The Anaconda copper mine at El Salvador is etched in the Atacama Desert on a plateau in northern Chile. On that plain where the mountainsides all around are painted in huge patches of varying minerals and where plants and animals are scarce, science illustrator Ippy Patterson developed a connection to the up-close, and to the transience of living forms. She grew up in the mining camp, one of only a handful of children in a world of a dust and industry and isolation amid a swelling backdrop of enormous beauty. It is, as Patterson often calls it, “the highest, driest plain in the world.”

Patterson, who lives in Hillsborough, managed to turn a driving fascination with the natural form and a passion for drawing into an extensive body of work. Her illustration skills developed in part thanks to her nearsightedness as a child, which wasn’t corrected until she was 11, and also to the isolation of El Salvador, where she had only four peers–including her sister. “We were so few that each of us were precious to each other,” she says. There was plenty of time to draw and to stare into the scales of the lizards she caught and the indentations and whirls of the cinderblock walls of the house in the copper mine camp.

Last week, accompanied by her son, Grear, she traveled again up the road from the coast to a place she left for boarding school in New England 37 years ago. Up to the mine, she carried the ashes of her father, Harry Anderson Astlett II, a metallurgist by trade, who died this past December.

The trip back to Chile, she said, reminded her of how different the world is now–plastic trash was scattered about and the old company store had been replaced with a grocery store that could have been anywhere. But there were places–off in the mountains and on the road up from the ocean–where the countryside and the memories were as clear and beautiful as when she left.

“It was both tenderly familiar and very changed,” she says. “The whole thing was an exercise in meaning.”

After a brief ceremony with a local priest, she reached into a metal lunchbox and scattered her father’s ashes on a garden near the mine.

The priest and the mine officials who had gathered for the ceremony let her know that the mine is closing down. The supply of pure copper ore they had extracted for so long is dwindling, and now what’s bubbling up is mostly pyrite. That her hometown could one day be a ghost town was somewhat of a shock, but it didn’t deter her from her goal. “My father had a fascination with old mining ghost towns,” she says. “I felt he would be in good company.”

Her father’s death has weighed on Patterson, amplifying her knowledge that, like the life cycles of the plants she draws, her own skillsand even clear vision itselfis subject to the passing of time.

Recently, she plunged into a series of drawings that she refers to in an almost confessional way as the “last big body of work” that she’ll undertake before she’ll need glasses to see the world up close. And then, for the first time there will be a filter–and maybe a barrier–between her eyes and the subject. After that, she says, it will all be different.

Patterson is miserable when she’s not working. When she’s involved in a project, she typically works six hours a day, five days a week.

She recently finished a mammoth effort–160 drawings and botanical illustrations in all–for the book Montrose: Life in a Garden (Duke University Press, September 2005) with friend Nancy Goodwin, a month-by-month chronicle of sorts on Goodwin’s efforts to reveal, preserve and maintain a treasure of historic and native plants spread out over 20 acres at Goodwin’s 19th-century Hillsborough home.

The act of reprinting Patterson’s work is almost an injustice. Even in the fine reproductions in Montrose–one of best mix of plates and design of her long career–there are things lost: shadows of shadows or the far edge of a curve in a seedpod.

In a way, she says, the printing of her illustrations for the New York Times gardening column from 1984 to 1988, where the ink was pure blackand the newsprint unforgiving, remains some of the most satisfying.

In any case, reproducing her current work is a tall order for any printer. Patterson typically works with an “ought six” Rapidograph, the finest of the fine points. Lately, she has chosen to work in colored pencil, an even bigger challenge to reproduce, but necessary, Patterson says. “Plants,” she explains, “are not made of ink.”

Patterson also insists on illustrating from the actual plant as much as possible, rather than from a photograph or other two-dimensional image. And she isn’t just interested in the unblemished specimen, either. “A perfect flower in full bloom is the last thing that calls to me,” she says. “But a dying flower or a bud just starting to flower with that…,” she draws a curve in the air with one finger, “like a beautiful neck.”

And so the pinpoints that make up the whole, the tiny dots that create a shadow and the transitions of light to dark and stalk to stem and, ultimately, the transition from seed to decay of the subject itself, draws her to nature. The morphology, the “weirdness of plants,” she says, is what keeps her at the well-worn wooden drawing board in her studio for long stretches.

She works in a small chapel-like space that looks over a pond and a yard with plant beds and the sculpture work of a favorite aunt. She keeps the gardens small and manageable. Otherwise, she says, she’d spend more time in the garden than the studio.

Patterson doesn’t always work in the micro scale, though, and regularly produces “life drawings,” works in a long-running series of almost life-size human forms rendered in thick, broad charcoal lines and, unlike the several sessions it takes to complete a science illustration, these works are usually completed in one sitting.

Though Patterson is recognized as a successful science illustrator, winning the National Academy of Sciences Illustration Award in 1990 for her work on the children’s book No Bones, she never set out to be one. She started college at the Rhode Island School of Design, but disliked the conventions of art school and transferred to Brown to major in writing. Her career as a science illustrator started organically, as she picked up jobs illustrating garden columns for magazines and newspapers. Her reputation as an illustrator filtered through the science community, and she started working regularly for science publications and eventually The Times, a job she gave up after moving to Hillsborough in 1988 with her husband, science publisher Neil Patterson.

Patterson has collaborated on numerous books, including An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold with poet Jeffery Beam and 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names with writer Diana Wells. She published a coveted annual garden calendar for several years, but she discontinued it after the marketing effort cut too deeply into her drawing time.

Lately, in addition to working on a new botanical series, she’s been collaborating with artist and friend Roger Hale on blowing up some of her works to poster-size. And she’s returned to some of her old themes–strange creatures and monsters she drew as a young woman and abstract patterns she drew as a child in Chile, the kinds of patterns she saw in the concrete walls or in the scales of the lizards on that high, dry plain–ghosts, perhaps, but nothing to be afraid of.