Park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith dreamed of a career in Yosemite or Grand Teton, but fate led him to California’s Auburn State Recreation Area, a place he calls "the inverse of Yellowstone." During his 14 years as a ranger in the canyons of the American River, the long-planned Auburn Dam loomed over the place, always one step away from drowning the canyons for good. Protecting this doomed bit of nature took a heavy toll on Smith and his coworkers. Over the years, they dealt not only with dust and heat and substandard equipment but also with violent gold miners, drug dealers, a mountain lion attack, suicides and deadly accidents.
In a series of beautifully restrained essays, Smith
describes the terror and the boredom of life in the canyons, and
muses about the larger purpose of his work. "If you’re lucky,
you get assigned to people who seem worth saving and land and
waters whose situation is not hopeless," he writes. "If not, you
save them anyway."
The Auburn State Recreation Area, he
makes clear, is not easy to love. But he argues, with the
credibility of long experience, that even the most damaged of
natural places are still worth our close attention. "Even with our
interventions, and now because of them, the world continues to be
mysterious and accidental," he concludes. "In the end, much of what
is seemingly known and tamed is in fact unknown and untamed."
Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the
Jordan Fisher Smith
Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
On the dark side of the park: a ranger's memoir
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