Wilder Bentley – The Younger and The Elder

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Wilder Mayo Bentley — Wilder Bentley the Younger — passed away in the fall of 2018, and an era ended.

Wilder Bentley the Younger was the scion of a distinguished but largely unknown Bay Area family.  His Great-Grandfather Robert Bentley was a distinguished, progressive Methodist minister who eventually became the Presiding Minister of the largest Methodist District in California, the Sacramento District.  He and his family lived in a simple, elegant Dutch-style cottage in the Berkeley Hills —  one of the few to survive the 1923 Berkeley Fire.  His sons Charles and Robert founded a fruit canning company which became one foundation of the Del Monte brand.

Charles’s son, Harvey Wilder Bentley – Wilder Bentley the Elder – was a poet, a distinguished printer and graphic artist, and a professor of English at San Francisco State.  He was also a painter, well-taught by his old friend and colleague, Chiura Obata.  Always interested in fine printing, Wilder the Elder and his wife founded the Archive Press in Berkeley, now memorialized online by the Berkeley ePlaque Project.  The Bentleys printed the first book of Ansel Adams photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in the late 1930’s.  (You can buy one from the Bentleys’ limited edition of 500 copies here – if you have $8565.  Even the later reprints go for several hundred dollars.) (Copies of the book were sent to Washington to encourage the protection of the Sierra at the southern end of the Muir Trail.   Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes lent his copy to FDR – who refused to give it back.  Ickes had to get another copy.  The book resulted in the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)  Wilder the Elder’s printed works, including his 26 scroll set The Poetry of Learning, are held at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  (To see some  works bythe Bentleys Younger and Elder, visit ABE books.  As of this date, The Poetry of Learning is described at the bottom of the list.)

Archive Press cover

Cover of the later reprint, hard-cover version

Like his father, Wilder the Younger was a gifted artist, taught by Chiura Obata.   He was also a writer, art-glass maker, book-maker, poet, historian, and craftsman.  Some of his works are archived in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley (which also houses the Mark Twain Papers and the papers of George R. Stewart).  His works are also held at the Rosicrucian Museum, UCLA, and the New York Public Library.  His work is sometimes available for sale, as online listings reveal.

He learned to set type at a very early age, working with his parents.  Later he followed their example, establishing San Francisco’s Bread and Wine Press and publishing several works by local poets including Dick McBride.

Later, Wilder the Younger moved to Sonoma County’s Wheeler Ranch where he and his wife Penny lived for many years.  He continued his creativity, including researching, illustrating, and writing a book about bridges in the Sonoma area.

Bentley bridges full cover

Wilder Bentley the Younger’s Book, “Antique & Unusual Bridges”

Although I never met Wilder the Younger, he played an important role in the creation of the George R. Stewart biography.  I was able to interview him by email and mail.  His emails – and his printed autobiography, a copy of which he kindly sent — filled in important gaps in the chapters on Thornton State Beach (where I met George R. Stewart, and Wilder the Elder and Obata and where Ranger Nick Lee educated me about the importance of the two artists.)

In one of those episodes which seem to validate Carl Jung’s idea that there are no accidents, it was Ranger Nick Lee who sent the news of Wilder the Younger’s passing.   In his letter, Nick included a notice about a retrospective of Wilder the Younger’s work that was being arranged in Sonoma County at the end of March, 2019.  In the years since Thornton Beach and the writing of the GRS biography, I had become friends with Jean and Roger Moss and learned that they knew Wilder the Younger quite well. I called the Mosses to let them know about Wilder’s passing and the retrospective, which Roger attended.

Thornton State Beach, now abandoned by the state parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, played a role in the STEAM history (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) of Northern California.   The Bentleys, Obata, and George R. Stewart, and others of their ilk enriched our days there.  Nick, who was the catalyst for the trail named for GRS, also helped engineer the trail, created beautiful poetry and works of art, wrote articles, and played his part the creation of the GRS bio.

Thanks to our small community at Thornton Beach, and Nick, I had the honor and pleasure to know Wilder the Younger through our mail communications. Like Nick, Wilder Bentley the Younger enriched the book about GRS.   When he left us last fall, a chapter in California history closed.

How lucky we were, all of us,  to work there together, that place in which literature, art, printing, and all the rest of STEAM, were enfolded in a small wilderness near a large city, a park of ‘small compass and unusual value.’

 

A Gathering of “Space” Rangers

Since today is the 103rd Anniversary of the birth of the National Park Service, and we’re into the Service’s second century, it’s a good time to report on another gathering of Rangers – this time with an eye toward the future, a time when there may indeed be Rangers on other worlds.

In May, there was a gathering of Rangers in San Francisco.  In July, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, there was another gathering of  Rangers – “Space Rangers” – at Craters of the Moon National Monument.  This time, an Astronaut, students and teachers would join the Rangers.

Earlier in the year a call came from the Chief of Interpretation and Education – the Chief Naturalist – at Craters of the Moon.  Ted Stout chatted for a while, then got to the point:  “What are you doing on July 20th?”  I’d worked with Ted in the National Park Service days, and later done NASA Education work in Idaho, so he suggested I might want to join his celebration at Craters of the Moon.

I have the greatest respect for Ted, so I said”Sure” and began planning.  Since granddaughter Megan lives near Ogden, Utah, it would be a chance for a real summer vacation, camping in Nevada, being hosted in Idaho by Ted and Rose Stout (Rose is also a National Park Service Ranger), helping with the Apollo 11 celebration, and visiting Megan.    Just as plans were firming up, Ranger Phil Butler, who worked with Ted, Rose, and I in the Park Service days and has a deep interest in space exploration, called and asked to come along.  Phil had his own schedule and wishes, so plans were redone; but soon enough, he arrived in Carson City, we packed, and headed east and north.  We followed the Pony Express Trail/Lincoln Highway and the California Trail/U.S. 40/U.S. 93 into Idaho – a George R. Stewart route.  After a night camping in a hidden gem of a BLM campground – shared with a horde of Mormon Crickets – and an expensive night in Twin Falls, we arrived at Craters of the Moon.

Craters of the Moon played, and plays, an important role in space exploration.  The Apollo Astronauts trained there, learning to be field geologists.  More recently, major NASA Mars and Astrobiology research was done there, operating out of a portable field lab set up in the park.  So Craters of the Moon is the ONLY National Park Service unit to be a member of the NASA Space Grant Consortium.   This excellent short video from Idaho Public Television tells the story.

My job was to present NASA education activities to students from the Idaho Out Of School Network.  Time was limited and there were many students; so two volunteers, Solar System Ambassador Natalie MacBeth and Astro Ranger Molly (who does the star parties at the Monument,  which is also an international dark sky park) helped out and the activities went well.

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The Guest of Honor was Astronaut John Phillips.  Astronaut Phillips went into space three times – two Shuttle missions, and a six month mission on the International Space Station.  He presented a day program in the Visitor Center, a special program for students, and the evening “campfire” program at the park’s outdoor amphitheater.

The evening program started a few minutes late, due to a tech glitch, but thanks to the delay, the program and the Apollo 11 50th Celebration at Craters of the Moon ended in an unforgettable way.

After he’d finished his talk, Astronaut Phillips said,

“Everyone stand up.

” OK.  Turn 180 degrees and look at the sky.

“That bright fast-moving star is the Space Station.”

Gasps, cheers, and applause rocked the rocks of Craters of the Moon, as the ISS went by on a very long pass.

P1080352                                                   Ted Stout and Astronaut Phillips    

P1080350  Rangers Rose, Phil and Ted

 

Event over, there was a day or two with Ted and Rose and Phil.  Ted took Phil and I on several explorations, and a couple of hikes into the Idaho Mountains.  At night, there were excellent meals and conversation with Rose and Ted and Phil.

Then Phil and I hit the road again.

It’s always good to see Megan.  This time, she’d brought a remarkable gift – salt and pepper shakers in the shape of the Apollo Command and Service Module and the Lunar Lander.  A perfect gift for Space Ranger Gramps.

Gramps and Megan polaroid

Megan Ashley (Scott), Actress and Space Ranger Gramps

Back on the road.  Phil and I camped at the BLM campground near Hickison Petroglyphs, soon to be immersed in a glorious, thunderous, lightening storm.  The next day, at nearby Spencer Hot Springs  burros and Pronghorns were neighbors.  A perfect end for a Space Ranger journey.

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 All during the trip and at the gatherings, George R. Stewart was in mind.  He was the mentor who taught the value of sharing the viewpoints of the Ranger and the Astronaut, and he inspired me to become a Ranger.  So, on this,  the 103rd anniversary of the National Park Service’s founding, I tip my Ranger hat to Stewart. And to the others who helped inspire the NASA-NPS program at Craters of the Moon NM, including Chris McKay, Al Harrison, Doug Owen, Ted Stout, Mary Valleau, Garth Hull, Irene Sterling,  and the sturdy crew of Wider Focus.

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In honor of tomorrow’s Rangers – possibly real Space Rangers – here is one of the NASA-NPS Space Explorer Ranger books that Ted Stout and his colleagues distribute:

NASA-NPS Junior Ranger IMG_20190726_0002

 

And here is a possible park service site of the future, as imagined by visionary artist Douglas Shrock – Shrox – who works with NASA’s legendary Astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay to visualize Dr. McKay’s and other NASA space concepts:

Desktop Background

Used with the artist’s permission.  (You may want to visit his website to see his other work.) 

 

 

A Gathering of The Rangers

The Rangers gathered, three times, and each time George R. Stewart was present:  Twice in spirit, once in the flesh.

GRS listens

The 1974 dedication of the George R. Stewart Nature Trail at Thornton State Beach: George R. Stewart, seated, is listening to one of the Rangers read from Stewart’s Earth Abides.

 

The first gathering of the Rangers – as far as this tale of George R. Stewart is concerned – was at Thornton State Beach near San Francisco.  Ranger Don, seen in the photo reading from Stewart’s novel, began his hike up the trail there, one that would lead to the publication of the GRS Biography and this weblog.

Other Rangers who would follow that trail, or the Ranger trail, also gathered at Thornton State Beach.  Ranger Bob would become the Chief Naturalist at a National Preserve.  Ranger Steve, a Search and Rescue Ranger.  Ranger Nick would move to Regional Parks up north; then to the Interpretive Program at Fort Ross State Historic Park.

Another who started the Ranger Trail at Thornton Beach was only a boy in those days.  Johnny was a bit of a Huckleberry Finn, often bringing down the gentle wrath of Ranger Don by letting his dog run free.

But something about the State Beach and the Rangers there reached that young fellow.  He eventually joined the National Park Service at Fort Point National Historic Site.  Eventually he transferred to Alcatraz National Historic Site in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as Ranger John.

Over the years since, he has become an extraordinary Ranger….the ideal urban National Park Ranger.  He carries a strong foundation of National Park History and values and the history of the American Penitentiary system – which goes back to the Founding Fathers – and constantly improves the interpretive program in new and exceptional ways.  He even earned an Emmy for co-producing the best documentary about The Rock.

Ranger John carries the torch. The flame of enlightenment that the first National Park Service Director,  Founder, Stephen T. Mather first lit.  You should all be proud of Ranger John, and the others like him who give the name, and the image of Ranger, such honor.

AZ firetruck with Rangers

Alcatraz:  Ranger John and Ranger Lori, and the Rangers of Alcatraz

Ranger John poses casually, his foot on the bumper, on the left 

Ranger Lori stands in the middle, on the running board between two taller Rangers

 Now the George R. Stewart story take a most remarkable twist, which involves another fine Ranger, Ranger Lori Thompson.

Long before she stood on the running board of the fire  truck, long before she became a Ranger, even before Alcatraz joined the National Park Service, she was there, on the Rock, with her father.

Her father was a cameraman for Walt Disney.  When Disney decided to film George R. Stewart’s Storm, Lori’s father-to-be (she would be born in a year or two after the film was released) was chosen as the cameraman. It was a TV film; but it carried a faithful representation of the novel:  following the ecological theme of the novel and using real people to play the roles of telephone lineman, dam operator, Division of Highways snow removal crew, and others.   Thompson’s family also had minor roles in the movie.

After Alcatraz Penitentiary closed, Lori’s father got permission to film there.  He took her  along – she was a young girl – and  filmed her exploring the then-lonely cellhouse.  Later, Lori joined the National Park Service, spending decades as a distinguished Ranger on the Rock.

So you moght say that the Rangers segued via Ranger John from Thornton State Beach to Alcatraz, and via Ranger Lori Thompson – now Ranger Lori Brosnan –  from Disney’s “A Storm Called Maria” to the Rock.  But the journey wasn’t over, nor the gatherings.

 

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The Third Gathering: 

Ranger John and Ranger Karen’s Big Birthday Bash, filled with Rangers

(Ranger Phil and Ranger Jenny to Ranger John’s right; Ranger Karen linked to her husband, on his left.  And there are others not visible here.)

 

Not long ago – 45 years after the first gathering of the Rangers who would follow, one way or another, the GRS Trail – and years since the firetruck portrait – Ranger John and Ranger Karen would hold a Grand Bash in honor of their birthdays.  As usual, they would invite a plethora of people, and a rack of Rangers.

Ranger Lori was there.  Ranger John was there.  Even Ranger Don, now a geezer, was there.

So were Ranger Phil and Ranger Jenny.  And other Rangers, not connected with GRS:  Ranger/Superintendent Jim, District Ranger Armando, Ranger Bob, Ranger/Superintendent Naomi, Ranger/ Superintendent Frank.  And the volunteer Rangers, those people who cheerfully fill the gaps in the severely underfunded National Park Service.  And, in the misty winds of San Francisco, there were also the Rangers and the Volunteer Rangers since gone on – to other lives, or to the National Park in the Sky.

Three Photos, three time periods, linking George R. Stewart, and the Rangers.  And that’s righteous – because George R. Stewart deeply admired the Rangers.  He would eventually weave his ecological novel FIRE around Rangers – including one named “Ranger”!

Rangers are people of legend – think of Strider in Lord of the Rings.  That’s in part because their work is far more than interpretation or patrolling of the magnificent milestone places of human  and natural grandeur.  One of the best statements about Rangers is found in a speech from Babylon Five:

“They call themselves “Rangers”…they have pledged their lives, their fortunes and their blood to help fight the coming darkness…

“There must be one fortress of light to stand against the darkness….

“Tell the other Rangers…everyone in this army of light – that a line has been drawn against the darkness; and we will hold that line no matter the cost.”

Here’s to the Rangers.  Long may they prosper. Long may they hold the line.

 

 

 

Holmes Books

There are many pleasant meetings on the George R. Stewart Trail.

On a walk through beautiful Historic West Carson, I took a breather on the  bench near The Martin Basque Restaurant.  Not long after, a rider on a classic Schwinn came by.  He called out a neighborly greeting. I returned the greeting.  He stopped and we began to talk.   An hour later we were still talking.  It was one of those friendly swappings of stories which enrich lives, and unearth the most unlikely and wonderful connections.

He knew where Atwater Village is, one of the few who do.  His grandmother’s name was Theodosia, an unusual name but also the name of George R. Stewart’s wife.  He’d been a YAK – Youth Conservation Corps member – and we’d worked with the Yaks and similar groups in the old ranger days.  He’d fought fires, like the one described in Stewart’s fine novel FIRE.

And – the highlight – his great-grandfather was Robert Holmes, founder  of the legendary Holmes Bookstores in San Francisco and Oakland.

In Ranger days, when money was tight and our interest in Stewart’s books strong, on payday some of us visited Holmes in San Francisco – at Third and Market – to seek first editions of Stewart’s books.  We found many, and many of those cost a dollar. His Oakland store had more collectible antiquarian books, but it was a long drive and anyway we had no money for rare books. So our collections were founded at Holmes in San Francisco.

The Holmes bookstores finally closed – buildings old, foot traffic low, no internet on which to offer books in those days.  The last one was the Oakland store, which closed in 1994, 101 years after Holmes opened his first store on Mission Street in San Francisco.

As my new friend talked about his family, and Holmes Books, I closed my eyes and saw the stacks – and smelled that wonderful aroma of old books – where my GRS collection began.

If the internet had been strong in those days, Holmes would still be in business –  it is the internet antiquarian book store fronts which are keeping such bookstores in business.

My new friend Lumpy (the name given him by his beloved Brotherhood of the Surf on Southern California beaches we both frequented (but me much earlier, and not surfing)) talked on, about the old Southern California days for a while.

Then we parted, promising to get together again when time permits.

Walking home, I felt the breath of Carl Jung on my neck.  And since the Oakland Holmes Bookstore is supposed to be haunted , Jung’s breath felt perfectly appropriate  Here’s to synchronicity!

 

 

 

James Jones, Denise Lapachet Barney, and George R. Stewart

Not long ago, old friend and Stewart fan Denise Lapachet Barney sent a text:

“Looks like James Jones was familiar with the work of GRS!  (Jones also wrote “From Here to Eternity”)”

Attached to the text was an image of a page from James Jones’ Some Came Running.

 

some came running cover

See comments from Goodreads

I haven’t read Jones’ novel I don’t know the context of this passage – that is, for what the characters are considering STORM as a model**.   Still, it is an homage to his work by an author who won many awards, who saw this novel (and From Here to Eternity) filmed and receiving several academy award nominations (and at least one academy award for From Here to Eternity).

Jones’ characters are offhandedly critical about Stewart’s novel, writing that it wasn’t a deep book.  I’d disagree, and I think the reason for the criticism is founded on two differences between the two authors’ approach to their work.  Jones clearly follows Shakespeare’s idea that the world is simply a stage for human interaction, while Stewart believes that the world (as Jones admits) is THE protagonist in all human drama.  And Stewart is, ultimately, a great optimist while Jones’s work carries a dark pessimism woven throughout.  In Earth Abides, a novel about one of the greatest tragedies that might happen to humanity, Stewart ends on a note of hope.   Jones ends his novel with tragedy.

Yet Jones’ view of Storm is remarkably similar to that of distinguished Stewart-inspired JPL/NASA Scientist, James D. Burke.

Jones’ characters discuss Storm:

… it was Gwen who came up with the idea of patterning it somewhat on the idea of George R. Stewart’s book, “Storm”.  There too, she said, the people were only incidental; the protagonist was the storm itself.  Of course, it was not a deep book, wasnt [sic] even meant to be one.  …Did Dave know the book?  There was a copy of it here someplace that he could take home with him to study.  The main point was that the life of the storm, from its birth in Pacific to its death across the mountains, formed the framework and the continuity.

Bob agreed excitedly.  And so did Dave; he took it up and began at once to elaborate it.  It was really ludicrously simple.  All he had to do was take an organization, preferably a green one, and follow it through some campaign from its first combat to—Well, to the end:  the end of the campaign, or the relief of the or the relief of the organization, or—perhaps—to the final replacement of the last man who had been with the original outfit.  ….

Dr. Burke, who was the Project Manager for the first US robotic missions to the moon, the Ranger missions, which successfully photographed several potential landing, described Stewart’s influence on his life and career in a remarkably similar way as this quote from my George R. Stewart biography shows:

When he was 12,  Burke’s family moved to a cabin in the California transverse ranges, not far from the place young Stewart first felt the touch of the ancient on his long ago mountain hike. In the mountains, Burke discovered Storm and it changed his life: “All the senses were enlarged by the book. (Remember, I was living in the forest at this time.) Love of driving snow; Love of rough wood and bark; Love of the taste of watercress. Love of forest scent, of the smell of hot sunshine on the pine bark, of wind in pine.” Dr. Burke explained how the novel’s descriptions of highway workers, power plant operators, telephone linemen and others, gave him a love for work and achievement, much “celebrated in the book.” Stewart’s interdisciplinary approach also influenced young Burke and “connections became the stuff of a lifetime.

James Jones now joins the band of writers, artists, and scientists who were influenced enough by George R. Stewart to acknowledge him in their work:  William Least Heat Moon, Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Christopher Priest, Wallace Stegner, Philip Aaberg, Jimi Hendrix, Urusla LeGuin, and the others.

Congratulations and thanks  to Denise for this discovery.  She joins the Fellowship of Stewart Scholars.

I do have one complaint – I’ll have to revise the GRS biography to add this new, important information.

 

james jones on GRS

 

**From Denise Lapachet Barney:

To clarify the context of the passage a bit…

Dave (Hirsh) was forced to leave his small hometown in Illinois when he was a senior in high school because of a scandal. Nineteen years have passed and he has returned home. After knocking around some, he had some success with his first and second novels and short stories–not enough to be considered a “major” author, but enough to be noticed. He was in the Army in WWII and has since given up writing.

Gwen (French) was two years behind Dave in high school and now teaches at the local college. She is writing a paper on Dave and a couple of other local authors who, after initial success, have given up writing. She and her father, Bob (a retired professor and a poet), think they can help Dave get back to writing.

Tired of the solemn and portentous novels that have recently been published about WWII, Dave has an idea to write about the War, but in a humorous way. He’s not sure how to begin–how to format the story. Gwen comes up with “Storm” as an example where the main character is not the people, but the environment itself. Dave finds himself becoming excited–this is exactly the hook he’s been looking for.

BTW, James Jones deliberately leaves out apostrophes or the last consonant in a word or has irregular punctuation in an effort to convey the way the characters talk and think. Most of them have only a high school education. If they have gone on, it’s to a trade school (or for the women, a secretarial school).

The novel, “Some Came Running,” took Jones 6 years to write and is 1200+ pages. After the movie (starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine) came out an abridged version was released–which was still 600 pages long! And now there’s an “authorized re-edited” version that’s about 1000 pages. Currently I’m about a quarter of the way through the unabridged version.

A Diamond/Platinum Celebration for EARTH ABIDES

EA Morleys

 

Earth Abides was published on October 7, 1949.   It has been suggested that there be a gathering to honor the 70th anniversary of that publication.

There have been two suggestions:

1. A gathering at Indian Rock Park followed by dinner at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club, like the one done a few years ago.

2.  Or the long overdue “dedication” of the George R. Stewart Interpretive Sign on old US 40 at Donner Summit.  (The signs are removed during  October so we’d need to check to make sure the sign is still in place.)

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All other suggestions are welcomed.

October 7th, 2019 is a Monday, so the actual gathering would probably take place during the preceding weekend.

If you’re interested in such a gathering, or have any suggestions for how we might gather, please leave a comment.

This might be a good time to read or re-read James Sallis’s exceptional essay about Earth Abides. It’s still the best consideration of Stewart’s great classic.

Hermes EA

Cover of the edition published by Alan Ligda, which guaranteed unbroked publication for 70 years.

Of Fires and FIRE

A reading of David J. Strohmaier’s The Seasons of Fire , and reflections on the massive fires of 2018 have encouraged this post about Stewart’s Fire. Now, in the season between the fires, there’s time to share some information about George R. Stewart’s pioneering and thrilling ecological novel.

fire first cover

George R. Stewart’s second ecological novel was about fire.  Stewart’s normal method of writing was to create something new with each work.  He didn’t want to repeat himself.  So he regularly created new types of literary works with each new book – between his first ecological novel, Storm, and the first-ever “autobiography” of  humankind, Man, he wrote the first and only history of national place-naming, Names on the Land.  (That link takes you to a fine in-depth review of NOTL by Christine Smallwood, which also includes a mini-review of Fire.)

When Stewart’s publisher and agent and the reading public begged for another novel like Storm, he resisted the call.   When the Book-of-the-Month club weighed in, promising huge sales, he finally agreed to write it.  But to make it creative, unique, challenging, and more interesting, he set the novel in a fictional National Forest rather than real locations like the ones he’d used for Storm.  His fictional forest, the Ponderosa National Forest, located adjacent to the Tahoe NF on the north side, was as accurate as any real national forest because his son Jack (later become the USGS “Man” for Nevada) helped him create the terrain and the maps.  Naming features of that imaginary landscape and giving it a history was easy – he’d just finished his book about place-naming, was already an expert on the naming of Sierra features, and knew the Ponderosa NF’s history would be very similar to the other national forests of the central Sierra.

He named features for people he knew and respected; so Jack had a creek named for him, as did Stewart’s English Department colleague Jim Hart and many others.   His final stroke of genius was the creation of a topographic model of the fictional forest – painted by his colleague David Park whose works can now sell for over a million dollars.   (The model is safely stored in one of the Bancroft Library’s secure storage facilities.)

Christine Smallwood’s mini-review of Fire in her larger review of Names On The Land includes a good quote showing Stewart’s prolific use of names in the novel, which I’ll borrow here to give an idea of Stewarts’ poetic style in the book:

Humbug Point saw the blow-up, and Lovers Leap. Horse Mountain reported, and signed off, quoting Joel 2:30–“and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Far to the north, Sheer Rock saw it suddenly above the high shoulder of Howell Mountain. Hamlin Point saw it build up above the round top of Cerro Gordo, like the towering smoke of a new-born volcano.

(The names are those of fire lookout towers,  which GRS uses here to “name” the fire spotters in the towers.)

When all was said and done, Stewart’s careful “design” of his national forest, helped by Jack Stewart and David Park, was so real that for years travellers would hunt for the forest during trips to the Central Sierra, and were always disappointed to discover it was fictional.   (Interestingly,  the fictional forest and the fictional fire’s location would be close to the area of the massive Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise last fall.)

Once GRS had the setting and the characters down, he wove his story.  The novel uses the same exceptional – interesting, educational, and (as Christine Smallwood puts it) thrilling mixture of action and information –   used in Storm.  Stewart glissades smoothly from a god-like overview of history, fire science, fire ecology, wildlife biology, myth, geography, and the like, to the dramatic experiences of several human characters in several places – including one of the fire towers – during the huge blaze.

The novel opens with that god-like view, of the High Sierra and its western foothills, as lightening suddenly flashes down onto the tinder-dry duff of the forest.  It ends with a similar perspective, but this time in one one of the most beautiful statements of the cycle of fire ecology ever written, as the heat of the fire opens the serotinous cones and their seeds drop onto the newly-ash-fertilized earth of the burned areas.

Ecology is the novel’s major theme, as it is in his other ecological novels, Storm, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock.  One of the most memorable scenes  in Fire is between the old Ranger who loves the beauty of the forest, heartbroken when “the glen” is burned into ash,  and the new, young, college-educated Forest Ranger Supervisor.  The old Ranger is saddened by the burnt wreckage of his special place of re-creation.  But the Forest Supervisor tells him that beauty depends on your ecological view of things.  To a  rabbit scrub brush would likely be far more beautiful than the glen.   It’s a wonderful, gentle pioneering statement of the ecological view in which humans are only one small part of a vast ecosystem.  The old Ranger isn’t convinced; he’s lost his beloved glen.  But Stewart has made his point about the need to see such things through an ecological sense.

The novel has its share of sad and tragic passages, like the description of the Camp Fire of its day, Peshtigo, far deadlier in that time before good forest management.  Yet GRS does not dwell on the gruesome, but simply offers it as a part of the story of fire.

As usual, GRS did extraordinary research before he even picked up one of his tray of sharpened pencils and write.  His office at UC Berkeley was adjacent to the University Library and the Bancroft Library, so he could dig deep into the literature of fire.  His colleagues in the natural sciences and geography were a great help in the details of the work.

But in the best GRS tradition, he did not write the book from other books and quiet conversations.  He had himself appointed as a “Collaborator” for the US Forest Service, and headed out to help fight some major forest fires.  Stewart was so involved in that potentially deadly research that the Forest Service lost track of him and got quite worried.  But he’d simply slipped away into the depths of the fire-fighting.   He did almost lose his life once.  Walking down a muddy trail he spied a burning snag just beyond and above him.  He decided he could outrun it and jumped across a pool of water between him and the danger.  But he slipped and fell face-down in the water.  Which was a good thing – the snag fell just as he jumped; it would have hit him if he’d not slipped.

The book became a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  It was filmed twice – once, in a hatchet job by Paramount as Red Skies in Montana, which ignored GRS’s ecological message. And once, for television by Stewart’s great fan Walt Disney, as A Fire Called Jeremiah.  The Disney film had some Disneyfication, but is much closer to the ecological view of Stewart’s novel.

Ø Ø Ø

We read about the deadly fires of our time, or watch their smoke, and mourn the loss of those killed by them.  Perhaps we lift a glass of Sierra Nevada’s Resilience Ale, that great act of kindness from Sierra Nevada Brewing, who created it, and 1400 other breweries around the world, who, like Sierra Nevada Brewing, are donating all profits to the victims of the Camp Fire.

A suggestion:

While you’re sipping that good ale, or some other result of ζύμωσις+ἔργον – zymurgy or the science of brewing beer – to quench the fires of your thirst,

Read – or re-read – Fire, by George R. Stewart.

 

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