine,” Then, he added, “Don’t be so hysterical.” Me, the feminist professor: calling my ex-husband, a man, for reassurance. The ex-husband: calling me ‘hysterical.” How ironic.

My ex and I originally bought a house in the town where I now live to be near Caumsett Preserve. We wanted to be close to a park and the woods in this very busy, industrialized and polluted Long Island. Caumsett has always been my haven, the place where I go to enjoy trees, quiet, and nature. It’s where I took my daughter when she was a baby, where I taught her to ride a bike, where we swam, picnicked, and played imaginary games in the forest. It’s where we walked after Superstorm Sandy, took photographs, and mourned the damaged and felled trees.

Years ago, the park used to house rescued and injured wild birds that lived in cages-an eagle with only one wing, a Barn owl, a Screech owl, and a few blackbirds. We spent hours visiting them and observing their behavior. It was in Caumsett that I sighted my first osprey nest, high up in a tree overlooking Long Island Sound.

* * *

On January 11, 2016, 2:30 p.m., Stella Y. Lee’s body was found in a “wooded area” of Caumsett. The various local news sites stated: “No foul play is suspected,” yet they did not mention the cause of her demise. One article said: “An investigation continues.” Another article mentioned that Stella had been suicidal, but included no actual cause of death. After they found her body, the preserve was reopened for visitors.

After reading that Stella had been found, I wondered: Was her death a suicide? How did she kill herself? Why did it take so long for the search party to find her?

* * *

Why is it that when a woman disappears, we imagine a violent death or a violent rape, or both? We imagine it was a serial killer. We imagine he is lurking all around us. We imagine he is coming after us, too.

* * *

One week after Stella’s body discovered, I wanted to go to Caumsett to find out more about her mysterious death. I asked my teenage daughter to join me but she refused. “Mom, you’re being morbid,” she quipped. I then asked a family friend and neighbor, Heather, to join me. Heather grew up on the edge of the preserve and she was curious, too, about Stella’s death. She said she would go with me, but only if we would drive in my car. Heather’s father, who still lives next to the park, has a history of violent behavior. Heather was afraid to see him.

We parked in the lot where Stella’s white Honda Civic had been found, and began walking on the paved road that made a three-mile loop through the preserve. In the distance, just past the entrance and next to the big white former barns, we saw three male workers chatting and loading materials into a pick up truck. Heather and I walked toward them to ask if they knew anything about Stella’s death. Just as we reached the men, two of them hopped into the vehicle and drove off. A tall man in a cap and tan canvas work jacket remained. We introduced ourselves and asked if could comment about Stella. He replied, “It was a suicide. That’s all I know. I’m just a part-time landscaper. There were a lot of helicopters for a few days while they were searching. You might ask my boss questions, the guy who runs the park. He should know all about it. He’s in the office right now, but I doubt he will tell you anything.”

Heather and I headed over to the office. We knocked on the door and a male voice said, “Come in.” A tall young fellow in an orange parka welcomed us with a smile. Behind him, two grim-faced middle-aged men sat at big desks; each of them exchanged knowing glances as we asked about Stella. The young man in the orange jacket looked back at them, paused, and then turned to us. “You should talk to the park police, “he said. “We don’t know anything.”

As the door shut and we walked away, Heather shook her head and said to me, “They certainly know what happened. Did you see the older guy sitting at the very back? I grew up with his kids. He’s really strange. He runs the park. He signaled to the man in orange not to talk.”

* * *

We headed across the big grassy lawn toward the stables and, then, into the woods. The ground was damp and spongy. Further into the trees, we saw a white-tailed deer and several deflated purple balloon skins scattered about. Heather and I warned each other about ticks and Lyme disease, and moaned at the sight of abandoned human garbage.

I had expected to feel out of sorts in the woods of Caumsett, to feel some sign of death or violence, but it was astonishingly beautiful, quiet, and peaceful. Warm golden light broke through silvery clouds.

We walked further and came upon two aged and immense water towers and a fenced-in electrical station with a sign that said, “Stay away. Dangerous for humans.”

We scouted about in different directions, considering where to go next. Heather jogged ahead for a bit and came back. There was no sign of Stella or the people who searched for her; no trampled trails or cleared areas. Everything appeared as it always had, except the weather was unseasonably warm. Last year, by this time, the forest had been covered with snow.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it had been like for Stella to come here alone in the dark and cold. It was thirty degrees on the very early morning that she drove to Caumsett Preserve. There was only a fine sliver of a moon that night. Did she bring a flashlight? Did she have a weapon? Was drugged?

* * *

Why did Stella Y. Lee kill herself? Why did she go to the woods to die?

I searched around on the Internet to find out. Very scant information was available. I remembered we had a family friend, Michelle Geffner, who recently graduated from Great Neck High School. Perhaps she might know something. So, I texted Michelle and asked, “Did you know Stella Y. Lee? Do you know about her recent death?” Michelle immediately texted back: “I didn’t know her personally. She graduated four years before me, but I heard she died. We had a mutual teacher I will put you in touch with. He just posted pictures of Stella’s on his Facebook page.” Michelle sent me the link.

Stella Y. Lee

I was stunned when I saw the pictures–one in particular – of a tree filled with titles of popular books and movies from Stella’s high school years. Book titles were written in black ink and movies in red. The edges of the branches didn’t have actual leaves, but had written words in green instead: “leaves, leaves, leaves.” The choice of book and movie titles were unsurprising for a Long Island teenager – violent, romantic, quirky, and one title even contained the word ‘suicide’, the “Virgin Suicides.”

I was also struck by the size of Stella’s tree: It was very large and powerful in size, yet drawn with fine, delicate lines; the trunk was tilted slightly to the right as if it were being pushed off center. Although the skeletal branches had been invaded by book and movie titles, the tree held its own. Or, maybe it was overwhelmed? The tree supported a whole violent, sexist, and hyper-sexualized youth culture. The trunk had no words printed on it.

Stella’s picture reminded me eerily of a large tree in Caumsett Preserve that I used to call, “mother tree,” like the mother tree in the Disney cartoon movie of Pocohontas. My daughter often climbed “mother tree’” with her friends when she was a little girl.

Michelle then introduced me to their mutual teacher, Dan Weinstein, and we spoke on the phone.

Dan told me: “I’m embarrassed to say this but I don’t remember Stella. She must have been very quiet. Last fall I found her portfolio – she never picked it up. This happened before her death and I threw it away. All I have left are a few pictures, including the tree. I had just hung them up on my classroom wall as an example of good work and then Stella died. I gave them to her cousin, Esther Cho. You should talk to her.”

The next day, I spoke to Stella’s cousin, Esther.

“Was it definitely a suicide?” I asked.

“That’s what we were told. I don’t know. The service was today. It was all in Korean, a Christian service,” Esther told me.

“How did she kill herself?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Esther replied. “Nobody said.”

Esther then repeated the exact same language from the news articles: bland words that revealed little. “No foul play.” And, “Stella drove from her home in the early morning hours on Thursday and the car was found on Saturday; her body was found on Monday by an officer in the park.”

I knew this already.

“Why do you think she went to the woods, to die?” I asked Esther.

“I guess she wanted to go someplace nice. I guess I would want to do that, too,” she said.

“Did Stella like nature? Did she have an affinity for it?” I asked.

“Yes, Yes.” Esther replied. “Stella took lots of pictures of herself in natural places. She loved animals, too. She did the pre-vet track in college and planned to be a veterinarian. She was working in an animal hospital before she died.”

“Did she have any reason to kill herself? She had just graduated from college. What was wrong, do you think?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” stated Esther. “I haven’t seen her for a while. She seemed happy in college. She had friends. Her parents are really nice.”

“Were they born in Korea? Did Stella speak Korean?” It was an odd question, but I had seen a picture on Stella’s Facebook page that said, “Missing Korea.”

“Her parents were born in Korea,” Esther answered. “Yes, Stella spoke Korean and she went back to visit. She liked it there.”

* * *

The myth of little red riding hood runs deep our blood. How young was I when this was first read to me? Four? Five? I recall being terrified. The message:

“Watch out. Don’t trust the woods. Don’t trust animals. Don’t trust men. Be careful going into nature (or anywhere) alone.”

Why are women afraid of the forest? Is this fear rooted in reality or fact? A little girl in red goes out. Why is she in red? So hunters will see her and not shoot? Is she in red because of blood and the symbolism of women, menses, and women and the violence done to them by men?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault might say that women are ‘trained’ to feel afraid of the woods and wilderness as a form of social control. If we are afraid of the wilderness, we won’t venture out of our homes. We will accept the violence done to us by our boyfriends, husbands, fathers, cousins, uncles, and brothers and think it is safer to do so than to go outside. Maybe this is the reason little Red Riding Hood is read to us when we are little girls, as a kind of indoctrination to fear nature, to fear freedom. In many countries today – women are not allowed to travel by themselves, to go outside alone.

Yet for men, going into the wild alone is encouraged -venturing into the wilderness in solitude is a “normal” part of becoming a grown up male–from Robinson Crusoe, to the supposedly solitary nature-man Thoreau, to many other pop culture mythic tales of masculine development. Hiking the Appalachian trail or the Pacific Coast Trail, or climbing Mount Everest -these are positive ways to achieve and express manhood. With the exception of the groundbreaking tale of the solo-hiker Cheryl Strayed in Wild, there are no affirmative popular stories of women going into the woods on their own. Maybe things are changing with Wild?

If times are changing, why did all the women on Facebook react in terror when they heard that Stella Y. Lee had disappeared? Why didn’t they consider, “She’s pulling a Cheryl Strayed? She’s discovering her femininity and having a personal nature experience. Good for her.”

Instead, they jumped to the conclusion that she’d been raped and killed.

* * *

Every 40 seconds someone takes their life and every year roughly 1 million lives are lost due to suicide.

Between 2002 and 2012, 6.1% of adults who were convicted of murder were women, leaving 93.9% men as the primary murderers. Men kill men, of course, but they mostly kill women and they mostly kill women they have known for years.

Most crimes are not committed in forests and wild spaces.

There are some horrific examples of violent crimes committed against women in wild places and parks, but these are the exception.

The wolf lives at home, for the most part. And, by the way, he’s not a wolf. He’s a man.

* * *

The police and the officers from the Department of Conservation would not tell me how Stella committed suicide, nor would they confirm that her death was self-inflicted. I asked a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officer how many such deaths take place in our Long Island parks. He could not to share this information because the case was still under investigation.

I pleaded with one officer: “Women who live near the area were (and are) terrified. Don’t they have a right to know if it was a murder or a suicide?”

“I can tell you that you have nothing to worry about,” he replied in a thick Long Island accent.

* * *

Stella Y. Lee

A few days after I spoke with the officers, Stella’s teacher, Dan Weinstein sent me a note on Facebook with another picture attached. It was a sketch of a girl in solid black floating high above a black and white barren cityscape. One building had the word and single letter “Factory X” written on it. The girl held onto a colorful bunch of balloons and her body arched eagerly forward and the upper portion of the page was filled with two clouds full of small spiraling words that were difficult to read. I enlarged the picture on my computer and spun my laptop around and around to decipher them. In the cloud on the right, there was a description, in Stella’s tightly-packed handwriting, of how clouds were comprised of a “visible mass of droplets or frozen ice” that hated being seen as animals or “fluffy” bunnies. In the cloud on the left, she described the story of the figure of the girl in the picture: she had collected the balloons, filled them with her “breath” of “dreams,” “joy, “grief,” and courage”. While the girl in black was criticized by some for her love of these balloons, others were “awed” by her actions. Eventually, she became “known as the girl who started a revolution.” The story drifted off eerily at the end with: she “disappeared into….” So the girl in Stella’s story vanished into thin air – a bit like Stella would do several years later – disappearing into Caumsett State Preserve for four days before her body would be found in the woods.

Perhaps Stella was contemplating suicide back in high school?

The girl in black from Stella’s story left behind a wake of “criticism”, “awe”, and “revolution”. I wonder: did Stella feel criticized? (What young female teenager doesn’t?) Did she want to inspire awe? (Recognition and acceptance? What young person doesn’t want that?) What did she hope to change in the world she lived in, so much so that her very breath would inspire revolt? (Could she have been a feminist? Did she understand how she was oppressed?) Certainly, the sign “Factory X” on a building in the bleak world below, a place devoid of color, detail, shadows, suggested a rigid, empty, conformist place.

Stella’s girl in black wanted to change that bleak world and leave it.

Stella Y. Lee wrote messages about death, violence, and suicide, long before she died. These days, educators and parents are told to take such artwork or writings seriously. I do not blame Dan Weinstein, but was anyone paying attention to Stella while she lived?

Nobody I’ve spoken to about Stella has answers to my many questions, or if they do, they will not speak.

* * *

We do not know why Stella Y. Lee killed herself or, if for certain, that she did.

I imagine Stella lay in the leaves and willed death to come. I hope she did not die a gruesome death. I hope she found, in some small way, solace in the forest and the trees.

Dr. Heidi Hutner teaches and writes about environmental literature, and film, environmental justice, ecofeminism, ecocriticism, and film and media at Stony Brook University, where she is the director of the Sustainability Studies Program and an Associate Dean in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Hutner is also an active public speaker on environmental issues. Her personal website is:www.heidihutner.com and her Sustainability Studies Website is: www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/sustainability. You can watch her TEDX talk on Eco-Grief and Ecofeminism.


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