Book Looks at Interplay of Humans, Wilderness

Jordan Fisher Smith, author of Nature Noir, discusses the relationship between humans and the wilderness. Smith worked as a park ranger in a California state park that inspired the book.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Jordan Fisher Smith spent more than 20 years as a park ranger before turning to nature writing, and the leafy world he describes in his book "Nature Noir" is anything but pristine.

Mr. JORDAN FISHER SMITH (Author): (Reading) We lurched into a muddy wash, surrounded by a thicket of blackberries and scotch broom and then emerged onto the canyon rim. A meek little state park boundary sign stood to the left of the road, thoroughly ventilated with bullet holes.

MONTAGNE: Armed and dangerous denizens of the deep forest are part of a dark cast of characters Jordan Fisher smith encountered in his time as a US ranger in California's Sierra Nevada river canyon. It's a place, he writes, that can change suddenly from choking dust to deluge.

Mr. SMITH: (Reading) By November, the rains come in earnest. In the woods, the carpet of moss covering rocks and tree trunks that has been brittle and apparently lifeless for months becomes vibrant green again. Bug-eyed orange salamanders and newts make jerky slow-motion patrols across the forest floor. Ferns tremble with drips from the trees. Mushrooms come up. Water falls in diamond ribbons from moss- and fern-covered cliffs and skeins together into creeks, seeking the river. And the roads we rangers travel, which for months have hemorrhaged clouds of soil behind every car, turn to mud.

MONTAGNE: You know, that very brief paragraph in a way sums up the tension in "Nature Noir." There's a garden, but there's a snake in the garden.

Mr. SMITH: Of course, like Walt Kelly said, you know, `We have met the enemy, and he is us.' For the most part, what you find when you work as a ranger is that most all of the people you meet are just generally delighted to be in nature. But then you meet everybody, and society contains a component of people who are troubled or in trouble or running from the law. And rangers work in a very lonely place by themselves, and can't get backup. So this is why being a park ranger is now the most dangerous job in federal law enforcement statistically.

MONTAGNE: There's actually a fascinating statistic that--What?--it's 15 times more likely for a park ranger to get killed or injured than for a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

Mr. SMITH: About 13 times more likely. Now, of course, the average person in a park is very safe. It's the rangers who aren't safe. And we've certainly had a kind of a summer just in the last couple of months that would demonstrate that, you know, Renee. On July 25th, two rangers, responding to a disturbance in the campground at Crater Lake, which is a very quiet sort of park, you know, a very nice, beautiful, quiet park in Oregon, were approached by a man who told them he intended to kill them with what he had in his hand, which was a war club, a long, heavy club with a knot on the end. And he approached them. They sprayed him with pepper spray, and it didn't work. He kept charging them and telling them he was going to kill them, and they had to shoot him.

MONTAGNE: The canyons along the American River, where you spent so many years, 14 or so years, they were first overrun by men during the gold rush, and then that was a wild crowd.

Mr. SMITH: Yes, that's right. And in some sense, this book has echoes of the gold rush all through it, because, you know, the gold rush--I think we think of a sort of quaint picture of a fellow kneeling on one knee with a gold pan. But it was really a sort of cataclysmic disaster for these river canyons on the west side of the Sierra. And a great deal of damage was done, and of course, historians have estimated that only one in 20 gold miners who came to the gold rush did OK for themselves. And many more went home exhausted, underweight, sick with various things including malaria, and many of them, of course, didn't make it home at all. And some of that difficulty remains there today. People still come to the American River looking for gold, and many of them are troubled people who are sort of searching for gold as a last resort in life. But this land in particular has another level of difficulty, and that is that the whole place has been condemned to go under a great federal dam which was to already have drowned it years ago, but the dam has been delayed. So this landscape on the west side of the Sierra lives on the way that a prisoner lives on death row, on a series of stays of execution.

MONTAGNE: You call yourself a permanent ranger in a temporary park, but in practical terms, what does that mean?

Mr. SMITH: You know, it's temporary by virtue of the fact that even today, after--40 years after the dam bill was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, it is still owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. The dam has not been completed, but it's never been officially decommissioned. So I think that anytime we have a five-year drought or even right now in this current Congress, the possibility is that this dam will get going again, and this landscape will finally be drowned. So the landscape I encounter in "Nature Noir" is one that I really can't say will be there in 10 or 15 or 20 years, and that wasn't what I counted on when I came to be a ranger.

MONTAGNE: You came into being a forest ranger with what you might call a pure heart.

Mr. SMITH: Oh, yes. I was the most idealistic creature, you know, when I came to rangering, and what I really had intended to do was to really overqualify myself. And so I tried to learn my skills, and I knew if I became a really good ranger that I would get the perfect landscape, and that landscape would have been protected in perpetuity so that I could contribute my little piece of work to the long-term project of keeping this place forever. Well, what I got instead was a condemned dam site.

MONTAGNE: Now there's a lot of death in "Nature Noir" but also moments of great beauty, and in the end, it seems you settle on this idea that this sort of mistreated wilderness is, as you put it, finally resurgent and bursting with life.

Mr. SMITH: Yes. Of course, the wonderful thing about this--I mean, I didn't create this story. I'm a nonfiction writer, so I just found this story, and the wonderful thing about it is that it's hopeful to me. This land, which has now lain under its death sentence for 40 years, has gone fabulously wild. It has repopulated itself with all sorts of creatures that lived there before the gold rush--mountain lion, bear, coyote, foxes. And an area that now lies 400 feet beneath the water line of this proposed and partially built federal dam has now appeared in a book of the best places to see wildflowers in the Sierra Nevada, and the canyon grows more and more beautiful before our eyes as it waits for its ultimate fate.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. SMITH: Well, thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Jordan Fisher Smith is the author of "Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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