While out for a hike near her cabin in the wild, high country east of Yellowstone National Park on a relatively balmy January day (20 degrees F, no wind), Patten sees tracks of a wild cat much larger than those of the bobcats she is used to following. “Immediately, without ever having seen them before,” she writes, “I ‘grokked’ that these large prints must belong to a cougar.”
She follows the tracks and finds that the big cat trekked to the edge of the precipice of the deep Clarks Fork Canyon, “paused, and looked over her vast domain.” The tracks and the moment of awareness of mountain lion awakens something in Patten that gives her a new sense of the vastness of the world and the size of her place in it:
The prints took my breath away. Something deep inside me stood at attention, not afraid, but now much more alert, awed, as if the tracks were a sacrament. I was in the presence of a true predator, in fact, the perfect predator.Puma concolor—cat of one color. The cat with the tawny coat that blends in perfectly with her surroundings is the quintessence of grace, speed, agility, and stealth… The quiet of the icy landscape penetrated my body, and my mind was still. This cougar passed where I am standing.
Ghostwalker is a deep dive into science and culture and what makes mountain lions such awe-inspiring wild cats, a dive that takes in their ancestors, their current range and lives, and the challenges facing them in the modern West. What makes this book compelling is that Patten herself inhabits the story, her curiosity and thirst to understand another species driving the narrative forward.
Her writing is by turns poetic and reverential, as in the two passages above. It is also hard-nosed and realistic about the big cats and the people who study them through science or tracking and hunting them—which, Patten makes clear, is often another form of fascination with the majestic cats and their essential wildness.
Like the best of nature and science writing, Ghostwalker illuminates The Other, both another species—mountain lions—and people from differing cultures and world-views. As Patten brings what it means to be a mountain lion into sharper focus, she also give insight into what it means to be human.
Ghostwalker is a wise book, a book to savor and return to again and again.