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History meets zoology
Officially, Dorothy Patent's three books on Lewis and Clark are for young readers, age 10 and up. But they're "also perfect books for adults who want to learn something without slogging through a long volume," says the author.

Plants, animals and comparisons featured in three children's books about Lewis and Clark Expedition

One question President Thomas Jefferson hoped would be answered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition was whether prehistoric mastodons and giant sloths still roamed the West.

"There was no concept of extinctions then," said Missoula author Dorothy Patent. "Of course the dinosaurs hadn't been discovered yet. Jefferson had been on some bone digs. So he knew those animals existed. The map of the West was a huge blank space. They'd found bones in the East. So why not? It made perfect sense. They were working with primitive ideas of animals."

The paucity of knowledge about biology 200 years ago was one of the fascinating glimpses into history that Patent enjoyed while researching and writing three recent books about Lewis and Clark.

She's lost track of the exact number of books she's published, but her three Lewis and Clark volumes push the list to over 130 since Patent began her writing career in 1973. Patent, who has a Ph.D. in zoology, has focused on topics of nature and science for young adults and children.

In the past two years, the prolific writer published "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."

Before she began research for the three books in the mid '90s, Patent said, she had never been a student of the explorers and their exploits.

But the challenge of writing those three books led her to immerse herself in the subject. Her research has become a captivating, ongoing investigation, which in turn, has led to several other exciting writing and publishing projects for her.

Patent's longtime book collaborator, photographer Bill Munoz, is a historian by his academic training, she said. His interest in the explorers led them to propose a Lewis and Clark book back in the mid-'80s. It was turned down by several publishers.

About that time, said Patent, a "very good book," "The Incredible Journey of Lewis and Clark," by Rhoda Blumberg, came out and won a couple of prestigious children's book awards.

"So Bill and I were thankful we didn't do one then," Patent said, "because it would have been swamped by that book."

But about a decade later, she added, Munoz's interest in the Corps of Discovery was piqued again, as he drove across the state listening to an audio tape version of "Undaunted Courage," by the late Stephen Ambrose.

"He got all excited about it again, and realized the bicentennial was coming up in a couple of years," Patent said. "He said, 'Dorothy, we should come up with a couple of topics on Lewis and Clark.' Then I read 'Undaunted Courage' and it got me all excited, too."

Animals and plants were obvious topics for her as a nature writer, she added.

"And here in Missoula," she said, "where the trail comes through, 'Then and Now' was an obvious topic."

Then began the process of researching the books.

"Research for me is using as many different kinds of resources as possible," Patent said.

The primary source for any study of Lewis and Clark, of course, is the explorers' journals.

"There are many different versions of the journals," said Patent. "But the definitive transcription is Gary Moultan's. It's really wonderful. I haven't sat down with any version and read them from front to back. But I've read a lot of selections, especially the parts about plants and animals."

Other important sources for her, she said, were "The Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," by Raymond Burroughs; "Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists," by Paul Cutright; and "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians," by James Ronda.

"The Indians were so important to the expedition," Patent said. "They knew the plants and animals. They didn't have a concept of ownership. But they used the land and it was their home."

She and her husband, Greg, and Munoz also traveled long stretches of the trail in Montana, Idaho and Oregon to gather information for the books.

"We didn't get east of Montana on the trail," Patent said. "But in previous books, I've covered the kinds of territory it goes through. I've done a book on the prairie. I stopped at Fort Benton and went up the Sun River. Greg and I visited friends in Portland and we went to Fort Klatsop."

She and Munoz also drove the Lolo Motorway, along the Lolo Trail in Idaho, a primitive road that reaches elevations of 7,000 feet.

For anyone wanting to do a driving tour of the Lewis and Clark trail, Patent recommends "Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark," second edition, published by Montana Magazine/Farcountry Press in Helena, and featuring maps by Joe Mussulman of Missoula, and many quotes from the journals and information about sites along the way.

"Visiting places is always important for me, whatever I'm writing about," said Patent. "If I'm writing about the prairie, I want to be there in that environment."

Another valuable resource for Patent and Munoz, she said, was the Travelers' Rest Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in Lolo.

"It's so exciting what they're doing down there," Patent said. "They have lots of replicas of gear, presentations by experts, Native American talks, and a traveling chest they take to schools. I go to those programs whenever I get the chance."

"So many books are coming out on Lewis and Clark," she added, "I feel really fortunate that we came up with three topics, which as far as I know, no other kids' books have been written about."

While, officially, Patents' books are intended for young readers age 10 and up, they are excellent for anyone who wants to know about a particular subject.

"They're perfect books for adults who want to learn something without slogging through a long volume for days and days," she said. "Adult books have so much more detail, especially on a science topic. It may be more detail than someone finds necessary. Basically, I write in simple language for someone who knows nothing about the subject. I never think of children when I write."

Learning more about history herself was a bonus of writing about Lewis and Clark, she said.

"I learned so much about culture - the things we did and didn't have then," said Patent. "People make fun of Clark's spelling. But there were no standards for spelling in this country then."

She was amazed, she said, at how primitive the explorers' guns were and how long it took to load them. That made for some suspenseful moments when the men encountered charging grizzly bears.

Patent included several graphic examples of those violent encounters in her book, "Animals on the Trail with Lewis and Clark."

Here's one:

"In his journal entry for May 14, 1805, Lewis described this encounter with a grizzly: 'In the evening the men in two of the rear canoes discovered a large brown bear lying in the open ground and six of them went out to attack him, all good hunters; they got within 40 paces of him unperceived.Š Four Š fired nearly at the same time and each put his bullet through him, two of the balls passed through the bulk of both lobes of his lungs. In an instant the monster ran at them with open mouth, and the two who had reserved their fires discharged their pieces at him as he came toward them. Both of them struck him, one only slightly and the other fortunately broke his shoulder. This however retarded his motion for a moment only.'

"The men ran, and the bear chased them. More and more bullets flew, but the grizzly kept attacking until it was finally shot through the head."

Patent said she believes it's important that the realism of such gruesome descriptions isn't glossed over or withheld from young readers. They can handle it emotionally, she said.

"They killed lots of animals and ate them," she said. "Kids need to know about that. The men worked so hard they were eating 10 pounds of meat in a day."

"Kids love that stuff," she added. "Especially the boys love the gore."

Teachers and librarians have told her that exciting books about true-life adventures like the Lewis and Clark Expedition are helping to interest boys in reading, Patent said.

"It's always hard to get boys to read," she said. "This has adventure, wild animals, wild places, firearms, all that stuff."

Her work on Lewis and Clark has resulted in several other recent projects for Patent.

She's collaborated with Munoz to produce a series of educational posters on the Corps of Discovery for a company that markets them as teachers' aids. She also offers her expertise on the topic as a guest speaker in schools.

She's written four articles on Lewis and Clark for Spider magazine, a children's science periodical. And she's working on a series of 10 articles for Wild Outdoor World, a nature magazine for children.

Those projects are allowing her to continue to pursue her growing interest in Lewis and Clark, she said.

"I really enjoy things like the 'Confluence of Cultures' conference (at the University of Montana last month)," said Patent. "I plan to learn more. I love learning new stuff. Basically, that's my favorite thing in life. So this is a real opportunity for me, because I didn't study history that much. And a lot about the plants (discovered by Lewis and Clark) is new to me. A lot of the animals' habitat has changed as they have adapted to us and survived.

"And I love to travel. So Lewis and Clark is a perfect topic for me. Because I get to travel and learn about plants and animals, which are my favorite things."

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com

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