Time for a slight change in focus.
Although I consider Stewart an ecological author – that is, one who defines human character by how individuals relate to the ecosystem – a good friend who is a distinguished geographer reminds me that Stewart can also be considered a geographic author – one who writes about the land as a character in the work. Stewart probably considered himself more geographer than ecologist or environmentalist until the Environmental Movement came to have such an influence on the world, even though he was one of those who laid the thought-foundation for that Movement. But whether we consider him a geographic or ecological novelist, his second novel about “the land” fits well under both definitions.
Fire is the story of another ecosystem event. This tim. it’s a huge fire in the Sierra Nevada, north of the Donner Pass region. As in Storm, the fire becomes the protagonist, and human character is defined by how his characters respond to the great fire. Again, he names the fire – Spitcat – although this time he also names most of the humans as well.
The book focuses a little on ecology than Storm does, opening and closing with events that reveal the interrelationships in the ecosystem. It opens with a lightning strike, and closes with the fire-opened serotinous cones dropping their seeds to the ash-enriched, now-sunlit earth. In one of the strongest passages, the old Ranger and the young Chief Ranger talk about the effect of the fire on one of the most beautiful parts of the forest – a glen, frequented by deer. The old ranger is broken-hearted to see the glen burned over, and the deer killed. It has been his wilderness temple. But the young Chief Ranger tells him that seeing something as beautiful depends on our place in the ecosystem. To a rabbit the brushy landscape that will replace the glen for a while is a place of great beauty. The old Ranger, who grew up in the forest is a Man of the Forest – he only knows that he has lost what he loves the most. The Chief Ranger, college-educated, is the spokesman for the ecological view of Earth. In their conversation, the reader, for the first time, feels the drama of the dawning of the ecological view of the world.
Fire is the only novel in which he repeated himself. That is, he used similar techniques to tell a similar eco/geographic story, and set the story in what appears to be the same landscape, the central Sierra Nevada, where Storm is set. But Stewart challenged himself in writing the book. Although the novel is set in a national forest just north of Tahoe, that forest does not exist. To make it seem real, he asked his son Jack to create a map of the forest, sprinkled with names on creeks and mountains and ridges and lakes; then had famous impressionist painter David Park sculpt and paint a model of the forest. Working from the excellent map and model, he could easily visual the terrain of the fictional Ponderosa National Forest, and thus the events on that terrain.
People still look for the Ponderosa National Forest, but it is only to be found – like Middle Earth – between the pages of a book.
The book, like Storm before it, was both a best-seller and a Book-of-the Month Club selection. And, like Storm, it would be filmed. There are two versions of Fire – one, so corrupted by the Hollywood studio which bought the rights that it is unrecognizable, became Red Skies In Montana. The other version was a TV movie done by Walt Disney. While somewhat lightweight, A Fire Called Jeremiah kept the ecological focus of the book.
Disney was quite a fan of Stewart’s work. Before Fire was written, Disney invited him to the studio to work as a consultant. Stewart spent a few days there, working up ideas for educational films and a series of proposed series of films about American folklore. Although never credited, I believe his influence can be seen in the folklore films – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, and the others – and the True-Life Adventure films. Stewart and Disney had lunch together during Stewart’s studio time; and Disney sent a warm letter to Stewart after his visit.
With the publication and massive readership of Storm and Fire, Stewart had begun laying an intellectual foundation for the paradigm shift which led to the Environmental Movement, and the acceptance of environmental thinking by most people today. But it was his next book which would cement that paradigm shift into the consciousness of humankind. That third ecological novel, now considered one of the great American novel, and never out of print, is one of the great intellectual and literary accomplishments of the 20th century – and perhaps of the second millennium.