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Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra Hardcover – February 8, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Slated to be drowned by a dam, the California state park patrolled by the author of this haunting memoir is a "condemned landscape" of gorgeous river canyons hemmed in by exurban sprawl and peopled by eccentric gold miners, squatting families, drug dealers and miscellaneous drunken, gun-waving rowdies, a place where "turkey vultures floated... savoring the hot air for the inevitable attrition of heat, drought and violence." In his 14 years there, first-time author Smith encountered fights, beatings, suicides, daredevil canyon divers and the corpse of a woman jogger killed and half eaten by a cougar. His conflicted task of facilitating the communion of humans with the wilderness while keeping the humans civilized and the wild places wild becomes a mission against the "half-assed and watered-down... gray area" that is the modern world's "perpetual state of uncertainty." The clash of nature and civilization is a resonant theme, but it doesn't of itself yield compelling insights, and sometimes the author's essays add up to little more than shaggy-dog stories. But Smith writes with a novelistic sense of character, atmosphere and pacing, in a prose style that's wonderfully evocative of landscape and its effects on people. It will cause readers to both thrill and shudder at the call of the wild. >
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"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 respct for a wild landscape attend to every page of this book." —Rick Bass

"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.

"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.

"Jordan Fisher Smith writes of the present moment as if from some vantage pont 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

"Smith writes with a novelistic sense of character, atmosphere and pacing . . . It will cause readers to both thrill and shudder." Publishers Weekly

"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

"Eloquently meditative . . . Smith relishes the physical detail . . . His voice gains authority through its cadence and understatement." --Alan Burdick The New York Times Book Review

"A taut drama . . . Smith's book follows the tradition of nature writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir and Annie Dillard." --Jennie Yabroff The San Francisco Chronicle

"NATURE NOIR is a nature book unlike any other. . .nuanced. . .infused with wonder. . .the book works in so many ways." --Arthur Salm The San Diego Union-Tribune

"A wonderful antidote to the treacly Ansel Adams image of our parks." --Mark Yost The Wall Street Journal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1st edition (February 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618224165
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618224166
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,143,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

For 21 years, Jordan Fisher Smith worked as a park and wilderness ranger in California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Alaska. His essays, interviews, and feature articles have appeared in magazines including Discover, Men's Journal, Backpacker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orion, The Sun, and Land & People. His October 2010 Discover feature on Biosphere 2 has been nominated for an ASME (American Society of Magazine Editors) Award. His first book, Nature Noir, was a Booksense Bestseller, Audubon Magazine Editor's Choice, and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of 2005 pick. Nature Noir is now a Mariner paperback and an Amazon e-book.

Jordan's work appears in four collections, the most recent of which is THE ILLUMINATED LANDSCAPE: A SIERRA NEVADA ANTHOLOGY (Heyday 2010). He is narrator and principal cast member of the award-winning documentary film "Under Our Skin," now available on Amazon Video on Demand. Under Our Skin made the 2010 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Jordan is currently working on a book about the recent past and future of American wilderness for Random House's Harmony Books imprint. Jordan now writes, speaks, and teaches full-time. He is a single father of two teenagers living in the northern Sierra Nevada. To contact Jordan and learn more about his work, go to

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on July 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
If you think being a forest ranger is just leading happy people on hikes and lazily watching for fires, think again. Hopefully not all state and national parks present as much danger as California's Auburn State Recreation Area, where Jordan Fisher Smith has collected many years of experience in the dark side of human communion with nature. In America's natural preserves, rangers are getting increasingly caught up in law enforcement scenarios and saving under-prepared suburbanites from nature's challenges. With a ruminative and fast-moving writing style, Smith describes various episodes in which he or his coworkers had to deal with anarchic gold miners along the American River (a few hardy souls still think the gold rush prospector's life is possible), gangsters from a hidden meth lab, gun-toting drifters living in the campgrounds, all types of fights and domestic disputes among park users, and even a woman being killed by a mountain lion.

Mixed into these narratives are discussions by Smith on the true day-to-day life of a California ranger, which features a lot of paperwork as well as hazards both natural and manmade. Smith also embodies a more insidious natural hazard, as he briefly describes his battle with advanced Lyme disease. There is a fair amount of environmental politics and conservationist history in the book, mostly applied to discussions of decades-long plans to dam the American River in the park for flood control and irrigation. This gave Smith and his coworkers a strange sense of risking their lives to protect a condemned and temporary landscape, and this brings on some pretty good philosophy of the civilization vs. wilderness stripe. The end result of all these varied stories, from Smith's direct experience, is a book that offers a surprisingly original mix of true crime, naturalist philosophy, and social observation. It turns out that a park ranger's life can be pretty wild, in all senses of the word. [~doomsdayer520~]
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By J. McLaughlin on April 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Most truly fine writers are too dreamy to be much good at anything else. Not that they lack experience, they just lack heroic competence, and generally are confined to the role of (hopefully keen) observer when the stuff hits the fan. The man or woman of action who can write--and the writer who can save your life--is vanishingly rare. Jordan Fisher Smith is that rare exception.

Nature Noir is a memoir of place in the broadest, most catholic sense: people, politics, plants, animals, weather, and geology all are acknowledged as characters in the universal hard-luck drama we call "nature." During the last two decades of the 20th century, a handful of park rangers found themselves in the surreal, tragic, deliciously post-modern situation of risking their lives to enforce the law in a condemned landscape--California's American River canyons. The canyons, already used hard for a hundred years by miners and ranchers, had been bought up by the government as the site for a reservoir that would rise behind the still-incomplete Auburn Dam. When young Fisher Smith's tenure as a ranger on the American River begins, the dam project has stalled, leaving the land in limbo, a temporary place. The pause creates a social vacuum in the American River canyons--an opportunity for wildness--and Nature Noir is about what happens in that vacuum.

Much of what happens is sad and absurd, and Fisher Smith's tale is partly a sympathetic but trenchant commentary on the behavior of modern humans at the edge of civilization.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on February 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Destined to become an environmental classic, Nature Noir vividly captures the reader in a tale of interactions between people and nature, and the park rangers' many roles.

As each chapter relates a true story from an accidental wilderness of doomed public lands in the Sierra foothills, you feel as though you are in the jeep on patrol with Jordan Fisher Smith. As he shares his thoughts on the journey, the reader gains an inciteful view into the real world of modern park ranger work and the conflicting forces affecting all of our natural landscapes. This thought provoking book is a 'must read' if you care about our public parks and forests!
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on April 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I'm not the hugest nature buff--lived in cities my whole life, never been camping, find hiking kind of boring, do like impressive landscapes (especially deserts), never been hunting or fishing, been white water rafting once, etc. but this memoir by a former California State Park Ranger captured and mostly held my interest. Smith was a ranger from 1986-99 in the Auburn State Recreation Area, a piece of wilderness off I-80, about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Through a complicated quirk, the land actually belongs to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and has long been marked for submersion due to the imminent building of a dam that would create a reservoir flooding most of the area. Because of this, the California park bureaucracy allocated the recreation area a skeleton staff and minimal funding, resulting in a much more wild atmosphere than one finds at most state parks.

Indeed, the dam (or lack thereof) is a thread that runs throughout the book and looms large over the daily affairs of the rangers. Fisher writes compellingly about these daily affairs, and about how the contrast between the dream of working at some magisterial landscape revered throughout the country and the down to earth reality of being stuck in a backwater park with little support. Like many rangers, he has a deep and abiding love of the wilderness and respect for its beauty and dangers. The difficulty of the park ranger's central task -- to somehow balance the preservation of wilderness with the right of the taxpayers to safely enjoy it -- pervades the narrative. Indeed, the human element is the most interesting aspect of the book.
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