inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #0 of 69: Hal Royaltey (hal) Thu 25 Aug 05 02:55
Our next author, Jordan Fisher Smith, spent 21 years as a park and 
wilderness ranger on the coast and mountains of California, in Idaho, 
Wyoming, and the Alaskan Bush. He grew up along the boundary of a 
national park in Northern California, and encountered his first mountain 
lion kill -- a deer -- when he was still a young boy. The experience 
helped him recognize what he was seeing when he recovered the remains 
of the first Californian to be killed by a cougar in a hundred years, 
in the American River canyons in 1994.
While on the job in 1998, he contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite. The 
disease forced his retirement from rangering in 2000. His debut book, 
"Nature Noir," is a memoir of his years as a ranger along the American River.

Our interviewer is Molly Thrash.  Molly is a historical archeologist for 
the US Forest Service, currently on the San Juan National Forest in Durango 
and Bayfield, CO.  She has experienced the USFS life in western PA and 
central AL, and cut her professional teeth on the high prairie and canyons 
of eastern CO.  While not a Wilderness Ranger, she's done time in the wilds, 
and looks forward to more wilderness time in Colorado. 
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #1 of 69: delicious hot sugary love (izzie) Thu 25 Aug 05 18:45

Welcome to the Well, Jordan!!  I only know of one other Well person with 
any similar experiences, and I'm hoping he'll be along to join us here.

I really like your book, _Nature Noir_!!  I told a friend here on the Well 
that I was reading it, and he asked if it was about black magic or 
something, based on the name....  I laughed and assured him it wasn't!  I 
have my own pet theory for why you named it Nature Noir, but I'd love to 
know your real reason.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #2 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Fri 26 Aug 05 00:55
Thanks for the warm welcome, Molly.  I have heard so much about The
Well over the years and I feel like I'm on hallowed electronic ground.

The book's title came about like this: by the mid-Nineties I had begun
 writing these narrative essays about working as a park ranger.  In
places  they sounded a lot like traditional nature writing--there's
that typical sublimity, an epiphany at every other turn in the trail! 

But as the reader learns in Nature Noir, a patrol park ranger's work
is sometimes more dangerous and edgy than some people think it is.  Our
work involves searching for the lost, arresting armed and unarmed
criminals in remote places, and investigating death and injury--like
this woman I tell about in Nature Noir  who was killed and partially
eaten by a mountain lion.  So you'd be reading along through the
sublimity and green leafiness and suddenly you'd be at a death scene.  

It was in these passages that I noticed the tone of my writing would
change--there was an emotional flatness to it that seemed to stand in
juxtaposition to the lyricism of the nature description.  I think I had
learned to write about those things by writing endless numbers of
crime  reports and accident investigations over the years.  You know,
you don't say: "The man was lying in a pool of blood; I was so shocked
I couldn't look at him and got dizzy."  Instead, you say: "The deceased
was lying supine in a quantity of blood." Police writing isn't real

Anyway, when I set out on contract with Houghton Mifflin to write this
 book, its working title was "An Accidental Wilderness," because the
place I'm writing about had become a great de-facto wilderness area as
a strange consequence of its condemnation in 1965 to go underwater
beneath a huge federal dam, and then sitting there waiting for the
delayed dam to be finished, meanwhile healing and going wild and
beautiful.  But someone published a book by that name, so we had to
change it.  

Meanwhile, for some time, when people had asked me what kind of
writing I was doing I had been saying: "Well, I'm a nature writer, sort
of, but I write these rather detectivish/police procedural passages
too.  I guess you could call my sort of writing "nature noir." 

So I proposed to Houghton Mifflin that we call the book that.  My
wonderful editor, Deanne Urmy, took this proposal to an editorial
meeting and wrote me an e-mail at the end of that day saying: "There is
considerable hatred for the title "Nature Noir" at the editorial
offices of Houghton Mifflin." I'll never forget that. 

We fought over this for months.  Fur flew.  I generated over a hundred
alternative titles.  It drove me crazy.  I was close to walking out of
my contract about it.  In the end it was published as:
"Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra" (Houghton Mifflin
2005, ).     
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #3 of 69: errant thoughts of redheaded mischief (izzie) Fri 26 Aug 05 06:29

great!  much better than my pet theory which just had to do with the dark 
side of nature.  While reading, I caught the shift in your voice as you 
describe the crime/disaster scenes, and in my head, you shift from 
sounding like the wilderness rangers I've known to sounding like Joe 
Friday from Dragnet.  Nice to see that it's not just in my head!

Was writing for you like badge collecting, or map collecting, or step 
aerobics in the locker room -something cathartic- or was it always there 
for you?  Do you find it hard to write about that connection between 
people and the 'natural' environment, like what we find in the 
wildnerness?  I loved your descriptions of that connection - blood and the 
rivers, or the logging truck with the bones of the forest - and it's 
something I've never been able to put into words.  Then, I'm not a 
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #4 of 69: Autumn Storhaug (autumn) Fri 26 Aug 05 10:41
Welcome to the Well, Jordan!  So much of what you say in your book resonates
with me. My late husband, who went into the National Park Service in the
late seventies at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area with expectations
of teaching people about nature, was shocked to find himself wearing a gun,
speedloaders, mace, handcuffs, and a Kevlar vest, and supervising a team of
gung ho law enforcement rangers who had to be restrained from writing
visitors up for expired license plate tags.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #5 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Fri 26 Aug 05 12:51
Dear Errant Thoughts:

To really work, an author would like his book title to resonate with
things in the book that can be discerned in more than one place.  I do
think that the predominant darkness in Nature Noir is that of human
mischief, but I have also portrayed nature in a way that defies the
sort of "pretty calendar picture" view of it.  I think when I began
trying to write I had been reading a little feminist ecology--in
particular, Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature, and it still seems
to me that to portray nature or woman as just prettyness (that is,
harmless, unthreatening, unchallenging prettyness) is to diminish and
tame it, or her.  Of course for a writer to portray nature as something
more challenging than just a pretty face is nothing new.  One sees
this  in literature about the sea--in Melville (Moby Dick), in Richard
Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast), and later Sebastian Junger (The
Perfect Storm). 

On the whole, the diminishment of nature to a peripheral concern below
such manly subjects as the economy--which one sees in the current
administration in Washington--is one in the same with seeing nature as
just a pretty face.  In a time of environmental collapse nature bites
back.  I think there's a feeling of that bite in Nature Noir.    
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #6 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Fri 26 Aug 05 13:16

I sympathize with your late husband's experience.  I think there was
in the seventies a tremendous idealism about "going back to nature" and
the stories that came out of that are full of surprise when people
found out that they were still having to deal with human social
systems.  I'm guessing that the era of your husband's entrance into the
park service at GGNRA was after the 1973 killing of Ranger Ken Patrick
at Point Reyes.  Patrick was out alone--as rangers so often are--in
the predawn hours patrolling for poachers up on Mt. Vision Road.  He
stopped to check four men in a car and as he walked up to them they
shot him.  After that there was a lot of soul searching in the Park
Service; there's a certain naivite in believing that your role in
protecting nature can be accomplished entirely with smiles and earnest
lectures.  Much of it can.  But we live in a civilization that has been
very rough on nature--and on men and women, on each other-- and to
expect that to magically transform itself into sweetness and light at a
park boundary is, I think, not entirely realistic.  
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #7 of 69: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 26 Aug 05 14:08
    <scribbled by stevebj Fri 26 Aug 05 14:12>
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #8 of 69: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 26 Aug 05 14:12
Jordan, my old, old friend...

"Nature Noir" accompanied me last spring to a business conference down
in Arizona, which I remember very little of now, the book so captured
me there in the hotel room. There's much in it I'll have to discuss
with you in backchannels, but for the moment, allow me to ask a
question buried within a bit of context:

When you and I were in high school (not saying here how long ago!),
hiking on Mt. Tam in Marin County and exploring the High Sierra in
summers were pretty much givens among a certain social clique -- we
engaged these activities as regularly as some kids now play video
games. I don't believe it would've occurred to any of us back then to
ever behave in the wilderness in the manner you describe the behavior
of some of the visitors you encountered as a ranger, so one of the
many questions that arose for me when reading "Nature Noir" is, Have
attitudes about wilderness changed appreciably for the worse in the
intervening years? Or did we grow up in a kind of bubble both in terms
of place and time? You speak of the environmental idealism of the
1970s, but perhaps that idealism could be narrowed by class and
residence as well? Or is/was something else at work?

While reading the book, over and over I was struck by your frank,
sometimes brutal, yet quite honest descriptions of peoples'
relationships with the wild. So many of these seemed so alien to the
values we grew up with and, I don't doubt, still hold.  
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #9 of 69: Bob Akka (akka) Fri 26 Aug 05 14:50
    <scribbled by akka Tue 10 Feb 09 11:59>
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #10 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Fri 26 Aug 05 20:24

Great to hear from you!  I'm not surprised to see you frequent this
literary neighborhood of The Well. 

I think you've hit the nail on the head.  There was indeed a
historical bubble of good feelings toward the environment in the 1960s
and 1970s, and it was the source of a good portion of our national park
and wilderness acreage (notably in Alaska) and much of our
environmental legislation.  That time and its geo-cultural
strongholds--the San Francisco Bay Area and its relationship to the
Sierra goes all the way back to the time of John Muir and the founding
of the Sierra Club--can be distinguished as a cultural moment not
unlike the period of progressivism at the turn of the Twentieth Century
(which of course is when the Sierra Club gets founded by people in the
Bay Area).  Now, in 2005 we're in retrograde in relation to such times
of unabashed romanticism and nature-love, and we have a president and
congress fitting of such a retrograde time.  

I think what interested me in Nature Noir was not to rant about or
celebrate my own ethic about the backcountry, but instead to describe a
group of people who had been untouched by that way of thinking.  Those
miners and drug addicts in Nature Noir never went to UC Berkeley,
don't own a high-tech backpack, and have not read The Sand County
Almanac.  They are much more representative of the prevailing ethic
toward nature in our present time and throughout modern history.  Nor
did I want to describe the happy circumstances of an (apparently, but
not actually) perennially saved Yosemite.  In coming to the American
River I found a landscape that was much more representative of the rest
of the world than Yosemite is, during what we now know to be the
largest extinction of other species in 65 million years.  And that
world--like its microcosm, a federal damsite--lives provisionally, like
a long-term convict on death row.  

So, Bob Akka, this world I inhabit as a ranger and writer in Nature
Noir is thirty to forty years later  than that of Edward Abbey in
Desert Solitaire.  Ed took his job at Arches, if I remember right, in
about 1957.  I took mine on the American in 1986, and I write about the
period between that year and 2003 in Nature Noir.  

In Desert Solitaire, Abbey writes what he confesses is an elegy.  I
cannot, for the situation is far later and grimmer than Abbey's world
now.  Five years after Abbey's 1957-58 Arches seasons Rachel Carson
publishes Silent Spring in, if I remember right, 1962.  That book
unveils for Americans the idea of insidious changes in the environment
from human activities. But Carson could not have imagined a world where
our glaciers here in the Sierra are melting away fast from human
activities and we've already accepted it.  

What is a writer or artist to do in such a world?  Take a hopeless
landscape where the bad news is already resident and find some hope in
it.  Not to have hope is the most crippling thing I can imagine.  

In coming to the American River, although I considered it bad luck for
years, I was incredibly lucky.  As a writer I came to live in a place 
that truly represtented the state of the world and its peoples'
predominant relationship to nature at this time in history, outside of
a few favored moments and places like the Bay Area in the 1970s.  

And, Bob, the lack of quality signage and neat trailhead parking to
invite the foot traveller in the American River canyons is no accident.
 As a ranger I've found that every landscape has a semiotic--a message
it conveys to you about what it is and whether it is cherished and
valued--and although the American River canyons are administered by the
California State Parks as a State Recreation Area, their actual
identity is a federal dam site owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. 
Therefor, since the Bureau pays the bills for State Parks operations
and does not want to invest major money beneath the waterline of the
dam, you'll find facilities in the canyons temporary-looking and       
minimal, and of course the Bureau has leased land for the expansion of
that open-pit mine (the Teichert Industries limestone mine) on the
south side of the Middle Fork, because the canyon is a water tank to
the Bureau. It will all be underwater someday, in their estimation.  To
be fair to them that's their mission.  The Bureau is not a park or
wilderness agency.  They develop water storage and distribute water.

The obvious answer to this is to move management of the American River
from the Bureau to a fellow Interior Department Agency, The National
Park Service.  
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #11 of 69: Autumn Storhaug (autumn) Fri 26 Aug 05 21:13
I hope that management change happens.

Most of my NPS friends have retired, so I'm out of touch with what's going
on these days. I'm sure things are worse for the NPS under this
administration, but I was heartened by a story I read today in the New York
Times about NPS management.  Not surprisingly, a Bush appointee wants a
change in policy "fundamentally changing the way national parks are managed,
putting more emphasis on recreational use and loosening protections against
overuse, noise and damage to the air, water, wildlife or scenery."

What surprised me was that the change was rejected by 16 senior NPS
employees after they met to discuss the proposal.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #12 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Fri 26 Aug 05 22:03
Yes, I saw that too.  This administration and the congressional
majority are profoundly anthropocentric, following a line of thinking
that nothing is doing any good unless it is producing a commodity for
human beings.  Human beings are, according to the fundamentalist
theology of this administration, God's chosen species.  We have have
therefor been authorized to despoil as necessary in order to accumulate
 rich trusts, houses on steroids in gated communities, Cadillac SUVs,
and golf memberships on exclusive links.  Commodity outdoor recreation
is the closest thing to a commodity that a national park can produce;
it's quantifiable in user-days and park admission dollars and is
focused on what is fun for the people involved, not what is good for
America's crown jewels of nature.  If off-road vehicles, jet skis, and
low-altitude helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon are considered more
fun, that's what you'll get.   

It doesn't surprise me to see the career people in the Park Service
stand up to this mindset and insist on what is right for their parks.
The National Park Service is an organization remarkable for its hopeful
and idealistic mission, now some 89 years old.  To subvert that
mission is an insult to anyone who could have made a better living if
they'd gone into industry, but instead labored under the conception
that what they were doing would last because Americans valued it and
would protect it.  

Good for those career park people and superintendents! Long live any
park service, forest service, or BLM bureaucrat or ranger brave enough
to stand for what they went to school for, and what they've worked for
all their lives.  I support them.    
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #13 of 69: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 27 Aug 05 05:37
I took a class a couple of years ago and learned that there might be
some mergers coming up, like between BLM and the Forest Service, or
with Fish & Game. What do you think about this?
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #14 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Sat 27 Aug 05 11:20

I'd have to know more about the source of that information.  It's not
something I've ever heard.  I doubt that such tinkering would do any

What we primarily need in the agencies that manage land and protect
the environment in the United States is an attitude of respect from the
executive branch for their experts on the ground.  Although their
funding flows from Congress, administrative policy flows from the
Cabinet--the Forest Service's from the Secretary of Agriculture and
Chief of the Forest Service; the National Parks', US Fish and Wildlife
Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), from the Secretary of the
Interior and her respective chiefs.  

But in this administration, science and resource protection are
subordinated to the will of big business and a kind of posturing toward
freedom--freedom to drive a snowmobile in a national park.  Meanwhile 
real personal freedoms--freedom from unreasonable search and siezure
under the Fourth Ammendment, for example, are curtailed in the name of
national security.  We've been seeing multiple cases where
environmental scientists report findings and the president's people
change those findings before they're released. 

Jordan Fisher Smith
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #15 of 69: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 27 Aug 05 13:27
Well, the instructor was Dr. John Freemuth, at BSU. He indicated that
it's the sort of thing that comes up from time to time.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #16 of 69: errant thoughts of redheaded mischief (izzie) Sat 27 Aug 05 14:54

hi Sharon!  I'll be back this evening with few more questions for Jordan, 
but I wanted to jump in on your question first.  I am a Forest Service, 
USDA employee, and my boss is a Bureau of Land Management, DOI employee.  
In Colorado, there are a few FS/BLM combined units, like mine.  We are 
officially the San Juan Public Lands, and my office is the Columbine 
Ranger District (our FS name)/Field Office (our BLM name).   This isn't th 
forum to discuss how this is working or not, but there you have it: 
combined public land management agency.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #17 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Sat 27 Aug 05 15:33
That sounds really interesting, Molly, and I'd like to know more about
how it works and what the benefits and problems are.

What Molly's talking about is a local combination.  I suspect there
are times when this serves the local resource and population pretty
well.  Perhaps I misunderstood what you were talking about as a much
larger official combination of agencies like what was done recently to
put several Justice Department agencies inside a superagency called
Homeland Security.  I have doubts about that in the resource agencies,
although some people have said for generations that the Forest Service
might have been better off in the Department of the Interior.  

Another place where local interagency cooperation works really well is
combined, one-stop visitor centers--there are two of these I know of
along the eastern front of the Sierra.  One is at Mono Lake and
includes the Forest Service and State Parks, who both have lands in the
Mono Basin.  Another is further south at Big Pine, and it's a
wonderful place to get overall visitor information, natural history and
history books, informatoin on Park Service and BLM lands in Death
Valley and the surrounding deserts to the east and south, as well as
information on the Sierra lands of the Forest Service and Park Service.

So I think that on a local level, where it makes sense, this sort of
combination has something going for it. 

I'm sort of surprised how technical and nuts and bolts this
conversation has been, so far!

Jordan Fisher Smith  
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #18 of 69: Scott Davis (scottgeoffrey) Sat 27 Aug 05 16:59
Hello Jordan,

Your book is quite wonderful. The weaving of histories (urban,
political, geological, human, etc.) is very successful and really seems
to lend itself to better understanding (or at least contemplating)
some of the extreme complexity surrounding the American River and its
people. And from that, we realize that complexity is not unique to your
place, but ours as well. You write about the feeling among your
colleagues of being overwhelmed by it all to a point where one
sometimes wants to give in (or give up) – a sense of hopelessness and
of not easily seeing future value in what they are doing.

Regarding hope and hopelessness: 

1) It seems that while you (and most others) dreamed of better
assignments to one of our unanimously cherished “jewels,” you in the
end seem thankful and fortunate for having been subject to such a
marginalized place. It was from this marginalization that you were able
(even forced) to take in so much and ultimately find beauty and joy in
it – in spite, or perhaps even because, of its hopelessness.  Can you
talk a little more about that? and 

2) On writing and its motivations – can you also talk a little about
your last ten years trying to write and the role of nudging and support
and encouragement – a  difficult relationship with hope not uncommon
among writers.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #19 of 69: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sun 28 Aug 05 08:23
Jordan, not to stack up the questions, but...

Your descriptions of, and in many cases empathy for, the visitors to
the Auburn State Recreation Area are very much part of "Nature Noir"'s
memorable quality. Many, and perhaps most, of these visitors are not
the eco-heads you and I grew up with, admired, and often believed
ourselves to be -- yet unwed mothers who are underpaid check-out clerks
at FoodMaxx stores, who have biker boyfriends and show off butterfly
tattoos on their ankles and asses, need outdoor recreation just as much
as the rest of us, perhaps even more so. Yet you do not romanticize or
sentimentalize these members of the working class who visit wilderness
on weekends with their pickups full of bad beer and over-powered toys.
(That's what makes your opening throw-the-baby-at-the-car episode so

As both a ranger and a writer, how did you create in yourself an
unsentimental empathy for these kinds of visitors to an area you
yourself were reluctantly falling in love with and must've felt
protective toward? 
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #20 of 69: errant thoughts of redheaded mischief (izzie) Sun 28 Aug 05 10:23

these are great questions, Jordan!  I'll hold off on adding to the pile 
right now.

I typed out the last portion of page 103...from "everyone in these 
hill.." and it is posted over my desk in my office now.  That's the 
passage that jumped out at me in the book, telling me why I do what I do, 
and why I care.  so thanks!
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #21 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Sun 28 Aug 05 12:15
I am so impressed with the level of discourse here on the Well.  These
are great questions.

To try to respond to Scott's query: I think what I set out to do at
the time I began to write seriously for publication about 15 years ago
is to form a style of writing (and ultimately, of reading--because what
you read influences your writing) that would be comprehensive in its
approach to seeing the current environmental situation.  I had been
someone who was primarily interested in going to the outdoors, but
suddenly it interested me to see the ruins underneath the ground on
which Notre Dame sits on in Paris, and the Aztec ruins underneath the
colonial Christian Zoccolo in Mexico city, to read history and try to
imagine prehistory. Certainly this must be Molly's view too, as a
National Forest archeologist. 

Arne Naess talks about a philosophy built on what he calls a "Total
View." To me, that meant trying to evade the visual limitations of a
human being's short lifespan by understanding the whole as much as
possible whenever you begin to write.  So when you write a given scene
it has a sort of compassion for the benighted quality of being human
built into it.  You write into it the "great chain of being" on which
your characters exist.  They walk, and you need to visualize them
walking over the buried bones of Pleistocene mammals and bits of
glassware from the Nineteenth Century.  I think that is what Molly
notices in that passage she's mentioned at the end of the chapter
"Rocks and Bones."

As an aside, you have to remember that writing nonfiction does not
relieve you of responsibility for having imagination.  In Nature Noir I
never make a scene up--it all happened.  The question is how to
describe what happened in some larger terms.

Another early influence for me --and I'm going back to my late teens
and early twenties here--was the poetry of Gary Snyder circa "The Back
Country," "Turtle Island," and "Axe Handles" which had an awareness of
geologic time in it.

So, to answer Scott's question about hope or the role of hope in my
writing, I think I created my writing to make hope for myself; to
understand why I had been born into the largest extinction of other
life in 65 million years, and to figure out what to do about it.  The
essay, in particular, which is the form I was attracted to, is a way to
figure out how you feel about something as you write.  But as time
went on I realized I was a storyteller more than a didactic essayist. 
And the way I told my stories--true stories--anchored them in human
history and geologic time.

To further answer Scott's question, I never had to be prodded or
encouraged to write, because writing was an act of desperation for me. 
I had to write!  Kenneth Rexroth said somewhere that the only adequate
response to the ruin of the world is the creative act.  That was it,
for me.  And I continue to work in that vein.  

I'm going to get to the component of Scott's queston about the longing
for a better place to work than the American River, and why I was so
lucky to find those canyons, and Steve Bjerklie's question about the
people I portray there in a few minutes.  

Jordan Fisher Smith 
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #22 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Sun 28 Aug 05 14:24
To continue in response to Scott, Steve, and Molly:

The reason I was so lucky to go to work in the landscape in which
Nature Noir is set--this federal dam site on the North and Middle forks
of the American River--is that schematically, the larger world's
situation is far more like the damsite right now--a place with a huge
shadow over it, which is nevertheless still blooming and resurgent with
life and will heal if you let it--than it is like some beautiful and
theoretically saved national park.

Literature works best when it touches on universality, the feelings we
all have about what is going on in our lives.  

And had I written Nature Noir from some wilderness stronghold or some
other utopian situation, I think it would have been a fearful book--a
book that peered into the distance and saw the most scary thing
imaginable coming at it: environmental and the social collapse that
would inevitably follow it or coincide with it.  Instead, it is written
from a place where the bad news has already landed and we're grappling
with it.  

And as far as my characters, they were good luck too.  A nonfiction
book can't invent its characters' way of speaking (or shouldn't,
anyway).  The ranger whose name in the book is "Bell" really did unload
his shotgun that way, and really did say "Fuck this place!"  Had my
characters all read the same books I had and been speechifying all the
time about them, they wouldn't have been very interesting, to me
anyway.  Instead I got gold miners, drug addicts, drunks, criminals and
rangers who acted instead of speaking, and when they spoke, spoke in
very direct, not in abstract ways. 

Again the real world.  The overwhelming majority of the world's
citizens are poor and intellectually unsophisticated.  And they live in
a threatened landscape.  

Jordan Fisher Smith  
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #23 of 69: errant thoughts of redheaded mischief (izzie) Sun 28 Aug 05 14:48

Jordan, not so much about the book, but about a situation you briefly 
touch on (pg 158 for our readers at home!)....  the burning down of the 
old structures by BOR folks.  Do/did CA state parks have archeologists?  
Did you ever have to work within the parameters of NHPA?

I know the Forests systematically destroyed most structures at 
acquisition, a fact that has driven me half crazy sometimes, but I 
thought that as a quirk of my agency. I managed a database of arch sites 
for BOR one summer a while back.  Lots of archeologists, but what a 
strange mission!
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #24 of 69: Scott Davis (scottgeoffrey) Sun 28 Aug 05 18:29

Thanks so much, Jordan, for your thoughtful responses. Being able to
hear you elaborate on your process, context, intent, etc. has really
helped me better understand (and appreciate) what you are doing. Your
book has done a good job of getting me thinking, so congratulations,
and thanks for that. However, so that this discussion isn’t all
“Jordan, I love everything about your book” and “Jordan, I agree about
everything you say,” I’d like to risk putting a few things out there
that got me thinking (even though I, too, feel much of these

One thing is the emotional flatness when talking about victims and
park visitors, which stands in juxtaposition to the lyricism and
appreciation in the nature description (you very helpfully describe
what is behind this in your first comment here). I now understand and
appreciate how this comes about – but one thing I found myself yearning
for is a greater empathy with people, their complex histories and
struggles. This came about most for me in the essay of Barbara
Schoener’s death. 

I appreciate the theme of the essay -- of natural systems returning to
wildness (their natural tendency)… and how nature hurts nature, nature
hurts people, people hurt nature and people hurt people -- all quite
natural tendencies. What I kept thinking, though, was that even though
this woman’s death was natural and could be understood, it was still
tragic. As a reader having thus far already recognized your capacity
for empathy, I wanted you to grant this to her, to give her tragic
death its due sentiment. But all I found was the cool investigator’s
description of re-creating the scene. What little history we know of
her is tied to your making her a symbol of threatening sprawl and gated
communities via her address (leaving us to feel that she may…
somehow?... deserved this or asked for it – not being poor and
uneducated but rich and intellectually unsophisticated). Would her
death be considered differently if she was a naturalist and didn’t live

I imagined a more complex life, perhaps (we don’t know under what
conditions she came to live there), and saw a woman who loves the
outdoors (maybe even that canyon), jogging routinely on nature trails,
whom left behind a loving husband and two children. I imagined her
children reading the book and wanted you to treat her with the same
care and sentiment that you did the weather and the landscape. Please
don’t take this the wrong way… as I said, you have me and I’m a fan…
but can you talk a little more about this dichotomy in your writing
style or approach?

Also… regarding Noir -- I’m also a fan of the movie Double Indemnity
and keep thinking how Fred McMurray’s character (Walter Neff) recounted
complex human struggle and compromising circumstance (his own and
others) with great gumshoe description and commentary.
inkwell.vue.253 : Jordan Fisher Smith - "Nature Noir"
permalink #25 of 69: Jordan Fisher Smith (jordan-f-smith) Sun 28 Aug 05 18:48
Molly--and Scott, since I've written my response to Molly already I'll
respond separately to you:

The State Parks does of course have archeologists, and in the course
of my research for Nature Noir I found impassioned letters from one of
them, Norman Wilson, asking the Bureau of Reclamation (the Dept. of the
Interior agency that aquired the land and was building the dam) to
save some of the most historic structures it was aquiring.  But again,
State Parks and its rangers were only there on contract to run what was
going to be a huge waterskiing lake.  Their de-facto role as managers
of a huge wild area above and below the dam's water line was a
historical accident, born of the decades of delays in the dam's
completion.  State Parks doesn't own Auburn State Recreation Area and
never did; the Bureau does.  

And so the Bureau, for example, authorized expansion of the open pit
mine on the south rim of the Middle Fork canyon (now operated by
Teichert Industries) and as far as I know, State Parks never said boo
about it.  State Parks itself expanded an off-road vehicle use area on
the other side of the canyon, and for years, suction dredge mining in
the State Recreation area has been tolerated under the unwritten but
strong rationale that there's not the polical will in State Parks or
the Bureau to stop it, when the whole thing's a dam site (although in
the last couple of decades the size of such machinery has been
limited).  In a biologically and historically equivalent river
landscape a few miles north, the South Yuba River State Park, the state
doesn't even allow gold panning.     

The critical concept is: the map says "Auburn State Recreation Area"
but when it comes down to critical management decisions where you'd
expect the kind of protection state parks and recreation areas get,
it's a dam site owned by the Bureau of Reclamation.

That, and the dark history of the Gold Rush itself, is the nature of
the shadow over the land and characters in Nature Noir.  

Jordan Fisher Smith


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