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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Nature Noir by Jordan Fisher Smith

Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra by Jordan Fisher Smith. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. ISBN: 0-618-22416-5

Here's a fun book for the nature crowd. Environmentalists will probably enjoy it too. The “noir” part comes from the crime aspects of the book. Park rangers do function as policemen at least part of the time, and that's one of the significant themes of the book. Recounting the most interesting and quirky of the law enforcement experiences of his time as a park ranger is a big part of what keeps your interest as you're reading the book.

Most of the book is set in the American River canyons of the Sierra Nevada, which are located right about where the state of California makes its bend to the north. The river was supposed to be dammed back in the late 70's, with the entire canyon going under water. But the dam never got built, and the rangers there find themselves patrolling a kind of no-man's land, thought to be temporary, but never quite getting there.

Smith can write beautiful nature prose with the best of them. Here's a sample:

In our hot dry summers and in the sort of dry, scrubby vegetation you see on our south-facing canyon walls, this country belongs to the great Southwest—dusty, parched, and baking, the leaves of its prickly brush and tree species coated with layers of waxy stuff to seal in their moisture. But in the rainy winters and in the lush coniferous forests of our north-facing slopes and shady side canyons, the American River country pledges allegiance to the Pacific Northwest, that nation of Douglas fir, thimbleberry, black bear, salmon, and rain, which stretches from here to southeast Alaska.

By late September, the first thing to change is the wind. Absent for most of the summer, it begins to blow again. One day thin clouds streak the sky, then lower to form a thick, featureless blanket. A little rain falls on a warm night, and when the weather clears the days are still warm but people begin to feel like putting up firewood. By October the nights grow chill and the black oaks on the ridges are tinged with yellow and orange. By November the rains come in earnest. In the woods, the carpet of moss covering rocks and tree trunks that has been brittle and apparently lifeless for months becomes vibrant green again. Bug-eyed orange salamanders and newts make jerky slow-motion patrols across the forest floor. Ferns tremble with drips from the trees. Mushrooms come up. Water falls in diamond ribbons from moss- and fern-covered cliffs and skeins together into creeks, seeking the river. And the roads we rangers travel, which for months have hemorrhaged clouds of soil behind every car, turn to mud.

Who can't enjoy writing like that? If the book has a weakness, it's in Smith's occasional too obvious attempts at pulling more meaning or significance out of events than perhaps they warrant. Occasionally his end-of-chapter musings have a hint of the same feeling you get when you read the moral tacked onto the end of an Aesop's fable. Nevertheless, definitely recommended, especially for those who enjoy good nature writing, with a touch of real life police procedural thrown in just to keep life interesting.

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