I walked through the little woods near my cabin to retrieve my trail camera, a nifty little device that snaps photos automatically—one every second when it detects the heat and movement of an animal. I keep the camouflaged unit stationed by the trail to the springs so I can track all that ventures bye [sic]. The camera, a little bigger than my hand, is fixed around a tree with a bicycle cable and a heavy lock. I opened the front, scrolled through the menu to see if I had any photos. Twenty three.
So begins Leslie Patten's book about life in wild country east of Yellowstone National Park. That scene reveals as much about Patten herself, a single mom (her son is in college) who recently moved from Central California to an isolated, fixer-upper Wyoming cabin, as it does about the wildlife she counts as neighbors. It's an intriguing beginning, hinting at a book that will reveal an iconic American landscape through her wondering eyes. Back in her cabin, Patten puts the camera's memory chip in her computer:
One by one all the photos loaded in, revealing all of the visitors in the last few days. A boar grizzly bear. A beautiful mother black bear with two cubs of the year. A young female cougar. Two wolves traveling through to a den on the other side of the river. A small red fox, and of course, deer. Apart from a sprinkling of human residents, these are my neighbors, along with a host of other wildlife visitors.
The Wild Excellence does provide that personal look at an extraordinary landscape. Patten writes about the Shoshone and Crow who were the valley's first human residents, about wolves and grizzly bears, elk and deer, coyote and badger, as well scientists, land managers, archeologists and ordinary folk. Her chapters weave myth and science with history and with her experiences as she digs out her clogged spring system, hikes and explores, copes with weather and isolation, and grows an intimate relationship with a place that her heart recognized on first sight as home. In the doing, Patten poses valid questions about how we inhabit this earth, about the role of big expanses of wild land with intact populations of predators and other wildlife, and about what is really important in our lives.
I wanted to love this book. It's clear that Patten loves her adopted place, and I admire her ability to evoke the landscape and her wild and human neighbors, and to consider the volatile issues stemming from the collision of humans and true wilderness. What keeps The Wild Excellence from being a great book, I think, is that Patten herself, our guide to this extraordinary place, never emerges as a fully developed character. She delves deeply into the lives around her, but the stories that might illuminate the woman and her inner life are abbreviated, as when Patten moves to the cabin full-time one winter months earlier than she planned, partly because she is ill from giardia, a debilitating waterborne parasite picked up on a summer backpacking trip. That first full Wyoming winter brings epic snows, marooning Patten in her cabin for days or weeks at a time. "I lived through that winter," she writes, "experiencing a death and rebirth inside the den of my little cabin." And that's it. What was that death and rebirth like? Was she lonely? Frightened? Sick? Fearful? We don't know, because she doesn't explain.
Small errors of grammar and word choice crop up throughout the book ("bye" instead of "by" in the second sentence, for instance) suggesting that the book lacked the kind of editing that might have nudged Patten's writing deeper and farther. That's too bad, because while The Wild Excellence is a good book, with some help it could have been so much more.
Leslie Patten is a landscape designer with a background in tracking and naturalist studies. She is the author of Biocircuits: Amazing New Tools for Energy Health as well as several eBooks on gardening. Visit her blog.
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