Though it was not written by a Missoulian, and though it is set in California, Nature Noir may be the perfect Missoula book. At least it ties together in one compulsively readable package the three strongest vectors of Missoula’s high-profile literary tradition: the crime fiction of James Crumley, Jon Jackson and James Lee Burke, the natural-world reveries of David James Duncan and impassioned environmentalism of Richard Manning, and the literature of place honed by Norman Maclean, William Kittredge and their followers.
Nature Noir is a memoir of common crime and rarer punishment set in the literally doomed landscape of California’s Auburn State Recreation Area, where author Jordan Fisher Smith spent 14 years as a ranger charged with protecting 48 miles of gold-rush-abused American River canyonlands slated, as they had been for years, for flooding behind a mammoth dam project. Faced with that prospect and its attendant ironies (he and his colleagues were “permanent rangers on a temporary river”), Smith’s thesis takes the form of a question with more layers than answers: “How do people behave in a condemned landscape?”
Badly, mostly, as evidenced by a collar-grabbing opening scene in which a beach-partying meth abuser hurls an infant through the open window of the moving car in which his wife is trying to leave him.
What follows are taut vignettes of a decreasingly green and frustratedly idealistic ranger taking guns away from angry miners, responding to drunken rapes and beatings, investigating California’s first human death by mountain lion attack in the twentieth century, reopening the cold case of a long-missing body that may or may not have been dumped down one of the park’s mine shafts, and almost getting killed on a whitewater excursion “because someone turned off the river.”
Scenes like these, recounted from experience or reconstructed from voluminous (and otherwise unused) ranger incident reports, give Nature Noir its edge. They also more than restore the presence of humans to the literary landscape of nature writing, a genre that too often suffers from a willful ignorance that people are a big—if not the biggest—part of the equation, no matter how remote the backcountry.
On the evidence of the finished Nature Noir, Smith had a built-in, almost inevitable book on his hands. But for a long while he felt almost cursed, as a ranger and a writer, to be saddled with such a damaged, and damaging, landscape.
In true writerly fashion, he found himself envious of the ostensibly purer places exploited by fellow naturalists and nature writers like Wendell Berry, Rick Bass and Barry Lopez. “I was jealous of their material,” Smith admits. His own place was so compromised that he found it difficult to commit, as a writer must, to his subject.
The experience, he says in an interview from his home in the northern Sierra Nevadas, was a little like falling head over heels in love with a woman and then finding out on the third date she has a terminal disease.
“The heart has a kind of injunction against loving that which it suffers to lose,” he says.
But then again, the heart loves what it loves, logic be damned. Or in other words, he says, “Sometimes you’re lucky enough to choose a place, and sometimes it chooses you.”
Smith’s subject found him deep in the American River’s canyons, hundreds of feet below the waterline of the impending reservoir, and it was the psychic weight of all that imaginary water pressing down that led to the essay, published in the journal Orion, that eventually led to the book. And in the writing of it he discovered a secret, which is that place, as a subject, is no more nor less than a writer makes of it. The writing process itself, he says, was transformative, steering him away from his own sense of unluckiness to a realization of how lucky he was to have the place at all.
And Fisher has used his place well.
Rangers, he notes in the book, “have a fair amount of time to read,” and Smith’s narrative careens from the hard-boiled tone of crime fiction (“After moving the dead man’s pickup…” one scene begins) to philosophical passages that all but redeem the discredited practice of personifying nature (“A river always takes the easiest way to where it is going and, like some people, will exploit any weakness in its surrounding to get there…And as is also true of people, rivers sometimes keep doing things long after the reasons for doing them are gone.”).
Elsewhere Smith employs feminist theory to interpret California’s gold rush, Chinese poetry to explain the unstable art of river running, and architectural design’s arts and crafts movement to shed light on the historical emergence of park rangering as an occupation. He also compares the rupture of a dam to the end of a marriage and tosses a few deflating darts at “human centered technological optimism.” (“Seen from a boat on a regulated river that night, the claims of these postmodernists looked faulty.”)
Mixed in for good measure are concise treatises on the decades-long struggles to build and ultimately block construction of the Auburn Dam that would have flooded Smith’s bedraggled place, the coeval development of protecting and policing America’s natural reserves, the fault-line geology of California, the vicissitudes of employment in the park bureaucracy, and an earnest defense of sentiment as the driving force in mankind’s contemplation of and dedication to nature, both human and wild.
And toward the end, suffering mightily from a long-undiagnosed case of Lyme disease, when a less dedicated chronicler might have hardened himself to the landscape that threatened to take his life, Smith sticks steadfastly to his ecological guns.
“Who ever thought,” he writes of the spirochete cysts that may never leave his body, “that a ranger could spend fourteen years on a piece of land and the two would remain entirely separate? Environmentalists have been saying for years that as the land goes, so will we go.”
But Smith survived his ordeal, and there again, a human entangled in a landscape, he draws parallels with the fate of his 48 miles of American River, which since his tenure have apparently, at least temporarily, been spared the threat of imminent damming, and which, in the wake of so much human depredation, have quietly grown wild again.
The lessons he draws from this development are threefold, and ultimately redemptive: It ain’t over ’til it’s over; the world has the power to heal; and sometimes, if you’re alert to the possibilities, both people and land may find themselves the recipients of good luck.
Jordan Fisher Smith, who once studied at the University of Montana’s environmental writing workshop under Wendell Berry, will headline the workshop’s Wild Mercy Reading Series, sponsored by Fact & Fiction, at Liquid Planet, Thursday, April 14. Environmental studies graduate student Ryan Newhouse will read at 7:30 p.m., followed by Smith.