To most Americans, park rangers are nostalgic figures suggestive of the Old West, living a simple outdoor life that harks back to the American frontier, surrounded by wildlife and unsullied forests that evoke the pristine paradise for which we all yearn. In his first book, Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra (Houghton Mifflin; publication date: February 8, 2005; $24.00), former U.S. Park Ranger Jordan Fisher Smith gives readers an astonishing account of the unholy truths lurking amid the American great outdoors. As his saga unfurls along the American River, we discover a veritable heart of darkness, a crossroads where nature and mankind collide.
At the age of twenty-two, Jordan Fisher Smith decided to become a park ranger. By the time he was twenty-eight, he could move around the mountains in the summer or winter through any kind of weather, climb rock and ice, traverse the backcountry with pack-loaded mules, fight forest fires, perform first aid, shoot straight, and navigate his way safely through any terrain anywhere. As his career wore on, it became clear that the wilderness itself was the least of his problems. The people abusing the land posed the biggest threat, evident in the main thread of the book: the story of the American River flowing through the highlands of the Sierra Nevada, and the efforts of the U.S. government to build a dam to obliterate it.
After the dam was announced, a feeling of doom fell over the region and crime increased. Fisher Smith found himself dealing with rowdy campers, gun-toting gold miners, unsolved murders, desperate suicide jumpers, daredevils, and wife-beaters. Parking lots, concrete restroom blocks, and snack bars have changed the face of America's wilderness preserves. Parks that once offered solitude and peace of mind to their visitors have sometimes been transformed into boisterous, rambunctious "recreational areas" that are anything but tranquil and on occasion become lethal. Moments of gripping danger and utter senselessness scar the serenity of nature.
In one haunting scene, our helplessness in the face of the primeval forces of nature is revealed as Fisher Smith searches for a missing jogger only to discover that she has been attacked and killed by a mountain lion, her body buried beneath the litter of the forest by the big cat. The mysterious disappearance of a deputy sheriff's wife (after rumors of domestic abuse) proves no less troubling. To this day her body has not been found. As Fisher Smith strives to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the awe-inspiring beauty of the wilderness emerges as a silent partner in the woman's fate.
In spite of the harsh daily realities Fisher Smith faces, his vision of nature is at once reverent yet realistic. The American River and its many canyons are no longer totally wild, nor are they entirely manmade. Rather, like much of the rest of the world, they have become an admixture of the two. No part of the world can now be said to be entirely untouched or unaltered by human enterprise.
Despite this fact, Nature Noir argues against those who believe the idea of wilderness is nothing more than a sentimental fiction. Instead, writes Fisher Smith, nature is far more powerful and omnipresent than we realize. Our technological feats in preserving as well as exploiting nature have indeed been admirable, but they have also had many unintentional outcomes.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. "We are not at a critical juncture in history when we must take great pains to ensure the survival of those landscapes and species that have not already been massively manipulated," says Fisher Smith. "In the end," he continues, "much what is seemingly known and tamed is in fact unknown and untamed. Even with our interventions, and now because of them, the world continues to be mysterious and accidental."
For decades park rangers have risked their lives to make America's national and state parks safe for nature lovers to visit. They hold a special place in our hearts as the guardians of an aboriginal, innocent wilderness untainted by technology and preserved from the rapacity of modern civilization. Yet there is a darker side. Ultimately, amid murder and mayhem, Nature Noir forces us to face up to fundamental realities about nature and mankind. Fisher Smith's unflinching firsthand account will enlighten and challenge each of us in our efforts to understand ourselves and the wilderness we claim to love.
Jordan Fisher Smith
has been a park ranger for more than twenty years in Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, and California. He lives with his wife and two young children in the northern Sierra Nevada. For more information, visit his Web site: http://www.naturenoir.com
Q&A with Jordan Fisher Smith
How long were you a park and wilderness ranger?
What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you as a ranger?
Mercifully, when the really frightening things happen, you don't have time to feel scared. You do what you've been trained to do and you don't feel much until it's over. Rangers survive by having a well-trained task to do in any kind of emergency.
It's worst when there's nothing you can do. Once, when I was fighting fires in the Rockies, we were flying over a sixty-thousand-acre fire in Idaho when the helicopter we were riding in suffered a mechanical failure. It wasn't my job to save us; it was the pilot's. All I could do was hang on. We were a couple thousand feet up, which was a blessing because we didn't immediately auger into the trees and flames. But it was a rough ride, and I remember looking across from me Hueys have two fold-down bench seats facing each other in the back into the face of this part-Indian firefighter, and his face was white. I mean, just ashen. I thought, "That guy looks terrible." Thinking back on it now, I realize I must have looked just as scared. Somehow we landed, if roughly, and I was never so glad to have my boots on solid ground.
The closest I ever came to getting shot was when my partner and I came upon four armed people with a methamphetamine lab chemicals and glass labware they were using to manufacture illegal drugs hidden in the back of their Jeep on a four-wheel-drive road in the middle of a pine forest. We got out of my Jeep to talk with them, and my partner saw one of them reach for a semiautomatic pistol and warned me. I was standing behind the guy when he did it, and I grabbed him by his clothing and almost levitated him from all the adrenaline running through my system, then turned and shoved him face-first into the trunk of a nearby tree. He lost his desire to shoot me, and we handcuffed them all, and then found the lab and another gun in the vehicle. They went to jail for a couple of weeks, and then finally made bail. A couple of days after they hit the street, one of them murdered two women in cold blood.
That doesn't sound anything like how we imagine a park ranger's job to be. Isn't it mostly hiking and birdwatching?
It's that too. I've spent a lot of really glorious times alone in very beautiful places, and had ample opportunity to watch wildlife. I always carried a pair of binoculars, and most of the time, a bird book or wildflower book.
But as I point out in Nature Noir, the whole impetus behind the founding of national and state parks and national forests in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries was the rapid despoilment of wild places the founders had the foresight to see, before it was too late. It's no accident that the tallest, the biggest-girthed, and the oldest trees in the world are all on public lands the former two in national parks, the latter in a national forest. It's not inconceivable that there were bigger or older trees, but no one knows them now because they were cut down and their stumps burned in slash burns before anyone got around to measuring them. The environmental problem is ultimately not a nature problem, but a people problem. For the most part what rangers must regulate in defense of nature is human behavior, not animal behavior.
By the way, all three of those trees, the tallest, biggest, and oldest in the world, are in California, which is the most populous state in the U.S. So the job for rangers today is the same as it was when those public lands were first laid out: to keep all those people from harming those trees for the most part not maliciously, but out of ignorance and to teach people to enjoy and cherish them, too. That job just gets a little more complicated in a world with recreational drugs, four-wheel drives and all-terrain-vehicles, assault rifles, and global climate change. But the basic job is the same.
So, is that job now more dangerous than a regular police officer's?
According to a 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, the national park service has the highest rate of assault on its officers in federal law enforcement; higher than the Secret Service or the federal marshals. National park rangers and park police officers are more than twice as likely to be killed or injured on duty than agents for the Drug Enforcement Agency. These assaults run about a hundred a year, and that figure doesn't include all the state park rangers, because there's no central reporting system for them. In 2003 there were 106 assaults on officers in the national parks. The year before there were 98, and two rangers were killed.
The problems rangers face are also different from those encountered by urban police officers. A ranger's nearest backup can often be very far away. When I worked in the Alaskan bush, for example, if I wanted backup, someone had to get in an airplane and fly to where I was, and flying light planes in Alaska is dependent on weather. In the American River canyons we did law enforcement out of a whitewater raft. You put your gun belt in a waterproof box while you were running rapids to keep it dry and because, if you fell out of the boat with it on, you'd sink like a stone. So you had to put it on when you went ashore on a contact.
Why did you write this book?
There were two reasons.
First, I wanted to write how it really is to be a patrol ranger not the idea people have of it, but how it really is. Perhaps that job was a little more difficult on the American River, but that difficulty illuminated a characteristic in my fellow rangers that rangers everywhere have: this resolute desire to do their job over the resistance of their particular political situation. All rangers suffer some level of compromise by politics; it's just the nature of working for government.
The second reason was that the place I've written about in this book haunted me so. By the time I got there in 1986, the Bureau of Reclamation had moved most of the previous owners off the land and was still burning some of their dwellings. I remember one old ranch where a concrete path bounded on both sides by bushes of yellow tea roses led to a flight of front stairs that fell off abruptly into a pile of charcoal inside a the remains of a foundation. There were a lot of places like that, and I never knew much about the people who had lived in them. Meanwhile, gold prospectors, fugitives from the law, and squatters had moved into the canyons and a fair number carried guns. It was a dark and scary place to be a ranger, but so beautiful, too. The juxtaposition of these two things the dark and the beautiful well, that's why the book's called Nature Noir.
You've said three dozen people died in accidents, murders, and suicides on your beat in the American River canyons in one ten-year period from 1986 to 1995. Can that be right?
Yes, I went back and checked the figures, and they're probably low. The sheriff's departments of the two counties in which the dam site was located would occasionally enter our sprawling domain, recover a body or do an investigation there, and not even tell us about it. The same is true for traffic fatalities handled by the Highway Patrol on our roads. And of course far more people were victims of crimes or accidents without dying had their cars broken into and their stuff stolen, got threatened, beat up, had a rough swim in the rapids, survived a fall from a trail, or crashed their cars off these canyon roads.
So, are the American River canyons still as unsafe as they were in the era you've written about, the late 1980s to the late 1990s?
No. The situation has changed a lot there. We rangers must have done some good in my time, and the present rangers and their superintendent are doing a wonderful job, too. In the long run, people are slowly coming to see the American River canyons more as a park than as a dam site and a place to dump bodies, garbage, and stolen cars. It's a spectacular place to go whitewater rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, or just sit by the river. Wildflower season, which runs from about late February until April or May, is spectacular. The most famous endurance horse race and the most famous long-distance footrace in the West are both held there on a trail that runs down the Middle Fork canyon.
How did the ranger become a writer?
I think I always was a writer in some sense, or secretly wanted to be. I kept a journal as a teenager and wrote terrible poetry. But it wasn't until I was thirty-three or thirty-four that I sat down to actually write. At thirty-six I sold a poem, and around the time of my thirty-seventh birthday, I published an interview with a senator named Al Gore. A couple of months after I turned in my work, Gore accepted the vice presidential nomination and I went off to work as a ranger in Alaska. One day a bush pilot in a float plane landed on the lake where my cabin was to drop off my mail, and there was this envelope containing a copy of my first real magazine job. What a feeling that was!
I did another interview or two, and gradually turned my attention to the nonfiction narrative essay, which has a grand tradition in the hands of writers who were interested in nature and people's relationship to it: Thoreau, Muir, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, Stegner, Abbey, and so on. By that time I was working in the American River canyons, and I began writing about my job there as a way to work it out in my own mind as I've said, it troubled me so. I published the first of those essays in 1996. The story of a doomed place that lived and bloomed in the face of its death sentence and that of the rangers who worked in it must have resonated in some way with the world in which people see themselves living now. I didn't create that story; I just found it.
Who have been your major influences?
In my teens, Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and Jack Kerouac. In my twenties, D. H. Lawrence, for his portrayal of the great natural force underlying human life, the Eros, and Edward Abbey, for his crotchety and distinctive voice. In more recent years, George Orwell Orwell the nonfiction writer for his irony, his stark portraits of the lives of the working poor and his way of speaking about himself in the second person the use of "you" instead of "one." For their portrayals of California, John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Joan Didion, and Gray Brechin.
Setting out to write Nature Noir, I was inspired by Donald Waldie's 1996 book Holy Land, which is a quirky, personal history of Lakewood, Levittown of the West the first monster tract-home town in Southern California, where Waldie grew up and apparently still lives. Holy Land demonstrated to me that every place has a secret life that is inherently interesting, and I thought if Waldie could make the story of a subdivision so strangely beautiful, I could do the same with a federal dam site. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried was useful in thinking about how to write about my fellow rangers like O'Brien's characters, men in a dangerous and futile situation as was Tobias Wolfe's In Pharaoh's Army.
You write in your prologue that the events you describe in Nature Noir are true. How did you recall all the details?
Yes, the incidents I describe in Nature Noir are all true. I think there ought to be a clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction. There's nothing wrong with fictionalizing real events, but the reader should be informed that it's been done.
While all human memory is inherently flawed, I had some tremendous advantages in Nature Noir. I could select the events I've written about from hundreds of cases I was involved in, picking those that remained most vivid in my mind. And we rangers wrote reports, lots of reports, and years later they were all still in stacks of cardboard boxes in our warehouse. In some cases we had taken crime-scene photographs, collected physical evidence, and even made tape recordings of interviews with suspects and witnesses.
With regard to my fellow rangers, I had the opportunity to witness their little quirks over and over, for years. Writing about them, I felt tremendous affection and empathy for what they'd been through. I hope I've succeeded in rendering them with that kind of sympathy, because in my opinion they were heroes. They functioned remarkably well in an exceedingly tough situation.
Advance Praise for Nature Noir
"This is a walk in the woods like Thoreau never imagined. I can't make up my mind whether Jordan Fisher Smith is John Muir at the crime scene or Elmore Leonard with a backpack. In any event, this astonishing book, with its brilliant interweaving of murder, irony, and natural history, invents a new genre."
Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear
"Powerful with its intimate knowledge of place, Nature Noir achieves an even deeper mastery with its affection for the people and human histories of that place. Care and respect for a wild landscape attend every page of this book."
Rick Bass, author of The Ninemile Wolves
"Jordan Fisher Smith writes of the present moment as if from some vantage point in the future. The effect is eerie, and part of what makes Nature Noir so compelling. Smith's is a refreshingly unsentimental kind of truth-telling."
Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men
"Park rangers have one of the tougher jobs our society has yet devised they come up against all the varieties of human unhappiness that a city policeman encounters, and they come up against nature in all her moods. Both seem amplified in the canyon of the American River that Jordan Fisher Smith writes about with such calm power. This book will tell you things you didn't know, and in a strong and original voice."
Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age
"Nature Noir is a stunning work that will appeal on many levels. The descriptions of nature are visceral, often lyrical. The historic and geological details are fascinating. And the suspense is palpable, part murder mystery, part thriller, and part a new genre all its own."
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club
"Eden had a snake, Yosemite Valley has a jail, but most nature writing is barricaded with omissions to make it just another gated community, one that Jordan Fisher Smith's powerful Nature Noir bursts open for readers. Thus it is he defends victims of domestic violence as much as violence against nature, which might not be separate things after all."
Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows, Savage Dreams, and Wanderlust: A History of Walking