Renewal through exploration in Greater Yellowstone

Review of ‘The Wild Excellence: Notes from Untamed America’ by Leslie Patten.

 

The Wild Excellence: Notes from Untamed America
Leslie Patten
256 pages,
softcover: $20.
Wordsworth Publishing, 2014.

It’s not that uncommon for weary Californians to uproot from the chaotic coast and replant in the big-skied wilds of the Interior West. Few transplants, however, re-root as deeply or earnestly as Leslie Patten, author of the new collection of essays, The Wild Excellence.

In 2005, the Bay Area landscape designer — fueled by memories of summers spent in Wyoming and a needling urge to cut through emotional unrest with the “sharp edge” of backcountry living — bought a leaky, ragged cabin in Sunlight Basin, 50 miles from Cody. A few years (and cabin repairs) later, Patten, in her early 50s, moved alone to northwestern Wyoming for good. Armed with a rare curiosity and fearlessness, she began exploring her surroundings: the richly forested and glacier-hewed heart of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Patten’s investigation of this landscape, and her place within it, forms the basis of The Wild Excellence, which chronicles her “day to day, season by season” integration into habitat as rich in beasts as it is in beauty.

But The Wild Excellence is more than a personal meditation on place. From her humble six-acre patch among the pines, Patten has experienced more land-use and wildlife issues than most Westerners encounter in a lifetime. Patten digs into everything, from archaeological preservation to trapping to wolf and grizzly management, probing the bones of each with a thoughtful calm born of research and experience. Her prose is fresh, clean and occasionally profound, as when she describes her approach to the basin’s grizzlies: “To walk with the Great Bear,” she writes, “one must be alert, fully awake and aware. ... You cannot walk lost in thought, or conversation. You must be present. This alone is a gift that only another top predator can bring to man.”

As Patten shares her adventures, from her initially awkward attempts to fence her property and camera-trap local wildlife to her later exploration of her neighbor’s — and the area’s — homesteading history, it becomes clear that she didn’t move to the mountains to idle in a scenery-soaked stupor. Rather, Patten writes, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an elemental place that seems “to hold the essence of what (is) required to be a human being ... a landscape demanding vigilance and clear-eyed thinking.”