Geoff Manaugh's recent post on Bldgblog about Cool, California and the Auburn Dam site concludes by asking what had happened to the place since John McPhee wrote about it in Assembling California in the early 1990s. In what follows I touch on the topic in a review of Jordan Fisher Smith's Nature Noir. This essay was originally written in 2007 for The Geography of Water Resources, a class in San Francisco State's Geography department taught by Nancy Wilkinson.
Reading a condemned landscape: Nature Noir and the Auburn Dam site
“We do not seem much to love what space there is left [in the American West]. One thinks not only of the greed of developers, which is numbingly obvious, but of a widespread nihilism that now extends through much of the population, witness the reflexive littering, the use of spray paint on rocks, the girdling of trees near campgrounds, and the use of off-road vehicles for the maximum violence of their impact. The West has ended, it would seem, as the nation’s vacant lot, a place we valued at first for the wildflowers, and because the kids could play there, but where eventually we stole over and dumped the hedge clippings, and then the crankcase oil and dog manure, until finally now it has become such an eyesore that we hope someone will just buy it and build and get the thing over with. We are tired, I think, of staring at our corruption.”
-the photographer Richard Adams, from the essay Working conditions: In the nineteenth-century West (1994, 138)
Jordan Fisher Smith spent the better part of a career as a park ranger managing Auburn State Recreation Area, a space run over by California’s Gold Rush and then discarded to be drowned under a dam that will likely never be built. The Richard Adams’s quote that opens this review succinctly addresses the conditions present in the forested hills and rocky, overgrown canyon-bottoms Smith’s stories take place in. Smith himself became tired of the corruption Adams speaks of; Nature Noir comes out of Smith’s refusal to fall into the easy despair over the state of his piece of the Sierra foothills. Nature Noir is not a lament for a devastated landscape, instead speaking of Smith’s respect and love of a long-neglected and still threatened area and the people who inhabit it.
Auburn State Recreation Area sits an hour east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, containing the mountain-and-river topography formed by the north and middle forks of the American River. In this area the terrain folds up on itself, rolling hills becoming steep inclines, oak and manzanita chapparal turning mixing with pines and an occasional cedar tree. Ridgelines descend east to west, cut over geologic time by streams and rivers that flow into the delta of San Francisco Bay. To move in any direction but especially north or south requires traversing up and down steep hillsides. To patrol an area like this is never easy, as we find out in the first chapter. Radio communication can cut out, many of the bumpy, potholed roads have had little improvement since they were gold miners tracks 150 years ago, and the people the rangers encounter, arrest, or have to save are ones who inspire dialogue like this: “ ‘Is he dead?’ a woman asked. ‘I hope so,’ some guy answered” (Smith 2005, 17). The book is character-driven, each chapter digging into a person or a situation, speaking of tragedies and other unfortunate events, as well as small moments of beauty. Underlying the human stories and tying the chapters together is the place itself, a natural area set to drown under a reservoir, but its fate put off over and over, likely forever.
Auburn State Recreation Area is the setting for these stories and becomes a character itself. The place is inseperable from the human stories. As Smith’s partner puts it, “There are no innocent victims in this place. The same people appear in alternating roles over the years. One day your guy was a perpetrator; a week or a year later he was a victim.” Working in a curious, upside down landsape like this required faith that the site, the job, and the people would in the long term become valued, but “in any case, a park ranger is a protector. You protect the land from the people, the people from the land, and the people from themselves” (Smith 2005, 19-20). What Smith goes on to discuss is the larger situation, which was entirely out of his control: protecting the land from state and federal politicians. In 1965 a dam was authorized on the American River, more to prevent flooding in Sacramento itself than to hold water. There are no average years of rainfall in Northern California. Constant cycles between drought, dry, wet, and wetter are the norm. Within that, half a season’s rainfall can come down with one storm. This can lead to flooding in the lowland places that are today cities like Sacramento and its surrounding office parks, suburban development, and farmland. The desire to dam, retain, and control the flow of water is one of the foundational stories of California: to ensure water supplies through dry summers and drought years, to protect crops, and especially to protect property investment in areas that were once floodplains before becoming towns, and can still return to being floodplains after a particularly strong storm.
Auburn Dam’s construction was authorized in 1965. It would sit upstream from the larger Folsom Dam and, as the US Bureau of Reclamation’s website states, “provide water for flood control, irrigation, recreation, municipal and industrial uses, water quality improvement, power generation, and fisheries enhancement.” Nine years later construction began. A year after that “an earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter Scale occurred near the Oroville Dam, about 50 miles northwest of the Auburn site. Although the large earth-fill structure was not damaged, the event raised concerns about the safety of dams like the thin arch concrete dam proposed for the Auburn site. In April 1976, the Association of Engineering Geologists, Seismic Hazards Committee, issued a report stating that a moderate earthquake like the 1975 event near Oroville would cause the proposed dam at Auburn to fail.” (US Bureau of Reclamation 2007). The website of the agency in charge of building Auburn Dam states that a moderate earthquake would bring down the dam. Cost estimates to build a smaller dam in the late 1990’s were estimated at over $1 billion (Carle 2004, 193). Supporters of the dam still rally for construction—in April, 2007, “a House hearing on protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from catastrophic levee failures turned into a mini-rally for constructing an Auburn dam on the American River” (No Author, 2007). The good news for the canyons upstream from the un-built dam is that in 2002 the Bureau of Reclamation “closed the tunnel that diverted the water from the dam construction site, and let the river run again through its historic channel” (Carle 2004, 193). Chances that the dam will be built are very slim, but the supporters are still working hard to change that; because the federal law authorizing its construction has not been revoked they still have some hope.
Auburn Dam would not be the first instance of recent manipulation in these canyons. The American River in the section to be inundated by the Auburn Dam has been a site of gold mining since the start of the Gold Rush. Smith writes that, due to gold mining, “by the mid-1850s the American River canyons would have been unrecognizable to anyone who had seen them a few years before…When it was over, 255 million cubic yards of mine wastes and mud had gone down the American River alone” (79-80). Forests were clear-cut wholesale, rivers were diverted in full, topsoil completely disappeared, and of the thousands of men who came seeking their fortune, only one in twenty came away some wealth” (Smith 2005, 79). European Americans arrived on the American River (of couse it was not called that before the gold miners arrived) and immediately changed it irrevocably, bringing with them all the trappings of their culture and inventing what was lacking, be it hydraulic mining equipment, sturdy blue jeans, or the practice of jumping frogs for entertainment (Twain 1996). Some of the best writing in Nature Noir comes out of Smith’s disgust with how quickly and completely the California landscape was transformed:
“The novelty of rain is one of the few things I liked about hot summers in the canyons, a season I mostly detested when I worked as a ranger in them. To be fair, however, the things I disliked about that time—the merciless sun that old forests would have shaded me from; the dust on my face, my uniform, and rescue equipment; the spiny star thistle that gets to flesh through thick jeans, wild oats that lodged in my socks, and the other disagreeable European annuals that overwhelmed the perennial meadows of the low Sierra—I eventually came to see as the marks of 140 years of bad treatment of this land. So over time I learned to forgive this place for its bad manners and prickliness, for these are the inevitable outcomes of servitude, in land as in people” (Smith 2005, 121).The utility of this landscape has been to provide for other places. The gold taken out of the hillsides and streambeds in the nineteenth century went to develop San Francisco and fuel the state’s economic growth. The proposed dam and reservoir would benefit areas downstream but, obviously, flood the site itself. Smith sums up this attitude, writing “The Gold Rush led to the Auburn Dam and a tradition of valuing what could be extracted from these canyons more than the canyons themselves” (2005, 80). Turning his experiece as a park ranger into stories, presenting the place as something more than the site of a proposed dam is a starting point to seeing the place differently. Water management infrastructures such as the Auburn Dam and reservoir exist to enable other uses, such as keeping Sacramento from flooding. Nature Noir tells of the social and ecological consequences when that utility is delayed indefinitely. In telling the stories of an often overlooked place, this work focuses needed attention on a section of California’s landscape where, for the most part, the stories ended when the Gold Rush petered out. The Sierra Nevada foothills have a bounty of places and people similar to what Smith describes, but not enough storytellers. This book provides a wonderful entry point into this damaged, beautiful terrain.
Adams, R. (1994). Why people photograph: Selected essays and reviews. New York, Aperture.
Carle, D. (2004). Introduction to Water in California. Berkeley, University of California Pres.
No Author (2007). "Auburn Dam the Focus of Recent Congressional Panel, quoting David Whitney." Last accessed 17 April 2007, from http://www.auburndamwatch.org/blog/category/blog/.
Smith, J. F. (2005). Nature noir: a park ranger's patrol in the Sierra New York, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Twain, M. (1996). The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867). New York, Oxford University Press.
US Bureau of Reclamation (2007). "Central Valley Project--American River Division, Auburn-Folsom South Unit." Retrieved 10 April 2007, 2007, from http://www.usbr.gov/dataweb/html/auburn.html.
*Addendum: I grew up in Moccasin, California, south of the Auburn Dam site and about a three to four hour drive on Highway 49, the winding two-lane highway that cuts through the 'gold country' of the Sierra Nevada foothills north-to-south. Moccasin is a company town for San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, the utility that provides drinking water and hydraulic electricity for San Francisco and other cities in the Bay Area. What Smith describes in Nature Noir bears close resemblance to the Southern Mines region of which Moccasin is a part. I haven't been to the Auburn Dam site itself, which is why I've headed this post with a photo from just outside my hometown.