Earth Day Reflections on George R. Stewart

I am convinced that the Founding Father of Earth Day and the Environmental Movement was George R. Stewart.  Many contributed, of course – Mary Austin, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, the Sierra Club, Stephen T. Mather, Ansel Adams, TR, Gifford Pinchot, and so on.  But before Stewart, the preservationists, conservationists, and environmentalists spoke mainly to a literate urban elite, not a vast middle class.  So the ideas stayed within a comparatively small circle of people.

George R. Stewart, professor at Berkeley, was a member of that elite circle; but he was also a great admirer of the common man.  His interest was in educating the general literate middle class about the ecological point of view.   So he wrote for that audience (and did it in a manner so well-researched and literate that he also reached those in the small circle of elite environmentalists).  His first ecological novel, STORM, focused on common folks as ecological heroes.

In FIRE, his next ecological novel, Stewart makes the different but related views of the common man and the elite when he  introduces two characters who represent the views of the two groups:  In one of the most remarkable passages, an old ranger and the young college-educated Chief Ranger debate the value of fire in the ecosystem.

Stewart used several techniques to reach the literate middle class.  Primary among these was basing the novel’s human protagonists on the common man – and in fact at times using the real stories of real people who became the real-life models for the heroes in his novels.   Johnny Martell (as I recall the name) apparently did walk across the front of a Sierra dam as storm water poured over the dam’s top.

Other characters, like  The Junior Meteorologist, are never named — thus making them Everyman.

Letters to Stewart show how powerful and appreciated was his presentation of common folks as environmental heroes.  In one, now in the Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, a supervisor involved in the incident with the over-flowing dam, thanks GRS for showcasing the daily courage of such people, most never named or known.   In another, relating to Earth Abides, the writers talk about how that book encouraged to “the little people” like themselves. (That letter is also in the Stewart Papers.)

STORM and FIRE became international best-sellers and Book-of-the-Month Club selections.  Millions of people, most of them NOT in the older environmental elite, read the books and were educated in the ecological/environmentalist point of view and were inspired to see humans and their world in a entirely new way.  Although there was little in the national media about that viewpoint – the media, like the government, is usually years behind the general literate population – it had spread widely, long before there was an “Environmental Movement.”

Some elites helped the process when they, like GRS, spread the word.  Walt Disney, a great fan of Stewart, presented a fine short film version of Storm on the widely-viewed Disney television program and the ecological message of the novel reached a massive audience.   A Storm Called Maria, aired in 1959, trumpeting Stewart’s educational message to a huge audience.  Since it was airing when the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams/Nancy Newhall exhibit, This Is The American Earth, was first presented, the Disney film saw its influence – and the teachings of GRS – multiplied exponentially.  Those who’d read the GRS novel could see the characters – especially the storm, Maria – come to vivid life, reinforcing the message that environmentalism belongs to all of us.  Those who’d not read the novel were educated in the ecological point of view by the film.

Since Disney used real people in the real roles they play in the novels, it underscored the idea that common men and women, not simply the elites,  are environmentalists.  Disney’s subseqent TV film, “A Fire Called Jeremiah” expanded the audience and reinforced the GRS message.

By the time Stewart wrote Fire he understood what his vision was and how he could teach it to others.  In an extraordinary letter, sent in 1948 in answer to questions from the publicist for the Book-Of-The-Month Club, Stewart wrote:

I consider the main theme … to be the problem of the relationship of man to his environment.  I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.  

Long before “ecology” became a common phrase, Stewart had realized he was teaching his readers – his vast number of readers, some in the elite but mostly middle class people – the values and principles of the ecological or environmentalist point of view.  He was doing it as early as the mid-1930s, in his ecologically-based history Ordeal By Hunger.  But by 1948 – seven years before This Is The American Earth and two decades before the first Earth Day, Stewart was preparing his readers – teaching them – educating them – to the ecological point of view.

Clearly, George R. Stewart was a Founding Father of Earth Day.  Perhaps THE Founding Father.

 

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