By Doug Hare EBS Staff
Jordan Fisher Smith’s first book, “Nature Noir” is an unromantic memoir of his experience as a park ranger in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
His sober account of dealing with squatters, methamphetamine users, poachers and delusional gold-seekers is an unflinching look at the mismanagement of public lands and the darker side of park rangering.
Smith’s recently published second book, “Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature,” is a well-researched, enthralling piece of investigative journalism.
Using the story of a man mauled to death by a bear in Yellowstone during the summer of 1972 as a lens, Smith puts into focus the century-long history of Western national parks and competing philosophies of wildlife management.
Examining the history of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier, “Engineering Eden” presents a captivating story of failed attempts at conservation and missteps in the preservation of public lands while getting at deeper philosophical questions about man’s relationship to nature.
How do we deal with the reality of predators in our protected wilderness areas? Should we feed bears and hope they become docile and accustomed to human contact? Or should we relocate them or kill the ones that are considered nuisances?
Do we have dominion over nature or are we merely stewards of the wilderness? Often reading this book, I thought about Francis Bacon’s aphorism: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
The author offers a thorough analysis of the history of national park policy concerning invasive species and managing wildfires. Smith succeeds in keeping the reader fascinated with anecdotal evidence that carries his narrative forward, giving his philosophical musings tangible evidence that our methods of tinkering with the ecology of the parks has very real consequences.
For Smith, one philosophical conundrum to which he repeatedly returns is the elusiveness of defining the word “wild.” The effervescent word seems to dissipate the more one tries to pin it down.
Thoreau wrote that, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Smith’s book is a tale of caution about how we must be more careful in projecting our own preconceived notions of “wildness” onto protected, public lands.
There is the danger of an overly idealized concept of untouched nature being an unchanging paradise to which it always returns. Then there is the mistake of assuming that we can modify our wilderness areas at our whim without disrupting our ever-changing, delicate ecosystems.
“Engineering Eden” never firmly settles on one final, correct approach to preserving our national parks, but it is the honest, complex questions that arise from a hard look at 100 years of trying to manipulate ecology that make this book a must-have for anyone who cares about the preservation of our natural environment.
In a class with storytellers like Jon Krakauer and nature writers like John McPhee, Jordan Fisher Smith has made a brilliant contribution to conversations about our ability to command and obey the world around us.
Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.