Ranger’s tale – National buzz is building around local writer’s first book
Scarred by gold miners, condemned by the federal government, and peopled with sometimes-shady, gun-toting characters, the canyons of the American River weren’t supposed to survive into the 1990s.
And as Jordan Fisher Smith patrolled the doomed canyons as a park ranger, he surely couldn’t have predicted that they would someday form the landscape of a book that would receive national attention.
But his old turf has survived a long-planned damming proposal, and his memories of the area have survived, as well, evolving into the book, “Nature Noir.” The Nevada County writer’s first full-length work has already received critical acclaim, despite being released just weeks ago.
The American River was not at all where Smith thought he would end up when he decided to be a ranger at age 21.
“I thought I would get a place like Yosemite or Sequoia (and Kings Canyon National Park),” Smith said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would work in a place that you really couldn’t predict would be there in 10 years.”
Smith patrolled the Auburn State Recreation Area from 1986 to 1999, although he repeatedly intended to leave.
Meanwhile, plans to build the Auburn Dam were repeatedly delayed by money, earthquakes and environmental concerns.
So the canyons stayed, too, growing wilder and wilder, but still officially doomed.
To deal with the demands of enforcing little-respected laws in a little-respected land, Smith started writing.
“I began writing essays about my work as a ranger, mostly to figure it out,” Smith said.
A ‘feral’ youth
Writing came as naturally as rangering to Smith, who grew up in the Bay Area, surrounded by books, and the wilds of Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods.
He roamed the woods, crawling through fire scars in the redwoods, playing cowboys and Indians, and picking huckleberries.
He left home at 16 and headed for the mountains, aspiring to be a high Sierra mule packer.
“I sort of went feral,” Smith said. “I certainly at the age of 18 was probably the most unlikely to succeed of anybody you knew. At 18, I was wading through the slop on a dairy after my mom’s death.”
A couple of crummy jobs showed Smith the importance of school, so he got a GED and enrolled in public colleges to become a park ranger.
His early ranger days were spent surrounded by the beauty of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and the California coast, where he started each day with a cup of coffee and a good book – by Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry or George Orwell, among others.
But a desire to return to the mountains and cutbacks through the park system took Smith to the American River, for what he thought was just a short stay.
‘Staying and staying’
Ten years later, he was still there.
“I meant to leave over and over again because I just couldn’t take it; it just didn’t seem like what I got into rangering for. But I kept staying and staying,” Smith said.
So he wrote. He wrote even though he thought his material, a canyon soon to be drowned by a dam, was inferior, nothing compared to the truly wild, pristine landscapes that inspired “real” nature writers.
Smith shared his early works with other Nevada County writers and published an essay in the local Wild Duck Review in 1996, which prompted an encouraging response from the daughter of esteemed environmental author Aldo Leopold.
“That was the beginning of this whole trajectory for me,” Smith said.
Smith kept up the writing, working it around his schedule as a ranger, and began to get calls from New York publishers, asking for a book.
“Unfortunately, around that time I got bit by a tick while working as a ranger and I began to get very ill,” Smith said.
Smith was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that threw his nervous system into disarray, making him extremely tired and skewing his ability to think or move. He developed hearing and vision problems, dizziness, and was covered with rashes. His joints ached and his memory failed.
The disease forced him to retire from rangering, a career he loved passionately.
He hit rock bottom in 2001.
“I felt terrible about myself,” Smith said. “I mean, I was nothing. I wasn’t even a writer because I had abandoned all of these publishers and I thought they had forgotten me.”
But somehow, toting his intravenous antibiotics, which he self-administered, Smith managed to make it to a writing conference in Montana, where he was hooked up with a New York publisher.
“(I thought) if I don’t do this, even though I feel like I can’t write, I’m never going to be a writer again,” Smith said.
The first year was “agony,” he said.
“I would read books for research and the next day, if you held a gun to my head and asked me who the author was, I couldn’t have told you,” Smith said.
But more than a year after the book was due, after innumerable hours in his cozy writing studio, “Nature Noir” was complete.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Smith said.
And through the hours of writing, editing and reflecting, Smith came to see the American River canyons in a new light.
“I thought, ‘Ah, I see what I got now … I got a piece of the real world in the most populous state in the union, in a beautiful range in the Sierra, that’s still full of potential.”
The national buzz
Several major-market reviewers have embraced “Nature Noir.” It’s received positive reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times, and other papers plan to follow, Smith said.
Sales are climbing steadily, and the publisher has begun tracking remaining stocks, Smith said.
He’s wary of the newfound fame, which he fears will disrupt the quiet life he shares with his wife and two school-aged children.
But this is his life now, he admits. Lyme disease has forever closed off the possibility of rangering.
Smith will be reading from “Nature Noir” at Grass Valley’s Odyssey Books at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 3. For his complete schedule, visit http://www.naturenoir.com on the Web.
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Reading by local author Jordan Fisher Smith from his new book, “Nature Noir”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3
WHERE: Odyssey Books, 11989 Sutton Way, Grass Valley
From the author
Following are some of local author Jordan Fisher Smith’s thoughts on a variety of topics, from his new book to the public’s view of park rangers.
– On “Nature Noir:” “I had been thinking about this subject for a really long time. I wanted to write a love letter to rangering. This book (seems) kind of dark at times, but what it really is is a love letter to rangering.”
– On rangers: “People think it’s a cushy government job with long lunches and pretty places. It certainly is that somewhere, but most of the places I’ve worked at, it hasn’t been. It’s very challenging.”
“A ranger really stands between a culture that’s been awfully rough on nature and these little preserved areas.”
– On the environment: “The global environment is not a hopeless place. It’s a beautiful blooming place that’s under serious threats.”
– On reading: “There’s a kind of magical meeting of the minds. I get the oddest feeling sometimes when I’m reading somebody’s work who’s long dead. It’s as if they’re in the room with you, and that’s a form of magic … When I’m watching a movie, I don’t feel as if the director was in the room with me.”
Source: Interview with The Union
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