Lars Guthrie's Reviews > Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra

Nature Noir by Jordan Fisher Smith
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's review
Sep 27, 2009

really liked it
Read in September, 2009

The title and cover may be good marketing, but are misleading. Although crime (and murder) investigation enter into Smith's story, the book is not really about police and thieves. Although the cover picture is the high Sierra, the book does not really take place in remote wilderness.

Smith worked as a California park ranger for a decade plus in the foothills of the Sierras, at the Auburn State Recreation Area. During that time, from 1986 to 1998, this was a no man's land in the state bureaucracy, much of it slated to be (and mapped as) a large lake held in by a dam that was never built. The area was used by blue collar types from the Central Valley on their days off, drifters and oddballs who saw a chance to live off the grid by dredging for gold, city dwellers looking for whitewater excitement on river rafting espeditions, and daredevils who risked suicide and hopeless cases who committed it off the Foresthill Bridge.

Rangers like Smith who patrolled this area got little respect or remuneration, but were able to see close up an ecosystem where wilderness and development were continually colliding. Smith documents this collision in masterful essays framed in poetic language that really make you think about our relationship to the land.

At the same time that El Dorado County population tripled, for example, Smith was involved in the investigation of the first modern-day fatality due to a mountain lion. "If you drive up into these foothills," he tells us, "and allow yourself to wander, you will end up on dusty roads, off other unmarked roads, which are in turn off other roads. At the end of each of them sits a relatively new house with no economic relationship, as a ranch or a miner's cabin would have had, to the land around it. Everything that gets up there, from the next quart of milk to the next stick of lumber for a fence, arrives in an automobile, a pick-up truck, or a sport-utility vehicle. It is a way of life unprecedented in history...."

"After a century and a half of condemnation to usefulness," he continues later, "there was a great longing back toward wilderness in these canyons." In addition to the return of pine forests and wildflower meadows, there were more sightings of bears and cougars. "It was desire; it was the force behind everything that happens without human permission or design."

One of my most memorable river rafting experiences was capsizing on the Middle Fork of the American River. I will never think of that experience, or all the other ones I've had in the foothills so near to Interstate 80, in the same way again after reading this book. Smith's book is meaningful for anyone interested in the intersection of civilization and nature, but it will be especially valued by Californians like me trying to understand their state.
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