Book Review: Nature Noir

Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra, by Jordan Fisher Smith, Mariner Books (www.hmhbooks.com), 2006, 224 pages, $14.95

Under the apt title Nature Noir, veteran park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith casts new light on what it’s like to serve and protect in a great outdoors damned to inundation. In 1962, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began investigating the Auburn Dam site, proposing first a 685-foot earth and rock dam, followed later by a double-curvature thin-arch gravity dam that would have towered over 700 feet above its host, the American River. In fits and starts, a diversion tunnel, foundation works, cofferdam, exploratory tunnels, and the new 730-foot high Foresthill Bridge were pieced together even as the project fledged and floundered. Upstream, in the shadow of the proposed Auburn Reservoir, the land known as the Auburn State Recreation Area held its breath. And it was there, in a land for all purposes damned twice, that park rangers like Smith stood guard.

Beneath the Park Service olive greens and the regulation cavalry hats, Smith unearths a pedigree dating back to Yosemite and Yellowstone circa 1870, when park guardians hailed from military stock. Despite having evolved from cavalrymen to a civilian police force, today’s park rangers face no less a battle, especially when charged with policing a land given up for lost. In the then lost cause that was Auburn State Recreation Area, Smith writes, “We rangers could have been guarding some jewel-like national park celebrated in expensive coffee-table books. Instead, we would spend years in these purgatory canyons… where our fellow creatures – black bears, pileated woodpeckers, foothill yellow-legged frogs… – were consigned neither to the heaven of a national park’s perennial protection nor immediately to the cold hell of inundation.”

This state of limbo extended beyond the wild, growing to envelope its stewards. Reflecting on fourteen years below the water line, Smith recounts years spent doing battle with drunks, daredevils, drugs, dust, disgruntled prospectors, and parachuting chickens. Nature Noir tells a truth nature goers gloss over with picnic baskets and wildflower hikes – that park rangers are there to protect the wild from the public, the public from the wild, and the public from itself. These are stories told not in daisy chains, but chainsaws. Although Smith tells tales that leave even Mother Nature looking dirty, he ultimately betrays her dignity, offering redemption through the land’s staying power despite the odds. In the end, it is the dam that falls in a wilderness that outgrows its shadows.

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