Many people credit the Sierra Club’s Exhibit This Is The American Earth and the subsequent Sierra Club book based on the exhibit as the foundation of Earth Day. Others credit the first Whole Earth photographs taken by the Apollo 8 crew. Both are important events. I believe, however, that the initial inspiration came from the widely-read works of George R. Stewart – published and widely read decades before the exhibit or Apollo 8’s photograph.
In 1936, Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger opened with a view of Northern Nevada from low Earth orbit, so precisely described that eventual ISS images of the area closely matched his text. And Stewart closed the history with the comment that “…I consider the land to be a character in the work.” That is a remarkable statement of the ecological viewpoint 34 years before Earth Day I. Since the book was (and is) widely read, readers were learning the Whole Earth viewpoint long before there was a Day to celebrate it.
In the next decade, Stewart wrote 3 ecological novels. Two of them – 1941’s Storm and 1949’s enduring classic Earth Abides – included passages with the view of Earth from space. All three were profoundly ecological in nature. In fact, in 1948, before Fire was published George R. Stewart identified himself as “what might be called an ecologist” – – 22 years before Earth Day I.
Storm gave us the practice of naming storms. To make the point that the storm in his novel was the main protagonist Stewart didn’t name most of the human characters, but named the storm. It’s a excellent read, still frequently re-printed, as is Fire, his novel of fire ecology. Both novels are tour de forces of ecology, weaving lifeforms, landforms, climate, humans, and human history and myth together with a deep sense of “the land.”
Earth Abides is Stewart’s extraordinary never out-of-print classic. It prophesied the current coronavirus pandemic 71 years ago. When protagonist Isherwood Williams learns most humans have been wiped out by disease he decides to survive so he can observe the ecosystem adjust to the removal of humans — in what we would call the post-Anthropocene. Ish observes what we are now seeing – the return of wildlife to human areas and humans experiencing a world without the noise, pollution, and similar nonsense of the Anthropocene.
(Earth Abides is scheduled to be reprinted next October; it can be pre-ordered now.)
Stewart published a fourth ecological novel, Sheep Rock, in 1952. It was the first work he called ecological – “in the older sense, that is, all the things that go to make up a place.” It is possibly his most controversial novel, praised by some, criticized by others. He stretched his already innovative style beyond the limits of the day – it’s been called the first post-modernist novel – and did not have the enduring and widespread popularity of Storm, Fire, and Earth Abides.
The other three ecological novels had and have huge readerships. They were best-sellers, and two were Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Those two, Fire and Storm, were also made into Disney TV films; Disney kept their ecological underpinnings, especially with Fire. Other authors referred to them in their works.
So long before This is the American Earth was printed in book form and Apollo 8’s Anders, Borman, and Lovell took the photo of Earth from the moon, George R. Stewart was educating his huge readership in the principles of ecology, and doing it in the best manner, through dramatic narratives. He was a prophet, in an intellectual wilderness, preparing humans for Earth Day I.
It’s interesting (and disappointing) that there’s been so little honoring of this great ecological prophet. But Stewart would be fine with that. A teacher above all, he would know that his work taught millions upon millions about ecology and the land and that would be sufficient.
(A personal note – on Earth Day I my students and I worked on a Golden Gate Park cleanup. It was an eye-opener. No litter was visible. But under the shrubs, out of sight, it was voluminous. The City simply did not have the manpower to clean up after humans. In our two hours, they filled several large leaf bags with trash. Discussing it later, the students decided their tiny efforts locally were the key to solving such problems globally. I hope and believe that stays with them.)
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land
I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning…
George R. Stewart had a Hammer. Ish’s Hammer. He used it well, preparing us for Earth Day I AND the current pandemic.
One final comment: “Geo,” the abbreviation for George, means “Earth.” How appropriate for this pioneering ecologist and geographer, who taught so many of us about our Earth system.
On this day, Earth Day 50, we honor him.