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The Heart of Wildness

….When Mabel McKay, a deceased Pomo basket weaver and doctor, heard somebody say that he had used native medicinal herbs but that they hadn’t worked for him, she responded, “You don’t know the songs. You have to know the right songs.” With no one to teach us, we don’t know the songs either.  The native practice of dreaming songs about the nonhuman world seems as valuable and elusive as a piece of pure bunchgrass prairie or the truth about the land. “Gardening with a Wild Heart”

Some say wilderness disappeared with Lewis and Clark.  We may still have wild lands, but true wilderness is gone.  Maybe once we finished mapping every inch, that was the final nail in the coffin.

Dad's Lake.  The Continental Divide looms in the background

Dad’s Lake. The Continental Divide looms in the background

Indigenous cultures once had their very identify, culture, and religion tied to the Land. The plants and animals were as familiar and knowable to them as our ATM’s and supermarkets are to us today.  They were Earth-based cultures. And although I consider our European cultures ‘Sky-based’–we identify with ideas i.e. ‘liberty and freedom’ or ‘God in Heaven’–there are still those of us who find sustenance and spiritual refreshment in Land.  And I would argue since all human beings are fitted to this earth, therefore the natural world and its wildness must resonate for everyone.  In essence, we are still Land-based peoples. Only our culturally-inherited earth knowledge has been diminished.




In todays world, it is expedient and pragmatic for conservation groups to cloth their case in economic terms, whether it be for wildlife or land preservation.   Protecting wolves or bears becomes important because people like to view them, which brings in tourist dollars.  Setting aside elk habitat is good for hunters as they pay for the game agencies. The argument to preserve every ‘cog and wheel’ for its own sake has no power.


Coyote pups

Yet conservation groups are amiss to ignore this argument, for truly that is what is at the heart of the issue–we need these lands for our spirit; preserving the entire biotic community is important for its inherent value, not its monetary one.  The mysteries of this Earth spark our sense of wonder.  If all becomes mapped and pedestrian, where shall we look for awe, for beauty, for the surprise of diversity and difference.  Without these basic human needs met, we lose our compass in this world.

It is time to add this other dimension to our call for protection.  In my book The Wild Excellence I call this added element ‘The Sacred Land Ethic’.  Aldo Leopold’s land ethic states

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  The land ethic simple enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.  A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

To this eloquent and beautiful description of the way we should live, I’ve just added the word ‘sacred’ to include Land as a source of vision, spiritual awareness and sustenance.  Sacred includes all the plant songs we have yet to remember, and all the dances the animals have yet to re-teach us.  Sacred includes that moment when you stand in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the moment alone in the woods when you encounter a new-born fawn.

Moose and calf

All of us have resorted on many occasions to the natural world for restoration. So let us not hide behind the arguments of ‘monetary value’ of wildlife.  Let us speak the truth of why it is we are fighting to preserve what’s left of the wilds.

The Wild Excellence: Notes From Untamed America

My new book is finally available from Amazon.  The Wild Excellence:  Notes from Untamed America takes its title from a Pablo Neruda poem.

Without doubt, I praise the wild excellence

The Wild Excellence

Over 60 years ago, Aldo Leopold proposed a new way of looking at land. He called it ‘The Land Ethic’. This view is the model all conservation groups use today. In my book, The Wild Excellence, I propose to broaden that template to include another element: our ancient relationship to Land as source of vision, spiritual awareness and awakening–The Sacred Land Ethic.  This idea of mine did not come out of a vacuum, but naturally evolved from living in this wild ecosystem of the Greater Yellowstone.

In my book I tell the story of how I was transformed through direct connection with wildlands and wildlife:  I work on a wolf project; my valley is the center of an elk study that reveals very interesting data; I track bears, find coyote dens and search for evidence of first peoples–all in this unique ecosystem, living just a few short miles from Yellowstone National Park’s eastern border.

Observing wildlife and wild nature changes my views on the Land and how we must treat it.   From the Epilogue:

I walk out into the night air and the brilliance of the evening sky intrudes upon my feelings.  The celestial dome above me is packed with star light.  The local wolf pack is howling.  They’ve made a kill nearby and with their bellies full, they announce their pleasure into the blackness.  A rustling of hooves beats back and forth in the large meadow in front of the house.  I go in and grab a high beam flashlight.  As I shine it towards the pasture, a thousand eyes stare back at me. The elk herd has come.  Disturbed by my dog and the nearby wolves, they move restlessly as my beam tracks only their eyes, focused on me with curiosity and fear.  Something familiar rustles through my bones.  My flashlight becomes a torch, my house the village, and I sit with friends around a fire, ten thousand years ago, with this same sea of eyes staring from the darkness.  There is an eeriness to it, and a vulnerability.  And a rightness.  I feel my humanness and my place in the Universe.  I am grateful, once again, to be living here, in one of the last places on earth where all things are intact.  It is my home and without any doubt, I praise the wild excellence.

Some praise for The Wild Excellence:

Narrating from the borderlands of Yellowstone National Park, Leslie Patten brings us vivid accounts of wolves, grizzlies, the seasonality of ecosystems and tales of prehistoric Indians–all written with a naturalist’s eye and woven in a personal network of modern day homesteading, dogs and community. There are times when the best reporting on national parks comes from voices just beyond the legal boundary, close enough fora passionate attachment to the beauty of the land but sufficiently distant for critical appraisal of governmental management. Leslie Patten is one of those voices.

— Doug Peacock, Author of Grizzly Years, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth

 “The Wild Excellence” belongs in every library and personal book shelf. Leslie lets us enter her world of wilderness and all its beauty and wonder. Then encourages us to preserve all that is wild for future generations. Her words, “The grizzly bear’s gift to man is the Power of the PresentMoment” sums up the essence of this book.

— Dan and Cindy Hartman, Photographers Yellowstone Ecosystem Wildlife Along The Rockies


I hope you will buy my book, enjoy it, and be moved to love our remaining wildlands and wildlife.  If you do, please leave your comments on the Amazon page.  That will help more people find the book and read it.  My sincere hope is that all the million plus people who visit this Ecosystem every year will come to support this unique area with their voices and their vote to protect it for future generations.

Grizzly front foot

Our Social Nature

Black Elk, after traveling all over including Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody’s show, made this comment in his book Black Elk Speaks. “After a while I got used to being there, but I was like a man who had never had a vision.  I felt dead and my people seemed lost, and I thought I might never find them again.”

I have been traveling.  Seeing fantastic landscapes that appear to be out of your dreams, sleeping under the stars every night, exploring ancient pictures that tell of hunts, buffalo, bighorn sheep, and phantasmagorical creatures.

Look for the tiny people down below

Look for the tiny people down below

Landscapes of your dreams

Landscapes of your dreams

Arches National Park is weird and unreal, like a moonscape, but I did see a coyote wandering around.  Canyonlands is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Negro Bill Wilderness Study Area

Negro Bill Wilderness Study Area

One view of Canyonlands

One view of Canyonlands

An old man at a viewpoint in Island in the Sky remarked to me “This is one of the two best Parks in the U.S.”

“What’s the other one?”  I asked.


I’ve met people from Bozeman, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and New Mexico.  Many are on their second or third trip.  There’s just too much here to see, especially in Canyonlands which could take a lifetime of exploring, let alone driving.

Reminds me of Uluru

Reminds me of Uluru

What has stood out to me starkly?  The enormous and overwhelming landscapes, and the town of Moab, juxtapositioned together like a tale of two cities.Oak and oak

Moab is a mecca for recreation.  Hikers, bikers, climbers, hunters, boaters, off-roaders–whatever pleasurizing you can think of in the outdoors.  Just go into town and experience their beautiful expensive visitors’ center, with every possible pamphlet, extremely helpful and friendly staff to guide you through any experience you want of the outdoors; this not only was a great boon for my trip experience, but gave me the distinct feeling that all of nature was here to give me a great vacation.  Oh, they did say “Be safe when you 4-wheel to these petroglyphs”, “Bring lots of water”, etc.  But the orientation, the philosophy all shared by our entire culture seemed to be symbolized here, in this tiny booming town.  “There is only this physical world, and its worth exploiting the hell out of it till we die.”

And that is why I thought of Black Elk, shaman and prophet.  He stepped out of his world, a world where every aspect of nature is accepted as a form of spirit energy, every object, every individual, human and non-.  Where the lightning is a God, the storm clouds are a God,  the rain is a God, the river is a God.  And then he spent time traveling the world with Buffalo Bill, where now all that he had held sacred was viewed as entertainment.  And after a time of doing that, he grew accustomed, but he felt dead inside.Petroglyphs

Fun is great.  And so is the sensitivity that only comes with a slowness; entering into the field of Nature like the summers of childhood.  Aldo Leopold, writing of his time in Arches National Park says “there was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing.”  In that, we might, as a society, learn something new.

Double rainbow over my campsite on the Colorado River

Double rainbow over the Colorado River