Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (1940–) Biography
Autobiography Featuredorothy Hinshaw Patent
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
Many writers have known for as long as they can remember that they wanted to write. Not me. I knew that I loved animals, the woods, and exploring, and I always wanted to learn everything possible about something that interested me. But I never yearned to be a writer. As a matter of fact, I don't recall spending time thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was too busy just living.
The story of my life is a story of love of the earth and of the world of living things. I was born on April 30, 1940, in Rochester, Minnesota, where my father was a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. When I was just a baby, my family moved into a beautiful brick house in a part of town with lots of open fields and woods. I spent much of my first nine years exploring those places.
When I was born, my brother Horton was twelve and my sister, Barbara, was nine. My brother Bill was two-and-a-half. As I grew up, I was a typical, tomboy younger sister, wanting to spend my time playing with Bill and his friends. I found other girls and their games boring. While they dressed cats in baby clothes and carefully rolled them about in baby strollers, I hiked to nearby ponds and brought home muddy buckets swarming with wriggly black tadpoles.
One of the favorite games Bill and I played was with toads. The basement windows on our home had window wells, and toads would get trapped in them. We would take the large, warty creatures with beautiful golden eyes and make them play with us. We used bricks left over from building the house to create walls and alleyways. Then we'd set loose the toads. When a toad managed to climb to the top of a wall or hopped through an alleyway, we'd spray it with the hose, sending it backwards. We had great fun and never thought about how scared the poor toads must have been.
Learning was highly valued in my family. Before going to medical school, my father earned a Ph.D. degree in zoology, so he was a scientist as well as a physician. He would take me on walks in the woods and point out the different wildflowers. My favorites were the jack-in-the-pulpits. They grew in a special place among the bushes between our house and the neighbors'. When the snow melted in the spring, I would crawl under the bushes to see if the jack-in-the-pulpits were pushing their way up through the cold earth yet. It was always exciting to find them, a sign that winter was over and that soon greenness would be everywhere. We had a large backyard with a gentle slope which seemed to me as a small child to be a big hill. When the snow began to melt, my father would shovel channels through the snow to direct the meltwater towards the side of the house, away from the basement, which was prone to flooding. I was fascinated by these quietly flowing little streams and would float walnut shells down them, checking to see which branches of the channels the shells would follow.
Like so many children, I loved horses and dogs. I was lucky enough to get riding lessons, but not lucky enough ever to have my own horse, which was what I really wanted. But we did have a dog, an English cocker spaniel named Ricky. I was two when Ricky joined the family, and my parents had to lock him up in the garage to protect him from my enthusiastic hugs.
When I was nine, my parents decided to move to California. They were tired of Minnesota winters, and my father wanted to go into medical practice by himself. By this time, Horton was finishing up college, and Barbara was completing her first year at the University of Minnesota. So after packing up the furniture and giving Ricky away to some loving friends, my parents drove with me and Bill in April 1949, all the way across the country to California. I was both scared and excited about moving. California sounded wonderful, but I didn't like having to leave my friends and my familiar surroundings. Mostly, however, I was excited about seeing new things and new places. I guess I felt that my brother was my best friend, whether he liked it or not, and he was going to California, too.
There were no freeways in those days, so driving long distances took much more time than it does now. The major highways passed through the center of every town along the way, slowing the trip considerably. I remember a surprise snowstorm in the New Mexico mountains, and cockroaches in the bathtub at a New Mexico motel. I also remember driving my parents crazy with my constant chattering. By the end of the trip they'd lost their patience, and I made a foolish promise not to talk again until we reached San Francisco. Those last few hours were some of the longest of my life. I wanted so badly to ask questions about the changing scene outside the car windows, but I was determined not to break my promise. When we saw the name "South San Francisco" in huge white letters on a hillside, I thought I was finally free to talk again. But my brother said that wasn't really San Francisco but a separate town on the map. It didn't sound fair to me, but I kept my mouth shut until we drove into the real city of San Francisco. By then I didn't even know what to say, I'd stored up so many words.
The first year in San Francisco we lived in a big old house at the bottom of a hill, right next to the huge military preserve called the Presidio. Most of the Presidio was open woods, and I'd climb over the stone wall and explore by the hour. The neighborhood children put up a rope swing in the woods, and we had contests to see who could leap the farthest off the swing. That year, a grateful patient gave my father a television set, a very early model, and Bill and I were fascinated. In those early days, there were very few programs, and they were all in black and white. I loved watching so much that I'd look at just about anything and ended up an expert on the strange men who were professional wrestlers. The most famous was named Gorgeous George. Before he entered the ring with his long blond hair, an assistant would climb over the ropes and spray the air with perfume.
Margarine was relatively new in 1950, and it couldn't be sold already dyed with yellow coloring. Instead, it came in a flexible plastic wrapper, with a capsule of orange dye embedded in one spot. In order to produce yellow margarine, we had to squeeze the wrapper to break the capsule, then squish the package this way and that to spread the dye throughout the white fat to make it turn yellow. Watching television was my way to pass the time while I kneaded the margarine. I had trouble making friends at my school in San Francisco. My brother and I had fun playing with other children in the neighborhood, but school was a different matter. I was the new kid, and the other girls just didn't like me. To this day I'm not sure why, but maybe it was because I'd never spent much time with girls and didn't know how to act around them. Or perhaps my small-town life hadn't prepared me for city kids. In any case, the most popular girls often gave me a hard time. They would stand in a circle and say nasty things about me loud enough for me to hear, and they would tease me. I belonged to a Camp Fire Girl troop with one of those girls, named Laurie, and she enjoyed taking advantage of me. Now I realize that she was probably very unhappy—her parents were divorced, which was a rare thing in those days, and she lived with her mother. She didn't have any brothers and sisters, and she'd never learned how to share with others. But her mother was the troop leader, and Laurie knew how to manipulate other girls. When she came to my house, she'd open all my drawers and examine everything in them, commenting all the while. But in her home, I wasn't allowed to see any of her things or play with her toys. She'd always try to get me to do whatever she wanted to do but would never go along with my ideas. I didn't know how to deal with a person like that—I was always very natural—I'd say what I thought and try to be good at sharing. My two years in San Francisco gave me an understanding of what it's like to be an outsider and a sympathy with children who are different that I feel very strongly to this day.
Unfortunately, we could only have that big house for one year, and when the year was up, my parents still hadn't decided just where they wanted to settle. There were many choices of where to live in the San Francisco area, and they wanted to be sure they chose a place we'd all be happy with. So we packed up our things and moved to a third-floor apartment in a small building. The staircase was very narrow, and the movers had a difficult time getting the couch and the piano up the stairs. The apartment was small compared to that house, but we had a beautiful view of San Francisco Bay, and we were within walking distance of a lovely park with a pond where ducks and geese happily gobbled down the bits of bread I fed them.
I had been taking piano lessons for several years, and my mother had the usual problem of getting me to practice regularly. While we were living in the apartment, she came up with a great idea for how to encourage me to practice without constant nagging. If I spent a half hour every day at the keyboard, she would take me on a shopping trip at the end of each week and buy me something special. Every week it was something different—never anything expensive, but I looked forward to the expeditions with Mother and to the surprises.
One of these little treats ended up changing my life. We went to a pet store, and Mother bought me a pair of golden guppies, a small bowl for them to live in, and a couple of plants to share the new home. Guppies are tropical fish that bear live young, and I was excited about the idea of having this new family in my bedroom. The morning after we bought the fish, I peered into the bowl to check on my new pets. To my surprise, the adult fish weren't alone—three new pairs of eyes stared out at me from among the plants. I couldn't believe this miracle—the female fish had given birth during the night, and now I had five fish instead of two! From then on, I was hooked on tropical fish. For years, I would visit a special Japanese fish store in San Francisco and wander through the back rooms, where the fish were bred and where new fish were kept before being brought into the salesroom. The owners were very nice to me and always let me go wherever I wanted in their store. I bought books about fish and new aquariums with my allowance and birthday money and became quite an expert on all the kinds of fish and how they lived. My enthusiasm for tropical fish came in handy later on, when I wrote one of my early books, Fish and How They Reproduce.
My interest in writing also first surfaced when we lived in that apartment. Computers and copying machines hadn't been invented at that time, so people used different methods to make many copies when needed. My father had standard forms to be filled out for each patient, and he used a "hectograph" to print the forms. A hectograph was a pan filled with a firm, transparent jelly. Special inks were used to create the original document that would be copied. The original was placed on the jelly, and the inks were absorbed by it. Then special paper was used for making copies. One sheet at a time was placed on top of the jelly, and some of the ink passed onto the paper. As I recall, a hectograph could make about twenty copies before the ink got too faint. Bill and I were fascinated by the hectograph and decided to use it to put out a newspaper, The Hinshaw Family News. We used red and blue ink to create a color paper, and had items about each family member—"Barbara to travel to San Francisco for Holidays," "Horton Enjoys First Year at Medical School," and so forth. It was great fun and lasted for several issues.
I was lonely while we lived in that apartment. My brother had turned my best friend into his first girlfriend, and there weren't other neighborhood children to play with, like there were the year before. One day when my mother and I were returning from a walk, a German shepherd puppy appeared on the sidewalk. It wagged its tiny tail and pawed at my legs. I sat down beside it, and it began to chew my shoelaces energetically. I fell instantly in love and wanted to keep that puppy more than I'd ever wanted anything in my life. I begged and begged, but my mother pointed out that someone owned the puppy and besides, we weren't allowed to have a dog in the apartment. I wanted to keep it until the owners turned up, but she absolutely refused, wisely I realize as an adult, to take the animal into our home. I was totally miserable and couldn't stop crying.
During our time in both San Francisco homes, we had been driving all over the San Francisco Bay area, trying to decide where to settle. We looked at city homes and country homes, and finally my parents made a very smart decision. All the way across the bay, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, was a tiny town called Belvedere. It had been an island, separated from the mainland by a salt marsh, but developers had filled in the marsh and then dug a lagoon with long fingers of water extending past fingers of land they'd divided into building lots. They were also selling lots on the hill, which had been the island. My parents decided they wanted to live in Belvedere, but they debated and debated whether to settle on the lagoon, where we could have our own small sailboat, or on the hill, where we would have a spectacular view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The hill finally won, and an architect designed a home for us. Building a house always takes longer than one thinks, and ours was no exception. We would visit to check on the building as often as possible, and sometimes my father would find no workmen at work, or he would discover a mistake in the structure.
But finally we were able to move to Belvedere, just in time for me to begin the sixth grade. The local school was small and took children both from Belvedere and the neighboring village of Tiburon. There were only a few children at each age level. I was nervous about starting school, after my bad experiences in San Francisco. In those days, girls always wore dresses or skirts to school, and my mother had pressured me into buying a pink dress, even though I never felt comfortable in pink. I liked strong, bright colors like red and turquoise, not pale, boring colors like pink. When I arrived at the school (which has now been turned into a condominium with four fancy apartments), a group of girls standing together glanced my way and giggled. They seemed like a tightly knit bunch, and I was worried—would this be like San Francisco? At least my stay there was temporary, but we expected to live in Belvedere for a long time. But fortunately, Belvedere was different. New houses had just begun to go up, and a new student was an exciting addition. Not long after I got home from school that day, the doorbell rang. I was busy changing out of that pink dress, which I'd gotten dirty, into something more comfortable, a pair of blue jeans. Mother answered the door. It was the three girls I'd seen giggling in the hallway, and they wanted to know if I'd like to go for a walk with them. What a relief for me—these girls were actually friendly!
I got along well with the other girls in Belvedere. They were outdoor types like myself. We were all lucky to have parents who wanted us to enjoy living in a place like Belvedere. The families got together and organized a sailing club, using an abandoned firehouse near the water to keep our tiny sailboats, and arranging a dock space so we could launch our boats.
Before long we had races all summer long, and grownups as well as children participated. The water in the lagoon was green and murky, but that didn't stop us from swimming. It was shallow, so by late summer the water was comfortably warm. Many families built houses on the lagoon, and soon there were enough children for each grade to have a class of its own. A new building named Reed School was built, and we went there starting in the seventh grade.
But I also spent lots of time by myself. Bill was now in high school, and after one year in the public school in nearby Mill Valley, he went to a private boys' school in southern California. I was very jealous of him, for each boy at the school had his own horse. It didn't seem fair to me—Bill had never been especially fond of horses, and I loved them so much. I tried to get my parents to buy me a horse, but it really wasn't practical. We'd have to rent a stall and pasture, and they would have had to drive me there to take care of the horse and to ride. But practical matters didn't concern me, I was still disappointed.
We did, however, get a dog, mostly for my benefit. I think my mother resolved to get me a puppy when she saw how much I wanted to keep that little German shepherd. So one day we visited a breeder of cocker spaniels, and I got to choose our new dog. I was thrilled—all the puppies were so cute—but I chose a sweet, blond male and promptly named him Buffy. Although Buffy came with a fancy-looking pedigree, he and his brothers and sisters had been bred to be sold as pets, not as show dogs. Both the parents had been chosen for their good nature and for their intelligence. His father was a very smart and friendly dog with short legs who could do fine tricks like rolling over.
Buffy became my frequent companion and wonderful friend. Because of him, I got interested in dog shows and in all the different breeds. I learned to recognize almost every breed then accepted by the American Kennel Club and pestered my parents to take me to dog shows in San Francisco. As we drove to the shows, me sitting alone in the backseat of the car, I dreamed my secret dream of having my own black, female cocker spaniel with puppies. Buffy was a wonderful pet, but he would have won no prizes in competition. The black female would be a sleek, shiny how dog, and she'd have championship puppies. I knew my parents would never go along with having a breeding female dog, so I don't think I ever told them of my wish. But I thought about it much of the time.
I also trained Buffy to do many things that an obedience dog can do, and I dreamed of entering him in obedience trials. He learned very fast, and only had to be shown a new command a few times before understanding. Buffy quickly learned to sit, stay, and heel. I also taught him to jump over picnic benches laid on their sides to retrieve a toy and then jump again on the way back and then give it to me. Buffy and I also took long walks through the woods and along the beach that bordered San Francisco Bay. That beach is now covered completely by houses. I also took long hikes through the nearby hills. My usual companion was a boy a year younger than me with similar interests. None of my female friends were interested in wild things, but I loved being out in peaceful nature and exploring.
I brought nature indoors as well, with a butterfly collection, jars with caterpillars, aquariums with tropical fish, and terrariums with snakes, lizards, salamanders, and frogs. I was very lucky to have understanding parents who tolerated my atypical behavior. They never told me girls weren't supposed to like snakes and frogs, and they never banned my pets from the house, even when a snake got loose and writhed around on the floor of their bathroom, scaring my mother badly.
While I was growing up, there were plenty of small wild animals living in the area, and I could read about explorations going on in parts of South America and Africa that had never been seen by white men before. Today I continue to be shocked and saddened to know that so many of the animals that I collected as a child and those that I admired from afar are now endangered species. How could powerful creatures like tigers ever disappear? How could the San Francisco garter snake, which I used to collect easily in Golden Gate Park, be on the way out, along with the beautiful salamanders with golden spots that I found under rocks in the Tiburon hills? My memories of childhood experiences with abundant animals that are now rare and of reading about the large mammals that are now so threatened are part of what led me to write The Challenge of Extinction.
While working on that book, I had a terrible vision. I was at Sea World in San Diego and visited a special exhibit called "Penguin Encounter." The penguins were behind a huge glass wall that held back frigid water and mounds of ice. The human visitors stood on a slow conveyor belt to watch the penguins in their natural environment. It was a wonderful exhibit—a variety of penguin species fed, courted, and swam before the eager eyes of the visitors. I stepped off the belt and walked up to a balcony area for people who wanted to watch a little longer. Suddenly I was shocked by an awful thought. Would future children be able to see wildlife only in this way? Would there be a Grizzly Bear Encounter, a Tiger Encounter, an Elephant Encounter? Would there be no wild places left for wild creatures and no places for people seeking to participate in na-ture? That would mean the end of so much of what matters about the human spirit, which came out of nature and is part of it.
But I knew nothing of these things while I was growing up, surrounded by woods that held skunks and tree frogs. A few farsighted people in those times warned about the future disappearance of natural environments as human population exploded, but hardly anyone paid attention then.
School had always been easy for me, and I had put most of my intellectual efforts into my animal hobbies. My reading consisted only of books related to animals—nonfiction about wild animals and fiction dealing with horses and dogs. At that time, there were no books like the ones I write now. So in my thirst for learning about animals, I even read the encyclopedia entries about every kind of animal. If there were photos, I studied those as well. I'm sure I was the only girl in Marin County who had memorized all the breeds of pigs illustrated in the Encyclopaedia Britannica!
The eighth grade was a turning point in my life. Our class benefited from the horrors of the Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy. Across the country, people were required to sign loyalty oaths in order to keep their jobs. Some communities demanded that their teachers sign such oaths to prove that they were patriotic Americans who wouldn't put funny ideas in the heads of children. Many brave teachers refused to sign loyalty oaths because they believed that the oaths were dangerous and un-American. My eighth-grade teacher, Joyce Wilson, had lost her job in another community for just this reason, and she was one of the best things ever to happen to Reed School. Miss Wilson really cared about each individual student. It was important to her that each of us do the best work possible. When I began the eighth grade, I saw no reason to read anything besides my beloved animal books. I had no concept of what "good literature" was. My feeling about school was that as long as I got good grades, that was all that mattered. Miss Wilson challenged those ideas. She wanted to know why I wasn't reading literary works.
Other students in the class were reading Steinbeck and Hemingway, why wasn't I? I tried to defend myself—why should I read something that didn't interest me (before I'd even given it a try!) just because it was supposed to be well-written? I didn't change my habits on the spot, but I began to look at the world of the written word in a different way.
Miss Wilson began a class project that was wonderful for us and which continued with Reed School eighth-graders for years to come. She realized that our area had a long and rich history, beginning with the early Indians, and she decided that our class was just the right source of researchers and authors to investigate that history. Everyone in the class participated, using their own interests and talents. Some of us interviewed long-term residents to tap their memories of Belvedere and Tiburon in the early days, while others ventured to San Francisco to delve into the old files of newspapers for information. Artistic students drew illustrations for the book. Everyone learned a tremendous amount about research techniques as well as about our area's history, and we all had lots of fun in the process. At the end of the year, we had the pages printed up and hand-assembled copies of the book between stiff covers. We sold some to members of the community, and of course each of us kept a copy. We called the book Shark Point, High Point, for the meanings of the names "Tiburon" and "Belvedere." Many years later, after later classes had added information from their own research, Shark Point, High Point was published as a hardback book. In its own way, it's my first published book!
I was tall for my age in the seventh and eighth grade. I had gotten chubby in the sixth grade and, like so many girls, never came to feeling that I was thin enough even after I slimmed down. I have big bones and have always been athletic, so it's no surprise that the boys would say things to me like, "Gee, I wish you could be on my football team." Such remarks only made me feel more insecure.
In high school, I did very well in the classroom. But I never felt as if I fit in. I wanted to be like the "in" crowd, who were on student government committees and who got involved in all sorts of school activities. I was active in the honor society and played clarinet in the orchestra, but I was rarely selected for the committees I so longed to be a part of. I admired the girls who became prom queens and cheerleaders. At the time, there was no way I could understand that some of them were living the best part of their lives during high school while the best parts of my life were yet to come and would last much longer.
As my high-school years drew to a close, I had to decide where to go to college. I was interested in science and I wanted to go to a top-quality school. For a woman in 1958, that wasn't an easy combination to realize. In those days, many of the best colleges served only men or only women. Stanford University was one of the few highly rated institutions that had a mixed student body. Harvard College and Radcliffe College were separate institutions. The women of Radcliffe attended some classes with Harvard men, but many of their courses were exclusively for them, and their dormitories and classrooms were located several blocks from the Harvard campus. Other top schools, like Yale, had only male students. A group of Eastern colleges provided a fine liberal arts education for women. But since most women then had little interest in science, their science curricula were weak. California had several universities with excellent reputations, but I didn't want to get lost in the enormous sea of freshmen that entered public institutions. I'd heard how difficult it could be psychologically to attend a university that weeded out a high percentage of its new students. I wanted to feel part of a college community, not like a potential weed in an academic garden.
After much consideration, I applied to Stanford, Radcliffe, and Wellesley College, one of the top women's colleges in Massachusetts. When I was accepted at all three, I had to make the difficult decision—where would I attend? I realized that my choice of college would affect the rest of my life—who my friends were, what I learned, where I would go to graduate school, where I might settle after finishing my education.
Early on I decided against Wellesley—I was too interested in science and mathematics, and I wanted the wide variety of course choices that only a larger school that also catered to male students could offer. Then I kept waffling between Stanford and Radcliffe. My parents wanted me to stay close to home so they could see me often. But they also knew that Radcliffe was considered the top school in the country, and they wanted me to get the best education possible. It was a comical situation. They tried to bend over backward not to influence my decision, so whenever I leaned towards one institution, they would remind me of the virtues of the other. I'd say, "I've decided, I'm going to Stanford." Then they'd remind me that I would learn a lot just by living in a different part of the country, like New England, and that Radcliffe students had the advantage of attending all those fascinating Harvard classes. A few days later, I'd change my mind and announce my intention to attend Radcliffe. Then my parents would point out Stanford's fine programs for study abroad, and how nice it might be to stay close to home.
Well, I had to make a decision, and I finally settled on Stanford. My reasons were hazy—mainly, I think, I was afraid of being so far from home, in a cold gray climate among women who had grown up in a very different environment from myself. There's no way of knowing if my decision was "right" or not, but it certainly did affect my life profoundly.
I still remember the day I headed off to college. Cars in those days were huge, and we had a big, pink Oldsmobile named Rosey. Poor Rosey was stuffed to the gills with all my prized possessions. Her rear end scraped bottom as my father carefully backed her out of the driveway to head southward to Stanford. There were few freeways at that time. We had to drive the winding road from Belvedere to the main highway, then climb the coastal hills to reach the Golden Gate Bridge. The highway wended its way through San Francisco before finally becoming a freeway heading southward along the shores of San Francisco Bay. Traffic on that highway was always heavy—trucks carrying all sorts of goods back and forth, cars and cabs heading to and from the airport. But Rosey got us to Stanford, and I settled into my room in an old dormitory called Roble Hall.
Roble had been built in more genteel days, for a smaller number of female students than attended in my day. There were rooms meant for singles that had been turned into doubles, and suites meant for two women that became triples. These suites had two very small bedrooms flanking a central sitting room. Each single had a sink. The toilets and showers were down the hall. I was assigned to be the third woman in one of the suites, which meant that the sitting room was my bedroom. That gave me a bigger room, but it made my room a passageway for my roommates to reach their rooms. I also had to share the sink in the bedroom of one of my roommates, Anita. Our suitemate, Ellen, was so quiet and private that I don't remember ever having a conversation with her.
The first year of college is hard for most students. The environment is completely unfamiliar, and you are put into a close, family-like living situation with complete strangers, all of whom are your own age. It's very unnatural and unsettling. But just for that reason, it forces you to grow and change and become more aware of the world around you, and that's what an education is really all about.
Unfortunately, my college career was marred by a terrible tragedy, which put me into a dark emotional frame of mind that lasted the entire four years. My roommate Anita committed suicide right after midterm exams in the fall quarter. Anita had left a note saying she couldn't bear disappointing her parents, who were coming for Parents' Day. She was sure she had failed her midterms, and she couldn't face not making the grade.
Just as there was no education about how to spot people who needed psychological help, there was no help available for victims of someone else's suicide. Instead of counselors, we each got an interview with a uniformed policeman, while we were still in a state of shock. All I remember from that interview is that the button on the policeman's sleeve was coming loose and would soon fall off.
All the girls on the corridor were devastated by Anita's suicide, and we had no idea what to do with our feelings. A group of us travelled to my home in Belvedere for the weekend, but we were like lost lambs. My mother was very concerned, but she had no idea how to help us either. When we returned to the campus, other students were hanging out around the front of the dorm and taunted us about Anita. No one even tried to stop them.
I am so grateful that nowadays colleges have developed sensitivity to the problem of student suicide. They realize that kids who seem to "have it all" can be desperate enough inside to end their lives, and they understand that such an act can permanently scar even casual acquaintances of the victim. I remember one sophomore student's reaction to Anita's death. She and Anita were taking a course together, and Anita had asked her once if she'd study together. The girl was very busy and refused. After Anita died, that poor girl tortured herself, thinking that maybe her refusal had helped lead to Ani-ta's desperation. She had no way of learning that such guilt feelings are typical following a suicide and that the problems of the person who kills herself lie very deep and can't be solved by even the most kind-hearted acquaintance.
The rest of my freshman year, I was quite unhappy. I just didn't know how to deal with my roommate's death. I moved to a different room—I couldn't stand to stay where I was. My new roommates were very nice, but I didn't feel close to them at all. I wore black a lot and would sometimes go walking in the rain, heading in no particular direction.
Fortunately, I discovered a new passion during my freshman year that helped take my mind off my troubled emotions—international folk dancing. The folk-dancing club at Stanford was very active, and the dancers especially enjoyed dances from southern and eastern Europe—Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece, for example. The music from these countries has very complex rhythms, and many of the dances are done in lines of mixed women and men rather than in couples. This made them perfect for a college group, since the folkdance club wasn't a place you went with a date. I would arrive in time for the first dance, do every dance I knew and try to do those I didn't know, then return to my dorm room totally exhausted.
I was a very good student and found my classes interesting. I was fortunate to have good teachers—Stanford chose its faculty not only on the basis of fine research capability but also on their ability to teach, so I only had to deal with a few geniuses who couldn't explain things well. I was in special classes where writing was emphasized. I had to write about literature and about history. I wrote many papers of different lengths, and by the end of my freshman year, I could set an internal switch for a paper of a certain length and write it. I'm sure this discipline and training has helped me in my writing career.
I also learned to think critically. I remember being shocked the first time my history teacher pointed out that nonfiction books aren't just facts, that they also exhibit a point of view. I had always assumed that facts were facts, period. You can see that I had a lot to learn when I was eighteen!
I've never had a good memory, so I wanted to avoid the organic chemistry course required of biology majors. I had heard many horror stories about that class—it was boring and required enormous amounts of memorization. Most of what was taught was more of interest to chemists than to biologists, and I could see no reason for wasting my time and energy learning what I saw as useless information. I needed to find a way out of it. The University of California in Berkeley had a summer-school organic chemistry course especially intended for premedical students. Stanford would accept that course for biology majors as well, so I signed up for summer school in Berkeley after my sophomore year at Stanford.
Two friends from Stanford were also taking summer classes and we shared an apartment while going to school. I loved living in an apartment, and I enjoyed my classes. The organic chemistry teacher did everything he could to relate his teaching to biology, which made it interesting. I also took a course about the ancient Greek philosopher Plato; I had learned a little about his ideas during my world history course, and I wanted to know more. I found Berkeley a very exciting place to be, much more interesting than quiet Stanford, where most of the students seemed to be more interested in members of the opposite sex than they were in their studies. While I'd enjoyed my course work there, I felt out of place, just as I had in high school. Not that I wasn't also interested in the opposite sex—but I was excited by earning and couldn't understand how intelligent students could go through school without caring about their classes. Berkeley, in contrast, was so full of all sorts of people and ideas, I knew I could make a place for myself there.
I decided to take a break from Stanford and attend classes at Berkeley for a year. I asked my Berkeley friends about good teachers and interesting classes and signed up for those. I figured that just about any subject matter is interesting if it is taught well. The courses I ended up taking were cell biology, atomic isotopes in biological research, comparative animal behavior, and folklore. I also took immunochemistry and Chinese poetry! It may have been a strange mix, but it certainly was stimulating.
My lab partner in a microbiology course at Berkeley was named Dianne DeLisle. Dianne and I became friends, and I introduced her to folk dancing. She took to it right away and began to share my interest in the countries and people who had created such wonderful music and such exciting dances. We decided that we would work full-time during the summer after our junior year to save money so we could travel to Europe after we graduated. We were lucky to get good jobs together working for a microbiologist. He was studying bacteria that can get energy from unusual chemicals, part of a study trying to anticipate what sorts of living things might be found on Mars. The pay was good for students at that time—two dollars per hour!
At the end of the summer, I returned to Stanford for my last year. I moved into a dormitory where the more intellectually interested girls lived, and I had a single room. I worked ten to twenty hours a week at the medical school for a Nobel prize-winning microbiologist, Joshua Lederberg. The work was very interesting, and I was able to save my money, since my parents were paying for my college education.
My parents, however, weren't happy about my decision to travel to Europe. They wanted me to go directly into graduate school, but I felt I needed a break from so much brain work. When else in my life would I be as free of responsibilities? Never. I was determined to go, despite their concern. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I applied to the Department of Zoology at the University of California, Berke-ley, for graduate study and was accepted. I was supposed to enroll for the semester that began at the end of January 1963.
Dianne and I travelled by ship from New York to Holland. In those days, flying to Europe was expensive, so people on limited budgets went by ocean liner instead. The trip took about ten days, which made adjusting to the time change easier than it is when one flies. Holland is a small country, and it's easy to get from place to place. We stayed in a youth hostel in Amsterdam and went by train to a museum in the countryside. On the way back, we got distracted and missed the stop for Amsterdam. Just as we were wondering where we were, the conductor announced the end of the line—we had travelled all the way to the other end of the country in only a few minutes! We got off the train and walked across the tracks so we could catch a train going back in the other direction.
The next country we visited was Norway. We arrived in Oslo, dragging our big suitcases, and decided that we couldn't travel all over Europe that way. After settling into a student hostel, we purchased roomy backpacks and went back to our dormitory. We sorted through our things and kept only the most essential items; we shipped everything else back home. From then on travelling was easier, with everything we needed on our backs.
We had many adventures and made many friends during our trip. We felt very fortunate that my sister, Barbara, was living at the time in Greece. Her husband was heading up a traffic study in Athens, so the two of them and their three young daughters were living in a suburb called Kifissia. We made their home our ultimate destination, and by the time we got there, we could really appreciate hot running water, home-cooked meals, and real beds.
Dianne and I arrived in Greece at the end of October. I fell very quickly in love with Greece and its people. The Greeks are extremely hospitable to foreigners, and their love of life is catching. They know how to live fully and fearlessly, accepting tragedy along with joy as an inescapable part of life.
Unfortunately, there were problems between my sister and her husband. It was clear that the marriage might not last, and I didn't want to leave her and her children alone in a foreign country under such circumstances. Besides, I wasn't ready to go back to the States and start graduate school yet. So I wrote to Berkeley and asked them to postpone my graduate studies until September.
In January, my brother-in-law moved out, so I was very glad I'd decided to stay. Dianne also remained. In June, we all headed across Europe to England, where we caught a ship back to the United States. By the time I got on the ship, I was tired of travel and ready to settle down and study again. I had met so many wonderful people whom I'd had to leave that I felt as if my spirit was divided up into pieces scattered across the continent. I didn't have any more left to give.
I began my graduate studies in September. For awhile I lived with my sister, but then I moved in with Dianne. I wasn't sure what field of zoology I wanted to specialize in—I found so many things about animals fascinating. My two favorite courses were animal behavior and endocrinology, the study of hormones and their effects. As an undergraduate student, I had loved genetics. The mysteries of DNA, the chemical which carries the code of life, were just being unravelled at that time, and genetics was very exciting. But it was also becoming mostly biochemistry, and I wasn't interested in doing biochemical research.
A graduate student named Greg Patent was helping Professor Howard Bern with the endocrinology class. We became acquainted, and it wasn't long before we began to date, even though teaching assistants weren't really supposed to see the students in their classes socially. On November 22, 1963, I was home studying for a midterm exam in my animal behavior class when the phone rang. It was Greg, sounding very upset—President Kennedy had just been shot, and classes had been cancelled. I asked Greg to come to the house. When he arrived, we hugged each other in sorrow. Sharing the horror of that event brought us closer together, and soon we were thinking about marriage.
On March 21, 1964, Greg and I were married at my parents' home in Belvedere. I'd never wanted a big wedding—I'd participated in my brother Bill's wedding and watched the bride cry the day before from all the stress of planning—so we had just our families and my friend Dianne. The wedding was perfect, with the people most important to us there to share it with us.
I had decided to do my Ph.D. research in animal behavior, but we had a problem. Since Greg had graduated from Berkeley, he had to spend at least a year of his graduate studies at another university so he could get a broader perspective of zoology. After we spent a summer at the Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories, which is part of the University of Washington, he decided that he wanted to return to Friday Harbor to study how the hormone insulin worked in certain marine fishes. The research I wanted to do couldn't be done at a marine lab, and besides, the animal behavior professor was leaving Berkeley for New York.
I decided to change my field of study and investigate the life cycle of a strange-looking animal called a basket star. The basket star is related to starfish, but it hardly even looks alive, with its flat, disk-shaped body and its long, twiggy, branching arms. Very little was known of its life, so I felt secure that by spending at least a year at Friday Harbor I could learn a lot about it.
We ended up being at the marine lab for almost two years. During that time, we helped each other with our research and also had our first son, David. Having a baby there was an adventure—we had to charter a small plane to fly to a hospital on the mainland when it was time for him to be born. Luckily, David slept a lot, so I was able to continue with my research while he napped. During the fall and winter, only a few students were at the labs, so we were like a family. I'd lay David down to nap in his banana-box carrier in one room, and if I was working elsewhere when he woke up, one of the other students would come and tell me that "King David" was awake. It was fun for all of us to have a baby around.
Early in 1967, we returned to Berkeley to finish analyzing our research data and write our Ph.D. theses. A thesis has to be very detailed and include information from all the researchers who went before. I felt very fortunate to be at the University of California at Berkeley, for it has one of the best libraries in the world. Most of the previous research on animals related to basket stars and on basket stars themselves had been done during the late nineteenth century, but the volumes describing that work were right there in the university library.
Writing my thesis became a race with time, for I was pregnant again and wanted to get finished before the baby was born. I just made it—Jason came the day after I had put together the last copy of my thesis.
In the fall of 1968, we moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Greg would do research for a year or two at Sinai Hospital. The hospital also gave me a half-time research position, so I was able to use my training and still spend time with my sons. The next year, Greg received a government grant to continue his research in Naples, Italy. I was given laboratory space and expenses, but no salary for my work.
Living in Naples was a great adventure which made me appreciate my own country more. Strikes were common, and we never knew when the buses would run or the banks might be closed. Many people were very poor, and the pollution was terrible. The air was often full of choking fumes, which was very hard on David, who was susceptible to asthma attacks. The Bay of Naples looked beautiful, but we didn't dare swim there—raw sewage poured into it daily. Gasoline cost a fortune, and we had to be watchful whenever we were on the streets for pickpockets and purse snatchers.
But despite the worries, we had a great time. We loved the challenge of shopping in a foreign language, and we enjoyed the opportunity to travel to France and Austria. I took my family to my beloved Greece, and they loved it, too. The government at the time was very repressive, but it didn't stop the Greeks from being as friendly and enthusiastic about life as ever. Getting a job in America while living in Europe isn't easy, but my husband was offered a job at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, while we were in Naples. He accepted the job, so in the fall of 1970, we headed back to the States.
I had been lucky up until then. In Naples, hiring a local girl to watch the children and take care of the apartment for a few hours a day had been very inexpensive, so I'd been able to pursue some research with confidence that my boys were in good hands. But in Greenville, there were no opportunities for me. I felt it was important to spend most of my time with my children, but I also believed it was good for them to have some experience out of the house, with other children. David was four when we got to Greenville, and Jason was two. David went to a part-time nursery school, and I got together with three other mothers to organize a play group. For a few hours each week, one mother would take on the four two-year-olds so the other three could have some free time and the kids could have some fun together. I did a lot of thinking about my life. What did I really want to do? I didn't want a full-time job, even if one had been available. I wanted to stay home with the boys, but I also wanted to use my mind and my education in some way. When people asked me questions about biology, they often complimented my answers by saying that I explained things well. Maybe I could write about biology. And since I had children, perhaps writing for kids would be a good idea. There was so much exciting information about living things that I could share. I could write for children who were like me, who wanted to learn everything they could about nature.
The first two books I wrote never got published. The first was a story about a tadpole and how he grew up into a frog. I painted illustrations to go with that one, not knowing that publishers do not like to see manuscripts accompanied by illustrations. I sent it off to a publisher and didn't hear for weeks and weeks. When I called to ask about it, they couldn't find it—it was lost, including the artwork I'd worked so hard to produce. I was very upset.
The next book I tried was a nonfiction life-cycle book about bumblebees. At that time, life-cycle books were popular. The book would start when an animal was born and continue the story until it either died or grew up and mated. I figured a book like that would be the easiest kind to write—the plot line is there in the life of the animal. I chose bumblebees because they are big and sometimes scary and because no one had written a life-cycle book about them yet.
I chose to send my bumblebee manuscript to one of the publishers that was doing life-cycle books in the fall of 1971. It was just blind luck that I selected Holiday House. At that time, Holiday had a science editor named Ed Lindemann. Ed wrote me that he liked my manuscript but that, unfortunately, Holiday wasn't going to publish any more life-cycle books, so he couldn't buy mine. He said he would keep me in mind for future books. I didn't know if he was serious about that, but I appreciated how nice he was to me.
I sent some ideas to Ed, but he didn't take any of them. I learned some important lessons in the process. The most important was always to check to see if someone else had recently written a book on the subject I'd chosen for the same age level. If so, there was no point in pursuing the idea.
Meanwhile, while I was trying to get started as a writer but having little luck, my husband was looking for a new job. He wasn't happy at East Carolina University, and neither of us liked living in such a hot, humid climate. David's asthma had improved in Naples, despite the bad air, but it was starting to come back again, and even Greg was beginning to have minor asthmatic symptoms, something that hadn't ever happened before.
When we learned there was a job available at the University of Montana, I was very excited. A small town in the west would be a great place to raise children, and there would be horses and wild animals for me. So when Greg was offered the job, we were delighted. We packed up our things and moved to Missoula in June of 1972. Shortly after we arrived, I received one of the most exciting letters of my life. It was from Ed Lindemann. He said that if I was interested in writing a book about the weasel family, I should prepare an outline and a sample chapter. If he liked it, he would send me a contract, and I'd be writing my first real book! Needless to say, I wrote right back and accepted the challenge.
At that time, I knew next to nothing about weasels. I had specialized in invertebrate animals, not animals with backbones like weasels. I didn't know that the family included otters, skunks, and badgers. But the most important thing I had learned in school, besides how to write, was how to find information and how to read and evaluate scientific papers. I was confident that I could become an expert on the weasel family by using the library, and I was right. Fortunately for me, one of the world's experts on weasels was at the University of Montana, so I was even able to check out my information easily. By the end of my first summer in Montana, I had my first book contract. While my children were young, I wrote just one book a year. That gave me plenty of time with them. I was lucky to have a husband with a job. The money from my writing was extra cash at first, which we spent on nonessential items or travel. As the boys grew older, I wrote more bit by bit. They needed less time and care, and my husband's salary didn't keep up with inflation, so my money became more and more important as necessary income. But writing still allowed me to take care of a sick child and to attend teacher conferences, school performances, and sports events. I loved being a mother and felt privileged to be able to see the world through the eyes of children. My life would have been incomplete without all the experiences, both wonderful and scary, that motherhood brought. It helped me grow as a person in ways that would have been impossible without being forced into the challenges of parenthood.
During the early years of my career, my books were illustrated mostly by drawings. Ed chose Matthew Kalmenoff, who had experience painting backdrops for displays at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to illustrate my books. He and I never met; we didn't even correspond with one another. I would send in my manuscript. Ed would send a copy to Mr. Kalmenoff, and he would make sketches of the things he wanted to illustrate. I didn't get to see the artwork until the book was published!
As time went on, more and more of my books were illustrated with black-and-white photographs. Children seemed to prefer photos, perhaps because they were so used to watching real images on the television screen. By then, I was regularly writing two books a year, all for Holiday House. I would spend hours and hours in the library reading and taking notes before writing. Each book was a review, in simple language, of everything known up to that time about the subject. I chose most of the subjects myself, and they were the things that had interested me as a child: frogs, tropical fish, reptiles, butterflies.
A turning point in my career came when I was writing a book called Horses and Their Wild Relatives. At that time as now, most children's books were bought by libraries. Much of the money came from the federal government, and in the late 1970s, the government cut down on the money it gave for buying books. It was a disaster for the children's book business. I had just begun writing three books a year. Even though my output increased by fifty percent, my income dropped. We were building a new house, which always costs more money than one expects, so I was worried about money. And Holiday House had been forced by the market to cut down on their science books. Ed was no longer my editor; a science editor had become an unaffordable luxury for a children's book publisher.
Margery Cuyler became my new editor. She and I were both concerned at how hard I worked for so little return. I was mentally exhausted by the time I finished each manuscript, and I wasn't sure I could write three books each year that way. Margery and John Briggs, the president of Holiday House, had a good idea. I should write two books about the same subject, each for a different age level. First I would write a long book for older children, then a shorter, simpler one for younger kids. Until then, all my books had been for ages nine or ten and up, but I felt that, with Margery's help, I could write for younger children as well. I began with a simpler book to follow Horses and Their Wild Relatives. I wasn't happy with the original concept for the book—it would be too much like other books that had already been written. I wanted my book to be something new. I decided to write about the different breeds of horses found in America. I wrote to all the organizations of people who raise the various horse breeds for information, but I was frustrated. Each organization wanted its breed to look like the best, so they all claimed that their horses could do anything. I was interested in what made each breed unique, and finding that out by reading was proving to be difficult.
Ed had done the work of finding illustrations. Now that he was gone, I helped find photos for my books. I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper which said "Horse photography, William Muñoz," and gave a phone number. I figured that if this fellow took horse photos, maybe he had some he would sell to us for the book. I didn't like phoning strangers, so I put off the call and lost the ad. But luckily, the ad was still in the paper a couple of weeks later, so I got up my courage and called.
Bill's wife Sandy answered the phone, and she was excited about the idea that Bill might sell some photos for a book. I arranged to meet them both at a nearby horse show where he was taking pictures of the entrants. Bill was happy to help with the photos. He took my list of horse breeds and said he would try to photograph as many of them as possible. I was impressed by his willingness to work. Sandy had some friends who were horse breeders. She suggested that she and I visit them to learn about their horses. I hadn't even thought about visiting breeders; I was so used to library research that I hadn't considered the value of personal experience in researching for my books. Besides, I was unaware of how many different kinds of horses were raised in western Montana.
Sandy introduced me to a man who bred and trained quarter horses and a woman who raised Arabians. When I asked them what made their breeds special they had plenty to say. I was delighted, and I relished the chance to interact with their wonderful horses. By asking around, we eventually found people who owned almost every breed I was covering in the book. Bill and I developed a useful routine. When we visited a breeder, we were almost always invited first into the house for a cup of coffee. We'd get acquainted, and I'd ask some questions. Then we'd go outside to see the animals and take photos. While Bill did his work, I'd watch with the owner. We'd chat casually, and often I'd get the most interesting information then, while we observed Bill and the horses. From then on, whenever Bill and I worked on a book, we'd do our best to visit farms and ranches together.
A lucky break allowed us to collaborate on wildlife books. I'd wanted to write a book about the gathering of the bald eagles each year in Glacier National Park, but I felt the book needed photos. Now I knew a good photographer, and Bill was willing to stand in the cold autumn air long enough to get the necessary photographs. Holiday House wasn't interested in the book, so I contacted Ann Troy, an editor I'd corresponded with before. Just at the time I wrote, Ann was changing jobs and becoming the nonfiction editor at Clarion Books. Editors in new jobs are always interested in picking up new authors, so Ann accepted our proposal enthusiastically. Where the Bald Eagles Gather became one of my most successful books, and Bill and I began a continuing and happy association with Clarion.
Our second book with Clarion was Buffalo: The American Bison Today. That book was easy to do because the National Bison Range is located very near Bill's home and only an hour from mine. Ann wanted us to do a trio of wildlife books, and the topic for the third was up in the air. We'd joked about doing a book about grizzly bears, but Bill didn't know how he could get photos of that shy animal. By talking with other photographers, he realized that grizzlies could be photographed in Alaska. They gathered in large numbers at McNeil River each summer to feed on salmon, and they live in treeless parts of Denali National Park, where they can be photographed by a patient photographer. We decided to take a chance on getting the photos—wild animals don't necessarily cooperate—and signed a contract for a book on grizzlies.
The grizzly book was another turning point for me. For the first time, I travelled far from home to observe the animals I was writing about. In Alaska, I really appreciated how personal experience made my writing more alive and interesting to the reader. I lived in my tiny tent for three weeks and loved it. I'd camped a few times with my family in roadside campgrounds, but this was different. I was really living in the out-of-doors, especially at McNeil River, where the tents were pitched in the grass just above the shore, only a few yards from where grizzlies wandered. The discomforts of cold and rain were nothing compared to the opportunity to be close to nature.
From then on, Bill and I didn't let geography get in our way. If an animal could be photographed somewhere, we were willing to go to its home area to observe and photograph it. Some books involved lots of travel. For The Whooping Crane, a Comeback Story we went to the Texas coast, New Mexico, and Maryland. Gray Wolf, Red Wolf involved trips to South Carolina and Washington state for us both and additional travel to Texas for Bill to learn about and photograph red wolves. We were fortunate that people living in western Montana had packs of captive wolves so we could interact with gray wolves and get photos of them relatively easily. As the years have gone by, I've become more and more concerned with the plight of wildlife. Wild things always seem to lose out in today's world. People move into areas that were wild, then want to eliminate the wild animals that they fear or that kill their livestock. Humans seem to believe that the world has plenty of room left, but that isn't so. We are taking over the wild places without realizing what we are destroying. We need to realize that we are part of nature, that without nature, we are not whole.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent contributed the following update to SATA in 2005:
Since I wrote my autobiography in 1991, my life has been full of adventure. In the 1990s, my sons finished college, David graduated from law school, and both got married. Jason continued his studies as a graduate student, first in East Asian studies at Stanford, then in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, so I was no longer responsible for them.
As my career has progressed, I realized something very important about life and how we live it. Without knowing it, we limit ourselves by seeing ourselves in a particular way. When I first started writing, I thought of myself as a scientist who happened to write books for children. It took some years for me to see that I was actually a writer who happened to be trained as a scientist. When that happened, it opened the door for me to expand into other kinds of writing. I didn't have to write only nonfiction nature books—I could write whatever I wanted to.
Ever since I saw my first wild wolf in Alaska, I'd felt a special connection with these beautiful, powerful hunters. My contact with wolves while writing Gray Wolf, Red Wolf strengthened that bond. A wolf can live on its own and take care of itself, but it chooses to share its life with others. Wolves cooperate well when they hunt, and all the members of the pack help take care of the pups. Their way of life seems a good model for how to live.
I felt the best way to communicate all this was through a novel, but I was unsure of my ability to write fiction. Help came along just when I had decided to write that book. My fellow writers, Jeanette Ingold and Peggy Christian, wanted to start a critique group in which children's writers could help each other out with projects. I eagerly agreed to participate, and other writers joined the group. With their help, I wrote Return of the Wolf, my first (and so far, my only) novel, about a lone wolf who finds a new home and family in the wild. The book received excellent reviews, and children love to read it.
After writing Return of the Wolf, I began to look beyond science and nature for book topics. In college, I'd loved anthropology, the study of human societies. The different ways people related to each other and to the world around them fascinated me. I plunged into writing a series of archeological books called "Frozen in Time," which gave me a chance to learn about how people lived at different times and places in the past. My husband and I traveled to Europe, where I interviewed scientists who studied the five thousand-year-old frozen mummy called the Ice Man.
We also got to visit the Lascaux Cave, whose walls are covered by amazing color drawings of animals created seventeen thousand years ago by Stone Age hunters. Another book in the series was about the terra cotta army of thousands of soldiers buried in China as guards for the tomb of the first Chinese emperor. Luckily, my son Jason and his wife, Colette, were studying in Beijing, China, at the time, so my husband and I flew over to visit them and the terra cotta warriors. We arranged a three-week train trip from Beijing to Xian, the ancient Chinese capitol, then on to Shanghai, where my husband had lived until he was ten years old. Neither Greg nor I knew any Chinese, but Jason and Colette were both fluent in the language, so they took care of all the arrangements. I loved that trip—it was as if Greg and I were the children, with no responsibilities, and Jason and Colette were the parents. We just did what they told us to do, relaxed, and had a wonderful time. When we visited the site of the warriors, we were able to interview a couple of the archaeologists, and Jason acted as my translator. These men were carefully cataloging every one of the thousands and thousands of items—statues, swords, miniature carriages, etc.—that were being found by at the site. Each item was photographed, labeled, and given its own place in a computer program. Meanwhile, the market for children's nonfiction books was decreasing, and I wrote more and more books to make up for the lower sales. Before I knew it I'd reached a total of one hundred books in 1999. My critique group commissioned my friend Deborah Milton to paint a watercolor to celebrate. I love the painting, which swarms with the animals I write about and shows me in two ways. In one corner, I'm a younger woman happily contemplating a bouquet of beautiful flowers. In the center, I'm at my desk as an older writer, watching a red-tailed hawk soar outside my study window. My friends presented me with the painting at a party at our local library. In the hallway outside the library meeting room, the librarians had mounted all my book dust jackets in a display case. When I looked at it, I could hardly believe I'd actually written all those books.
Early in the 1990s, Deborah Milton and I began to teach writing in Yellowstone National Park. We both felt strongly that everyone has a creative side and that many people are hesitant to explore their creativity for fear of looking foolish. Almost all of us seem to have an internal critic who whispers in our ear that what we write is stupid, or that we can't succeed at a creative endeavor. Deborah and I decided that Yellowstone was the perfect inspiration for creativity and launched our class, "Finding Your Own Voice." While our students wrote in Yellowstone, we told them to send their internal critics on vacation in Hawaii, and the students loved it. We taught the class for eight years. Then Deborah turned her talents to watercolor painting, and we changed the class to include both writing and painting, which deepened the experience for everyone. We no longer teach in Yellowstone, but Deborah has built a creativity center on the edge of the Montana wilderness, called Athanor Arts, where we continue to help people realize their creative potential. At Athanor Arts I'm not only a teacher, but also a student, as I'm learning myself how to paint in watercolor from Deborah.
My books have changed in many ways over the years. When I began writing, the books were very thorough and included a lot of information. They had few illustrations, and what they had were in black and white. The writing was always in the third person. Now, my books are shorter, and each is illustrated in color, either photographs or art. I often include my personal experiences in the text, and, sadly, most of my books need to comment on the continuing decline of the world's biodiversity. Both these trends show up in this chapter introduction in my book, Biodiversity (Clarion, 1996):
As a child, I was fascinated by the relationships among living things. I loved reading about the yucca moth and the yucca plant, how neither one could survive without the other. The yucca provides the moth's caterpillar with food and a home, and the adult moth in turn pollinates the yucca's flowers so it can make seeds and reproduce itself. It all seemed like such a tidy arrangement.
Later on, I came to realize that life is not that simple. The yucca and the moth certainly do depend on each other completely—if either one were to die out, the other would soon follow. But both require the proper habitat to survive. They need the right sort of conditions—a hot, dry place to live. If humans cover over too much of the desert with houses, roads, and shopping malls, there will be no place left for the yucca to take root and grow. Or if the climate on Earth changes, altering the rainfall pattern where the yucca lives, it could disappear, its root rotting from too much moisture or shriveling up from too little rain.
Despite my concerns about global warming and ever-decreasing habitat for living things, I do find hope in some places. The successful return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding region is a wonderful example of how people can help nature heal.
I've heard biologists speak of how the wolf's return is renewing the park. The elk can no longer risk lingering in one spot, destroying all the vegetation there, so streamside plants are coming back, bringing with them the beavers. Smaller predators like foxes and badgers also seem to be more common now, probably because the wolves have reduced the population of coyotes considerably. Grizzly bears have an easier time in the spring now, too, as they can chase wolves away from their kills and feast on meat brought down by more efficient hunters than they themselves are.
Whenever I visit the park, I get up early in the morning, eat a quick breakfast, and drive out to sites where wolves might be seen. I've been incredibly lucky and have watched a pack of wolves test a small bison herd by running them. I've seen the joyful reunion of wolf pups with the adults that were returning from a successful hunt. I've heard wolf howls fill the cool, thin air of the park and seen a wolf stroll along with the pack, dragging a gnarled branch in its mouth, just as a golden retriever might.
While my writing was changing, so was my family, with sad losses and joyful gains. My brother Bill had died in 1982, then my dear sister Barbara passed away in 1993, followed the next year by my mother. Within a few months I had gone from being "the baby of the family" to the oldest woman. Since I've never felt truly like a "grownup," the change seemed very strange. My mother was ninety-two when she died and had been ill for a number of years, so I had adjusted to the idea of losing her. But I missed Barbara terribly and still do—the bond between sisters, or brothers, can be very special. Working had been difficult for me during the years of the illness and loss of family, and I fell behind in meeting my book deadlines. Luckily, my editors were understanding, but I had to work very hard to catch up. The losses finally ended when my father died at the age of ninety-eight in 2000. A smaller sadness came in 2004 when I went to visit the home where I had grown up only to find it had been demolished and been replaced by the foundation for a new home. I spoke with the builder and learned that a family would be moving in. I hope the children enjoy that magical spot as much as I did growing up. The joys began in May, 2001, when our first grandchild, Zander, was born to our first-born son, David, and his wife, Amy. Becoming a grandparent has been a wonderful, new experience. I can enjoy being around my grandchildren, but I'm not responsible for their care. Since Zander came into our lives, his brother, Misha, has joined him, and Jason and Colette have given us two granddaughters, Mariette and Francesca. The only problem is finding the time to see them. David's family has moved several times, but never close by, and Jason's family now lives in Beijing, halfway around the world. Greg and I are lucky that, as writers, we can make our own work schedules and travel to visit our family.
I didn't mention in my earlier autobiography that my husband left the university in the early 1980s to pursue his passion for food. He has become an author of cookbooks and magazine articles about food. We've even written a cookbook together, A Is for Apple. Greg wrote most of the recipes, and I provided text on how to grow apples and on various interesting aspects of this wonderful fruit, including profiles of particularly interesting or tasty varieties. We hope to collaborate more in the future.
Meanwhile, I've continued my adventures. I've traveled by car through many states following the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition doing research for three books: Animals on the Trail with Lewis and Clark, Plants on the Trail with Lewis and Clark, and The Lewis and Clark Trail Then and Now. In 2002, Deborah Milton and I flew into the wilds of British Columbia, Canada, for research on a book about the mysterious spirit bear. In this subspecies of the American black bear, one in ten animals is white. The spirit bear lives only in an isolated area of islands that can only be reached by small planes. In order to get to the yacht that would take us to the bears' habitat, we had to fly in on a tiny float plane, big enough for the pilot and three passengers. We had convinced six friends to join us, so it took several flights for the little plane to bring us all to our home for five days, a yacht named the Ocean Light II.
Wildlife biologist Wayne McCrory led us into the wild and beautiful temperate rain forest, home not only to bears but also to deer, wolves, salmon, and giant trees. We spent hours slogging through wet mud and quietly waiting on riverbanks waiting for a glimpse of a bear. We didn't see any white ones, but were able to watch a few of their black cousins fish in the river. The book we created, Garden of the Spirit Bear, was written by me and has Deborah's beautiful watercolor illustrations. We hope our book helps readers realize the importance of preserving the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. Before I began work on the spirit bear book, I had started a long-term project. I've always been interested in the ways dogs are used to help people. When I was growing up, I used to see trainers and dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind practicing on the streets of San Rafael, California, where my mother would take me shopping. The idea of such close, loving cooperation between two species got to my heart. Also, our two beloved dogs, Elsa and Ninja, were getting old, and I wanted a way to keep dogs in my life even after they were gone.
When I read that an organization providing service dogs to physically challenged people existed in my area, Bill Muñoz, the photographer whom I'd worked with on more than eighty books, and I decided to collaborate on a book about a service dog. We found out that the organization, called PawsAbilities, had a new litter of three golden retriever puppies almost ready to give out to puppy raisers. The puppy raisers have the important job of teaching the puppies basic obedience commands and of exposing them to as many different environments as possible, so they are confident around crowds, loud noises, strange odors, and so forth. Regular group training evenings are held, where the dogs learn about riding on buses, going to the airport, staying quiet in the library, and so forth.
For two years, Bill and I followed Irah, one of the puppies, as he grew and learned. But when time came for the final training, the training facility wasn't ready. Luckily, Guide Dogs for the Blind took Irah into its program, and he went through new training to learn how to guide a blind person. After passing with flying colors, he became the guide dog and loving companion for Don Simmonson, a blind piano tuner who lives in Washington state.
I loved every minute of working on the resulting book, The Right Dog for the Job. The dogs and people involved in the program were all fun to be with and devoted to the concept of dogs helping people. I have made lifelong friends in the process, both human and canine. Elsa and Ninja have both passed away now, and I treasure my walks with Sandy Welch, Irah's puppy raiser, and her own dog, Laddy. I also visit Irah and his human family at least once a year, and he always greets me as an old, beloved friend.
My husband and I are in the midst of a new adventure together. We've bought a condo unit in Hawaii, where we eventually hope to spend the winters. For now, it is rented most of the time, but we are able to stay there for weeks at a time if we want. I used to help people send their internal critics to Hawaii—now I'm sending myself there!
I've also kept experimenting with different kinds of writing by creating several picture books, so far unpublished, and I've begun writing novels with human characters. For me, life is most interesting when I'm in the midst of a new experience—visiting a place I've never seen before, learning something new, or creating something that wasn't there before, whether it's a photograph that captures the spirit of a place and moment in time, a bright and cheerful watercolor painting, or a brand-new book.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerDorothy Hinshaw Patent (1940–) - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights, Autobiography FeatureDorothy Hinshaw Patent