A few posts ago, I included a link to Dr. Paul F. Starrs’s fine essay/review of the George R. Stewart biography. (In case you missed it, here’s a pdf download link  STARRS-2015-rev essay SCOTT, bio of Geo Stewart (AAGRvBks)

A distinguished author, geographer, and scholar, he’s won every award the University of Nevada, Reno, offers for scholars and teachers, been a senior Fulbright Scholar, and won many national teaching and geography awards. Starrs just stepped down as Chair of the Department of Geography.

He can also throw the houlihan

Starrs was one of the few applicants accepted by Deep Springs College in 1975. (Around 400 apply; 13 are chosen.) Located in an isolated valley near the eastern border of central California, the College is a tiny two-year institution founded and funded by one of the pioneers of the transmission of AC electrical power, L.L. Nunn. Once enrolled, students are expected not only to achieve academic excellence; they must also govern the institution. Students also run its adjoining cattle ranch and farm to help support the college. When the ranch and farm are included, Deep Springs has the largest “campus” of higher learning on Earth. According to Wikipedia, The New Yorker describes the educational program as “a mix of Christian mysticism, imperialist elitism, Boy Scout-like abstinence, and Progressive era learning-by-doing, with an emphasis on leadership training and the formation of strong character.”


Deep Springs Students on a Cattle Drive

With an extraordinary natural setting – hot springs, faults, desert playas, huge mountain ranges – Deep Springs sensitizes its students to the Earth. As an isolated human community, with the remains of an historic mining community nearby, Native American cultures in the area, the small towns and highway culture along US 395 to the west and the cities of Reno and Las Vegas to the east, south, and north, it is also in a region which exemplifies the principal concerns of geography – the relationships of humans to the land – in settings that range from isolated rural to large urban communities.

Starrs spent a few years cowboying after Deep Springs. He finished his education at the University of California, earning an M.A. and PhD in Geography at Berkeley.

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Appointed an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1992, he quickly moved up into the highest ranks. He is now Regents and Foundation Professor of Geography, a high honor. Bilingual, he’s also held posts in Spain at the University of Salamanca and the Universidad of Córdoba.

He’s a brilliant scholar, with interests in many areas of geography. Currently he’s researching agriculture and land use change in California, the use of historic maps to reveal the exploitation of the environment, comparative frontier history, the geography of cattle ranching, and geography in popular culture, including music and film. Among other things.

Starrs is also a writer. One of his latest books, A Field Guide to California Agriculture, which he wrote in partnership with colleague Peter Goin, has been called a classic guide to the roadside agriculture of this state. Like Stewart’s books, it is a work of precision scholarship of the highest standard and a useful and readable work for a general audience.

I met Paul Starrs when Jack Stewart, distinguished Nevada geologist (and George R. Stewart’s son) called to ask if I could do a presentation about George Stewart’s life, work, and ideas, for Starrs’s Graduate Colloquium at UNR. Of course, I was honored, and agreed.

(The story of that adventure is worth telling. It was March; and to get to Reno I’d need to cross one of the legendary high mountain passes in the Sierra – and one of the snowiest – Donner Pass, made legend by George R. Stewart in Ordeal By Hunger. I decided to drive to Davis, California, stay at a friend’s house and take the train. At the last minute, though, he withdrew the invitation, so I had to book a motel instead. Nonplussed, I almost missed the talk.  On the way back to Davis, the westbound Zephyr was delayed more than 5 hours. That meant another night in a motel. Fortunately the generous honorarium covered all the unexpected costs. It was an honor to talk about George R. Stewart at the University with the second largest collection of Stewart material, in the country he loved, with a distinguished scholar and award-winning teacher who admires Stewart’s work.)

Starrs has long been interested in Stewart, which is fitting for someone educated at Berkeley in geography and holding a professorship at Reno. Berkeley was Stewart’s home – he was an English Professor there – and also the home of the best geography department in the country in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Reno is surrounded by “Stewart Country”: Donner Pass, Donner Lake, the Black Rock Desert. The California Trail and historic U.S. 40 pass through Reno. Thanks to Special Collections’ Librarian Ken Carpenter, the Knowledge Center at Reno has the second largest collection of George R. Stewart material on Earth (after the Bancroft Library in Berkeley).

Starrs teaches Stewart. He also contributes to the increasing body of work about Stewart and his writing. In 2005, for example, Starrs and colleague Peter Goin – Goin is Chair of the Reno Art Department and a distinguished photographer – published a book about the place Stewart called “Sheep Rock”: Starrs and Goin, Black Rock. It is an interdisciplinary, in-depth look at the place where Stewart set his most elaborate geographic (or ecological) novel. Starrs describes it as “a loving look at how a place can be conveyed not just through words, but also through photographs, historical maps, and newly-done cartography.”

Any fan of George R. Stewart’s work is encouraged to read the Black Rock book. And to keep the work of Paul Starrs on their radar screen. He’s completing a new book about the geography of film noir and just starting an historical novel about sheep herders in 1600s Spain. “Think Lonesome Dove meets Don Quixote in the Iberian Peninsula,” writes Starrs. “There’s a potential there for an interesting read.”

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Dr. Paul F. Starrs and his Favorite Subject, Earth

Stewart’s Award-Winning NOT SO RICH AS YOU THINK

For years George R. Stewart had been writing about the interrelationships between humans and the Earth system.  Most of the writing was fictional, some historical.  Now, in the late 1960s, perhaps inspired by Silent Spring, he wrote his first examination of specific environmental problems  afflicting this nation and much of the world.

Not So Rich As You Think  examines the various issues that others were pressuring society to correct, or authors were writing about, and suggests solutions.  But Stewart, as always, went beyond the conventional to break new ground.

One chapter, “The Ultimates,” was, so far as I know, the first general description of the dangers of global warming.  Stewart describes the dangers of carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere, even using the phrase “greenhouse effect” to describe it.  (He prefers the phrase “closed-car  effect.”)  But he is not alarmist about it, suggesting that Earth has weathered such things in the past, and will likely weather this one.

Most environmental literature and many environmentalists view humans as special, like the Bible; but the environmentalists see humans as a special problem that somehow needs to be controlled or even removed.  Stewart always considered humans and their works, including their communities, as part of the ecosystem.  So in this book, he considers how human community are being harmed by the same corporate/bureaucratic policies which are poisoning the water and the air.   In a chapter entitled “Waste Without Weight” Stewart describes how the modern corporate state weakens social capital by constantly moving people around and thus prevents those people from ever developing a sense of community.  He suggests that the disorder caused by development and pollution may have a terrible effect on the personalities of humans, theorizing that juvenile delinquency may be one result.

The book was illustrated by the brilliant satirical cartoonist, Osborn.   His cartoons in Stewart’s book emphasize the connections between “filthy lucre” and a polluted society.  (Osborn’s first cartoon series was done for the Navy in World War II.  It was about a clumsy fellow named Dilbert.  It was the inspiration for the modern comic strip “Dilbert.”)

The book was well-received, although Kirkus called it “second-rate muckraking.”  The book received the Sidney Hillman Award. A copy of the book today, in fine condition, can go for well over one hundred dollars, so the market speaks well of the book.

Anyone interested in reading the contemporary environmental observations of one of the founders of modern ecological perspectives will find the book interesting reading. Stewart’s inclusion of the effects on human community and social capital means that the book still stands by itself, for it was and is the pioneer in a humanistic ecological viewpoint.

What Is “The Good Life?” George R. Stewart, GOOD LIVES

As the years began to pile up, and George R. Stewart felt his age, he began to think back over his life.  Had he lived a good life?

To answer the question, he wrote another book.:

Good Lives: The Stories of Six Men and the Good Life That Each Won for Himself

By examining six men throughout western history who seemed to share the same qualities and the same sense of accomplishment, Stewart found a definition of what comprised a (not “the”) good life:  Joab of the Old Testament, William the Marshall, Heinrich Schleiman, John Bidwell of California, Architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras of Mexico, and Prince Henry the Navigator, (He apologized, with explanation, for not including any women). The men where selected from those he’d encountered in his scholarly work over the decades.  In most cases, they were not widely known.(I suspect he profiled some because he wanted to let readers know about their lives – how else would the average reader in this country learn about the brilliant Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras?) The subjects ranged from the ancient – Joab of the Old Testament – to the fairly recent – John Bidwell of Chico, California.

In their lives, he discovered six qualities of character common to all.  Each had clear goals, and stayed committed to those goals until they were accomplished.  Heinrich Schleimann, for example, continued his search for the lost city of Troy during years of suffering the humiliation of failure and criticism from professional archaeologists and finally found the city.    Each accepted responsibility for his acts.  Each had great courage, sometimes in battle, sometimes, like Schliemann, in the pursuit of a goal.  And, at the end of their lives, each man felt fulfilled in things personal and professional, and had an integration of his spirit with his physical, material life.

The book is an interesting set of biographies of remarkable men, many of whom most readers had only met before in passing.  Discovering a pattern of character that helped him, and the reader, to understand why they are worth studying, added a layer of meaning to the book.

It may lack the power of Earth Abides.  But the book is none-the-less an important part of his body of work.  In a day when reading was still the primary method of informal education, the book introduced the lives of important but largely unknown historical figures to Stewart’s large reading audience.  It also found in those lives a set of standards by which all lives can be judged – thus using them as a microcosm, in the best Stewart manner.

Perhaps most important, it teaches us about George R. Stewart – what sort of man was he?  What values did he hold highest?  How did his life measure against the six in the book?  He didn’t answer that last question in the book.  But he once told his son Jack, “That’s a book an old man writes.”  In other words, in studying those lives he was giving us a key to his, as it drew close to the end.

But he wasn’t through with life yet.  He was already hard at work on another game-changing book, which would win a major prize and help his readers understand the nuts-and-bolts of living properly in the Whole Earth ecosystem that he had first visualized and shared, in the 1930s.

You Want HOW Much For a Copy of Scott’s GRS Biography? A brief note.

The GRS biography is expensive.  The publisher, a small independent press of impeccable reputation, has an excellent marketing approach:  They sell to universities and libraries, with  “the trade” – that’s you and me – being a distant secondary market.  They don’t expect to sell many copies, and their books are of the highest quality, so the prices are high.  The book sells for $55.00, retail.  $55.00 is a lot for a paperback book, even if it is an authorized biography, and of high quality.

But it’s a bargain when you consider the price being asked for used copies. I did some checking recently, on Amazon:  $61.00, $101.00, and … Are you ready? $166.00 So when you buy your copy, and pay what seems a high price, remember – you aren’t paying $166.00 for it. On the other hand, the fact that a good seller considers it worth that much is a compliment to the book , and I wish them luck in the selling.

Vigilantes – Heros or Terrorists?

In Earth Abides, Stewart’s human protagonist Isherwood Williams faced the biggest crisis in his small post-apocalyptic community when “Charlie” entered the story.  Two of the teenagers had been sent on a trans-American journey about 17 years after the founding of what Ish called The Tribe.  They found Charlie along the way, and brought him back with them.   Ish and his old “American” friends were deeply concerned, because Charlie had all the characteristics of a syphilitic alcoholic; and he packed a gun.  When he began to woo the teenage girl who was retarded, and she began to respond, the old men of the community met secretly do decide what to do about Charlie.  The decision was execution, since banished, he might return.

GRS, I think, was troubled by this part of his tale.  It was inevitable, given the truth of the events dramatized; but no enlightened author wants blood on his hands – or those of his “good” characters.  He apparently thought about this for years; then, in 1964, he wrote a history of the 1851 Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco which dealt with the issue of capital punishment meted out in an extra-legal way.

Committee of Vigilance is subtitled “Revolution in San Francisco, 1851.”  The implication is that, at least in the case of that particular group of vigilantes, they were exercising their American Right of Revolution to deal with a crisis that the formal government was ignoring.  Eventually, after a fair and public trial, they did condemn some of the criminals to death, and hung them in a public square.  Others were transported to Australia or otherwise punished.  The City’s crime wave, for a time, ended.

The Committee re-formed in 1856, and acted similarly.  But Stewart, who always wanted precision in his work, knew that he must focus on only one episode if he was to do the thorough research and writing the subject demanded.  Since it was the first, he chose the 1851 event.

His conclusion, very carefully thought through and written, is that the Committee of Vigilance of 1851 was, in the best American sense, legal, proper, and well-run.  One of the facts he emphasizes is that the Committee disbanded itself after three months.  It did not become one of those small nations’ permanent juntas.  The members did not want to be political leaders; like the farmers who fought in the American Revolution, they wanted to return to their farms as soon as they’d completed their work.  They were followers, in style if not in name, of Cincinnatus, Roman leader who became dictator just long enough to defeat an invasion of Rome, and then returned to his farm.

Committee of Vigilance lacks the writing flair of Stewart’s great novels,  but is compelling reading none-the-less.  In this day of constant ignoring of Constitutional, international and local laws by national and local governments, it reminds us that ultimately we are the ones – and the only ones – who can protect society.  The ideas of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Hendry, and Paine are reflected in the work and history of Committee of Vigilance.  Every American is well-advised to read it.

Frank Brusca’s U.S. 40 Rephotography Project

Frank Brusca is a George R. Stewart Scholar with a special interest:  U. S. 40.  He discovered the book when he was a boy, and it has shaped his life since.  Frank’s goal is to re-photograph as many of the places Stewart photographed in 1949 and 1950 as he can, to record the changes over time.  Geographers Tom and Geraldine Vale did that for their 1983 classic U.S. 40 Today, which tracked changes over the 30 years since GRS published his book.  Brusca has more elaborate plans – he’s including color and virtual panoramas of some sites.

His love affair with U. S. 40, highway and book, helped Brusca connect with author William Least Heat Moon, who wrote the classic Blue Highways. Eventually  Least Heat Moon and Brusca traveled the old highway together.  Those journies are the meat of four chapters about Brusca and GRS and his road book in Least Heat Moon’s Roads to Quoz. (Least Heat Moon is also a fan of GRS’s other work, and so there’s more GRS influence in  Blue Highways.)

Last Sunday, Frank held a web meeting for a small group of road scholars, describing his project in detail and showing his photos of the GRS sites on the old highway.  It was impressive to see how much he’s done so far.  His work, like that of the Vales, expands Stewart’s ground-breaking book.

Brusca has a deep understanding of Stewart’s book.  During the web session, Brusca revealed how to identify a first first printing of U.S. 40 – one photo is a mistake, so the book was pulled and corrected.  (The photo, from a Hogback ridge west of Denver, was supposed to show the town and valley to the west of the ridge, but a photo from the ridge showing the eastern view was printed.)  If you have a copy with the wrong photo, you have an early first printing.

His knowledge of the book and the highway helped my GRS biography.  Brusca directed me to German Filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky, whose U.S. 40 West was inspired by Stewart’s book. Bitomsky agreed to a long interview about the film and Stewart’s influence on the work; much of that interview is in my book.

Frank is off on a road photographing trip this summer.  He drives from Massachusetts to San Francisco, and then zips back, photographing as he goes.  (I hope to join him for one or two days in Calfornia.)  He will also copy some of the original negatives for U.S. 40, in the Bancroft Library.

All of this is expensive. Just copying the Stewart photographs in the Bancroft would cost more than $5,000.   So far, it’s been self-funded.  But now Brusca has a Kickstarter proposal to help fund the effort.  If you’d like to help, you can do so here.  A small 30 dollar pledge gets you an ebook with all of the 120 photos he’s planning to put in the book.  More important, you become a patron of continuing the U.S. 40 work of GRS, the Vales, William Least Heat Moon, and Frank Brusca.