Thankful for books! Recommended Read: Nature Noir

Imagine the life of a state park ranger. What do you picture?


Perhaps a young, noble person in a green brimmed hat, hiking alone in spectacular places, connecting with the land, protecting the wilderness.


Or maybe someone with years of experience giving nature-talks to tourists, teaching bear safety procedures near campsites, and recommending the best trails.


At the start of his career, Jordan Fisher Smith, author of Nature Noir, was this noble park ranger in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, the northern coast of California, and the most remote parts of Alaska.


Photo from Auburn SRA website

Photo from Auburn SRA website


However, for the bulk of his career, Smith was stationed in Auburn State Recreation Area, a two-hour drive northeast from Cal, where he learned about being a different kind of park ranger, one who’s job takes the role of law enforcement rather than the friendly outdoorsperson. It was his experience in Auburn that Smith wrote about in his book, Nature Noir, appropriately titled for its classic film noir themes of lost innocence, hard-edged cynicism, and doomed romanticism.


With his transition from his thrilling life as a seasonal ranger to establishing a career as a permanent state ranger in Auburn came an implicit loss of innocence with an explicit gain of experience working in a barely funded government department. The Auburn state park’s low budget was evident in Smith’s descriptions of poorly working jeeps, no rain gear, limited first aid supplies, and a general lack of equipment repeatedly referenced he found on the job.


The lack of motivation to improve dismalness of the department manifested in another ranger’s career development plan, which was to simply “preserve the status quo”. Although preservation has been a crucial ethic for foresters and rangers alike since its promotion by John Muir, Smith first came to Auburn fresh out of seasonal ranger work with hopes to make better his career and the park. After fourteen years surrounded by people simply trying to preserve their situation, he lost any remaining naiveté.


Photo from Auburn SRA website

Photo from Auburn SRA website


While it might not be a surprise to learn of a state park being underfunded (donate to California State Parks this holiday season!), much of the shock value of Nature Noir came from stories of crime Smith encountered. His first tale from working in Auburn includes domestic conflict, drug abuse, a baby being thrown into a moving car by its own father, and the public who witnessed the events forming an angry mob.


Smith’s recount of this story in a-day-in-the-life type manner, describing arrest procedures and anticipating a hefty stack of paperwork, is a stark reminder that the life of a ranger has a lot to do with law enforcement. Smith sums up what his job means to him:


“In any case, a park ranger is a protector. You protect the land from the people, the people from the land, the people from each other, and the people from themselves…If you’re lucky, you get assigned to people who seem worth saving and land and waters whose situation is not hopeless. If not, you save them anyway. Any maybe in time, saving them will make them worth it.”


What is great about Smith as a narrator is his unique combination of the bluntness of a person in law enforcement and the emotion of someone who simply loves nature. Between recounting interesting stories from his career as a state ranger in Auburn, Smith suddenly includes poetic-like analysis of seemingly random events, giving his work protecting the relatively unspectacular area deeper purpose.


Photo from Auburn SRA website

Photo from Auburn SRA website


Despite seeing years of drug abuse, suicides, crime, and abuse of the recreational area, Smith’s perspective on “wild nature” is one of optimism and love, straying from the usual cynical view held by his peers. He refuses to accept the understanding of nature and wilderness as a cultural concept and instead holds strong his love for “wild, self-willed nature”.


His take on wilderness may seem outdated to students and professors of environmental studies, especially here at Cal, but his optimism seems to come from a place of passion for nature and his job rather than simply being uninformed about academic discourse.


If you are from the Auburn area, interested in California state parks, considering a career as a park ranger, a fan of environmental writing, or simply need a good book to read over the break, I recommend grabbing a copy of Nature Noir.


For more information on the book, check out this site:


For more information on Auburn State Recreational Area, check out this site:


Happy reading!

Mary McDonnell

Mary is a sophomore majoring in Conservation and Resource Studies. When she is not writing for the SERC Blog, Mary likes to dance, cook, and go to the library.

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