The End of the World, Past and Future

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others)  one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels.  Its long history of popularity —  never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work.  Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization.  One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer.  The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.

When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical.  There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers.  The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially.  They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance.  But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids.   The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families.  Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.

The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later.  It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving.   While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like  psalms,  the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.

Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting.  But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction.  It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras.  But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist,  who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning.  Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting  through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.

Then,  in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle,  the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned.  Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion.  Yet, like When the English Fall,  it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.

In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.

Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere.   I highly recommend them  to anyone influenced by  George R. Stewart’s  Earth Abides.  And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.

Of FIRE and Flu

George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character.   Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.

This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease.  There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come.  Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none.   The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee.   Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders.   And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.

Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE.  The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels.  STORM ends with a reference to California history.  FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.

FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest.  Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest.  In the same way, his story is developed.  It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017.  By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science.  And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.

Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.”  It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.

The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today.  When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy,  he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault.  And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.”  Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life.  There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here.  (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)

Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels.  In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho.  In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work.  And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.

EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans.  In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.

Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.  AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims.  But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide.  Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps.  But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape.  GRS got the flu.  He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena.  But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.

Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus.  So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine,  CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus.  Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu.  Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it.  Here’s the link

As Murphy writes,  Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans.  Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.

 

 

 

Maria Returns

For those not familiar with the novels of George R. Stewart, Storm is the well-researched story of a California storm that slams into and across the central transect of the state in one dynamic week.  It was a ground-breaking work, the first fictional work to make the ecosystem a protagonist in human affairs.  Still in print, Storm continues to get good reviews from its readers.

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Cover of the Modern Library Edition

Stewart, who taught English at UC Berkeley, was always deeply interested in geography and its related sciences.  So he used the input from his colleagues in those fields to bring accuracy to the book.

Stewart also did field research – sometimes dangerous research – to get the feeling of a storm.  He traveled with the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans), worked with those who maintained the P.G.&E. dams in the Sierra, and even rode with the California Highway Patrol over the central Sierra Nevada highways.

His wife, Ted,  remembered that on one trip he rode over 7000 foot + Donner Pass, during a major snowstorm, on the cowcatcher at the front of a steam locomotive.  When she picked him up on the other side he was nearly frozen.

Stewart, in writing the book, slowly realized it was a novel about the role of the ecosystem in human affairs.  To make the point, he named few of the human characters.  But he named his storm.

Wildly popular, the novel was distributed to soldiers in World War II.  Those who returned to become meteorologists were so taken with the book, and the idea of naming storms, that they adopted the naming practice, now widespread.  One of the readers, Vic Moitoret, went on to become Chief Areologist (Meteorologist) for the U. S. Navy — later founding the George R. Stewart fan club, and becoming a fine amateur fine quality printer.  (Moitoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, never losing a small book which included a list of his favorite books – first listed was Storm.)

The novel was filmed by Walt Disney for Television in the 1950s.*  So its ecological approach, and the name Stewart gave his storm, became part of the common culture of the time.  Disney even used the name of Stewart’s storm as the title of his film.

And the name?  Maria.  Pronounced, Stewart was careful to point out, “in the old-fashioned way” with a long i:  Mar eye ah.   That, by the way is why the wind is called Maria.

The book is now considered a California Legacy Book.  It’s still a good read, as the reviews reveal.

Stewart’s name has endured, too.  It was used for a 2005 storm, a 2011 storm.  Now it’s the name of a storm heading toward Florida:  This storm is not in the Central Sierra Nevada – although we’re getting a big solstice storm here, which includes tornado warnings.   But in the Caribbean, it’s as powerful as Stewart’s Maria, with Category Five winds.

This would be a good time to give Storm a read; and give a nod of thanks to George R. Stewart, “The Man Who Named The Storms.”

And, as Stewart’s “Young Meteorologist” says, in Storm, “Good luck, Maria!”

*It may be possible soon to view Disney’s “A Storm Called Maria” on Amazon.  That’s assuming this Amazon link goes live.

Carrying the Fire of George R. Stewart. Kaplan and Kehlmann II – The First Publisher

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Born in New York City, and speaking with a distinct accent, Alan Kaplan brought a distinctive character to his work as a Naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks.  Based in Tilden Regional Park, in the hills behind Berkeley, Alan interpreted the history and natural history of the area through guided hikes, school programs, and the preparation of exhibits for many years, until his retirement. He’s also provided leadership in organizations that provide education in interpretation for his fellow naturalists in the west, through his work in the old Western Interpreters Association.     (Note that “interpreter” in the park sense refers to what used to be called “naturalists” – those  people in distinctive uniforms who interpret the advanced concepts of a park’s cultural and natural history into common English for visitors.)

That’s where I first met him.  There,  he played a foundational role in the publication of the George R. Stewart biography.  He was the First Publisher of my writings about GRS.

In 1986, the WIA conference was held in Yosemite National Park.  I presented a talk, “George R. Stewart:  An Author for Interpreters.”  As the the title implies, Stewart’s histories and ecological novels are excellent resources for those interpreting the natural or human history of the West.

I was pleasantly surprised when Alan, then President of WIA, encouraged conference attendees to attend the GRS session.  And even more pleasantly surprised when the session was crammed full of enthusiastic naturalists and interpreters.

As the session ended, Alan, who was in the audience, rose to second my comments about Stewart’s value for interpreters.  He emphasized the power of Stewart’s writing by quoting the closing lines of FIRE.  Doing so, he even educated me – I knew FIRE well, but had never given the ecological power of its closing such careful attention. (FIRE was so well-researched and written that the U.S. Forest Service used it in their training programs for summer fire lookouts.)

Alan asked for an article for the WIA Newsletter, Bayways.  Entitled “The Man Who Named The Wind,” the article was a written summary of the GRS talk.  It was the first publication, for a large audience, of material which would eventually expand into the McFarland biography.

Alan also interpreted the work of George R. Stewart to Tilden Regional Park visitors.  For many years, on a weekend close to the day in August when Stewart died, Alan led a “George R. Stewart Memorial Hike” to the summit of one of Tilden’s peak .  The hike focused on Stewart’s work, especially his remarkable NAMES ON THE LAND.  The book is not a dictionary of American place names, but a history which explains in beautiful prose WHY we named places a certain way in a certain era.  As Wallace Stegner once wrote about NAMES (here paraphrased) “No one ever wrote a book like this before; no one has written one since.”  Visitors who joined Alan’s hike learned about Stewart, his work, and especially his unique work about place-naming.  (NAMES ON THE LAND has just been translated into Chinese for the millions of citizens of that country who are enamored of American culture.)

Once, friends and I joined Alan on the hike:  George  and Theodosia’s son Jack, Jack’s wife Joyce, and former high school student Denise L. Barney and her husband Barney hiked along; afterward we crammed into the back of the tiny Chinook microcamper with Alan to share some good wine and crackers (Alan abstained!)

As the GRS biography was written, and published, Alan joined public events which described GRS and my work.  Once, to my chagrin, he was at a talk at the Bancroft Library and I did not notice him so did not introduce him; fortunately, when he came up afterward to say hello I was able to give him a well-deserved gift – a first edition of STORM, autographed by GRS, with a rare misprint on one page.

He also shared our GRS dinner at the beautiful, historic  UC Berkeley Faculty Club, sitting next to me, and we were able to talk about shared GRS experiences.

To sum up – Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, played a major role in the work which led to the eventual publication of THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART.   He also inspired me to take a second, deeper look at Stewart’s books, especially FIRE.  Stewart, and the GRS biography owe him much.  I am deeply grateful for his encouragement.

To See: George R. Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision Realized

George R. Stewart was an “inventor” of the Whole Earth Vision – the recent realization that Earth, in an immense universe, is one small, blue, life-bearing place, only fully understood if it’s explored from two perspectives – that of the ecologist, who studies it from ground level, and that of the astronaut, who examines Earth from space.

Stewart used that vision for the first time in Ordeal By Hunger.  He begins the book by asking the reader to “imagine yourself poised in space” in what we would now call LEO or Low Earth Orbit, about 200 miles up.  In the book’s Foreword he describes northern Nevada precisely, as photos taken from the International Space Station reveal.  (Stewart used the techniques of fiction to make the history dramatic and engaging, and did that so well that some readers still think they’re reading a novel.  They’re not; they’re reading history.)

The book then moves into the ecologist’s point of view, ground level, as Stewart makes the case that the Donner Party’s tragedy was the result of the party’s ignorance of the ecosystems it passed through.  At the book’s end, he writes, “It should be obvious…I consider the land a character in the work.”  The land, of course, is the ecosystem.

Today, most of us can wander our ecosystems easily.  So far, the perspective of the astronaut is restricted to a lucky few.  But – would Stewart not love this? – we can watch Earth from LEO on a continuous feed, here.

NASA Strategic Planner Jesco von Puttkamer suggested we are now living in the “New Enlightenment of Spaceflight.”    That Enlightenment began with Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision.  The New Enlightenment expanded its reach exponentially with the first photos of the Whole Earth from space, most dramatically “Earthrise” from Apollo 8. von Puttkamer’s slogan for the age, borrowed by Star Trek for the series’ first movie, is

Space:  The Human Adventure is Just Beginning

Today, we know Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision from both perspectives – of the land, and from LEO.  We have joined von Puttkamer’s New Enlightenment of Spaceflight, and gained Stewart’s Whole Earth vision and have a greater understanding of and love for our home planet.

We have become enlightened.

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Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Kaplan and Kehlmann: Carrying the Torch of George R. Stewart Onward, I: Robert Kehlmann

Although George R. Stewart is not as well-known as other authors of his day, there is a distinguished band of people who know, value, and carry on his work.  Other authors, including Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Christopher Priest, Wallace Stegner, William Least Heat Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others, acknowledge GRS either openly through essays or quietly through references in their work. Walt Disney filmed two of Stewart’s books for the Disney TV show.   Stewart’s millions of fans, of course, keep his books alive; several, like Earth Abides,  are still good sellers.  And there are those who actively memorialize and share Stewart’s work.  Two of these are Robert Kehlmann of the Berkeley Plaque Project and Naturalist Emeritus Alan Kaplan.  This post focuses on Robert Kehlmann.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, now living in Berkeley, California, Robert Kehlmann is a distinguished glass artist, a “painter with glass.” Initially trained in Literature, Kehlmann began to see paintings as similar to poems in their effects on the viewer; and he decided to produce new works of painterly glass “paintings” that would encourage that response.  He helped found a movement taking artistic glass from its traditional use in architecture to a more painterly use, in which glass becomes the “paint” of an artist’s work.  Kehlmann’s work is found in many collections, including the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Corning Museum of Glass, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and others.

Kehlmann is active in historic preservation in Berkeley.  Former Director of the Landmark’s Preservation Commission in Berkeley, Kehlmann founded the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project in 1997.  On its elegantly designed site, the Plaque Project lists Berkeley historic sites and people with physical or online plaques.  One of those honored by Kehlmann’s project, byan ePlaque,  is  George R. Stewart.

(Also honored with an ePlaque is Wilder Bentley the Elder, and his family.   Bentley, an exceptional poet and printer, was a regular visitor at the former Thornton State Beach in the days Stewart and his family visited.  The Bentleys’ Archive Press published the first book of Ansel Adams’ photographs – a work which led to the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)

Kehlmann is one of several fine partners we work with in this tiny but determined project to honor the work of George R. Stewart and educate others about Stewart’s work.  He joins Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, who spearheaded the George R. Stewart Interpretive Plaque on Historic US 40 at Donner Summit, Phil and Patty Aaberg at Sweetgrass Music, who published Phil’s Earth Abides sheet music, Baiba Strads and the others of the Bancroft Library, and the select group of people who’ve dug into their pockets to fund or develop these works:  Steve Williams, Doug Raybeck, Junlin Pan, Joyce Colbath-Stewart, Dee and Barney Barney, Bob Lyon,  Beth Lapachet, Brian Byrne, Ross and Charlene Bogert, John and Angela Lucia, Willie Stewart, Paul F. Starrs.

And Alan Kaplan, subject of the next post.

Eastend, Saskatchewan, Wallace Stegner, and George R. Stewart – a Reprise.

On this fine spring day in Carson City, Nevada, memories of Eastend, Saskatchewan, and its connection with George R. Stewart have burst out like the blossoming flowers visible from the window of this writer’s current roost.  That’s probably because I first saw Eastend as the snows of winter gave way to the flowers of spring, visible outside the window of the Wallace Stegner Boyhood Home.  So I reviewed the earlier post about Eastend and Stewart.  It’s been revised, upgraded and renewed.

Eastend is, in and of itself, worth a trip to Canada.  If you’re heading to visit Canada’s prairies or the Rockies, a side-trip to the town should be on your itinerary.  If you’re going to Idaho or nearby to see the August Total Eclipse, head a few hundred miles north to visit Eastend.  It will be a highlight of your trip.

The updated post follows.

About 16 years ago, quite by accident, I wandered into Eastend, Saskatchewan.  The tiny farm town in Saskatchewan’s southwest didn’t seem of much interest — until I noticed the T-Rex Laboratory in the middle of town.  Intrigued, I visited the lab, where  paleontologists were hard at work preparing the fossil bones of the most massive T-Rex ever discovered.

Eastend was apparently more than it seemed at first look, so I began to walk around the town.

In two blocks I realized the “accidental” visit was a classic Jungian  synchronicity.  A sign on the main street  pointed toward a modest home on a quiet street near the Frenchman River was “Wallace Stegner’s Boyhood Home.”   Stegner, who spent his boyhood years here,  was profoundly influenced by George R. Stewart.  Stegner wrote a fine essay about Stewart,  included in Stegner’s  WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.   In the George Rippey Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library (See link in the header of this page) there are several wonderful letters from “Wally” Stegner to Stewart; in the Stegner Papers at the University of Utah, there are replies from Stewart.

Later, researching a chapter on the friendship between Stewart and Stegner, I found the website for the Boyhood Home (now a Canadian Heritage site). Restored by the hard work of local people, the house had become a residence for writers and artists.  They accepted my application; so I had the rare honor of living in Stegner House for several weeks over three visits.  And the pleasure of getting the chance to know Eastend and its wonderful people.  Some, like Charlie Goulet, are now gone; but I know if I drove into town tomorrow I’d soon run into Ken and Ethel Wills, Dick and Clora Banford, Tim and Jacquie Tokaryk,   the Websters, and the others who have helped bring that community back into vibrant life.  It’s now home to one of the finest small enlightenments in the world today.  Good cheeseburgers at Charlie’s Lunch, good meals at Jack’s, several b&b’s;  and a new T-Rex Discovery Centre that would do justice to the Smithsonian, and that interdisciplinary marriage of art and science – STEAM – that characterize Enlightenments or Renaissances.

It was an inspiring place to work on the biography.  And, as things turned out, it was the place — in the living room of the Stegner House — where I found the key to the George R. Stewart biography.

The other highlight was being honored with a presentation of a Saskatchewan supporters of the arts pin, by Lieutenant Governor Lynda Haverstock.

Visit Eastend.   And give it some time.  Good campground, adequate motels, not far from a CAA approved motel in Shaunavon if you prefer a “larger” town.

With the Stegner House, the T-Rex Discovery Centre, a fine pottery, and other art locations, Eastend is a highly recommended place to visit.  Also recommended is Stegner’s book about Eastend, Wolf Willow, and his collection of essays described above, WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.  The collection of essays, which includes the essay about George R. Stewart,  begins with his memories of Eastend.