"Nature Noir," by turns funny, poignant and surprising, is an intimate memoir of the career of a state-park...
“Nature Noir” (Houghton Mifflin, 224 pp., $24), by turns funny, poignant and surprising, is an intimate memoir of the career of a state-park ranger. Not just any ranger, but one with a wicked pen, patrolling a doomed landscape.
Against his better instincts, Smith signs up for a permanent ranger’s post — instead of itinerant, seasonal work — and is assigned to patrol the canyons, banks and uplands of the American River in the Sierras, slated to be flooded by construction of the proposed Auburn dam. “Maybe a ranger’s career is over as soon as you have one,” he muses.
Smith is quickly dispelled of any notion of a tidy Ranger Rick career, out there giving nature walks to the Patagonia-clad. For Smith’s patrol isn’t in one of those “tidy little nature parks with neat little campgrounds on paved roads and no bullet holes in the signs.”
Jordan Fisher Smith will discuss “Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com); and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).
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Suicides and stuntman wannabes drawn to a park bridge; revolver-toting gold miners squatting in derelict shacks; and a jogger neatly buried in forest duff by a cougar planning to come back to finish its meal later are all in a day’s work for Smith.
By page 22, Smith has already arrested an addict after watching him wing a baby through a car window like a Superbowl pass.
Smith stows the perp in the back of his patrol car while interviewing various drunk and tattooed witnesses, only to find the culprit blue and slumped over in his seat when Smith returns.
Smith revives the man, nearly dead from an overdose, then wonders why he bothered. A question the fauna on his beat — many in the thug taxa — will cause Smith to pose over and over.
Smith’s writing is vivid, even when describing something as mundane as the summer dust:
“I was leaving a brown stain on my bed sheets, so I began showering before washing the sheets every other day. But the stain appeared anyway, and persisted for weeks in the late autumn, even after the rains had settled the dust. Evidently the dust had gone deep into the pores of my skin, and I suspect even now my body contains some of it.”
Throughout the book Smith reveals how his colleagues cope with protecting a landscape their agency plans to destroy.
Some basically give up on enforcing the law: Smith, a rookie at the time, irritates one senior colleague on a ride-along when he insists a squatter with two slathering mongrels tie up the dogs, hand over his loaded pistol and pay up his park fee.
“Tell your rookie to leave me alone,” the man snaps. Smith persists, and their ride back together to park headquarters is a stonily silent one.
But it beats collecting park fees from people who aren’t camping — they are homeless:
“A faded wall tent slumped at one end of the site. From it, a short man, his grubby shirt unbuttoned and his pale belly overhanging the waistline of his grimy cutoffs, made his way toward a short woman in a faded, multicolored muumuu. Her long, graying hair hung forward in greasy stands as she bent over a frying pan on a camp stove. The ground was littered with beer cans.
“This was not nature, I thought. This was not a park. My career had hit bottom.”
The American River winds through it all, and the politicians’ plans to dam it, foiled only at the very end by steadfast environmentalists whose commitment is as unshakeable as Smith’s, who never forgets his charge:
“You protect the land from the people, the people from each other, and the people from themselves. If you’re lucky you get assigned to people who seem worth saving, and land and water whose situation is not hopeless. If not, you save them anyway. And maybe in time, saving them will make them worth it.”
Lynda V. Mapes is a reporter in The Seattle Times newsroom.