The Case of George R. Stewart and the Lore of STORM

This is indeed the summer – and the week – of George R. Stewart.

A film, currently planned to be a documentary about one of Stewart’s non-fiction books, is under development.  STORM is being republished by the New York Review of Books Press and offered as the NYRB Classics Book Club selection for August. The Dixie Fire is burning almost exactly where Stewart placed his fire, “the spitcat,” in FIRE‘s fictional “Ponderosa National Forest.” And a slice of Lore about the writing of STORM  has resurfaced.

A message has come from old friend and Bookman Roger, announcing a tour of 2706 Virginia by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.  It’s a remarkable coincidence, because the description of the property’s provenance says that George R. Stewart once owned the house, and that STORM was written there.  That’s almost certainly Lore; but since it’s connected to STORM, it may have some truth to it. So as a Holmes or Watson of things Stewartian, I must take the case on.


2706 Virginia Street, Berkeley, from the entrance pathway                                               Photo used by permission of Norah Brower

The source for the story is an article published a few years ago in American Bungalow Magazine, an excellent publication about Arts and Crafts architecture, in Issue 55. The article by John Ribovich  profiles the house and its provenance.  It mentions that GRS wrote STORM in the house.

In 2017, when the article was published, I contacted Mr. Ribovich to find out who his source was for the GRS comment.  During a pleasant conversation he directed me to someone (whose name I’ve since forgotten) who gave him that information.  I contacted that person, we discussed it, and – as I recall – she said she heard the story from a member of the Taylor-Lange Family.

Yesterday, Daniella Thompson, the Website Editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, sent an email which pretty much clears up the mystery about this bit of Lore about the Storm —  and also adds significant information to the GRS story.   She writes “…Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange never owned 2706 Virginia Street. They rented it in 1935 and remained until 1940, when they moved to 1163 Euclid Avenue, which they did own. As for George R. Stewart, he was listed at 2706 Virginia Street in the 1934 city directory, meaning that he lived there before the Taylors.”

campanile at dusk

Campanile, University of California, Berkeley, and Bay Area from 2706 Virginia Street.     Photo used by permission of Norah Brower


Daniella Thompson’s information helps everything fall into place.

The Stewarts rented 2706 Virginia for less than a year.  Daughter Jill recalled the “House on Virginia Street”  as the place of some trauma:

…Jill Stewart was old enough to remember life in “the house at the top of  Virginia Street” as particularly unsettling. One day she heard “a terrifying  noise” from the flats of Berkeley—a house leaking natural gas had blown up.  Not long after, she heard a crash near the Stewart home and ran out to see a car teetering over the drop-off at the edge of the street. The passengers were sitting in the car, afraid to move. The car was eventually righted without injury to its passengers, but for a long time Jill was afraid to travel in cars. Jill’s third memory of the house was the most traumatic: she fell through a glass door.  She still carries a small facial scar from the fall. ..

Thanks to Daniella Thompson, we know now that the “house at the top of Virginia Street” is the legendary 2706 Virginia.  (It is a remarkable house, by the way, now for sale.)

In 1934, the Stewarts moved to the first house they could afford to buy, nearby in the Berkeley Hills.  Since the Stewarts knew the Taylors, Thompson’s guess is that George (or Ted) Stewart told them the house on Virginia Street was available for rental and Taylor and Lange moved in.

But was STORM written there?

Stewart was researching the book in the winter of 1940-41.  We know that because Ted Stewart told a story about GRS’s ride on a steam engine’s cowcatcher over Donner Summit in a major winter Sierra storm to get a sense of the storm, which is included in the biography:

Years later, Ted remembered how much she worried over the chances George took to do his research. To get the feeling of a Sierra storm, for example, he rode a locomotive cowcatcher through a snow flurry to the top of Donner Pass. Ted, who had driven to the Pass to meet him, found him almost frozen.  

STORM was published in late 1941.  During the time of research and writing the Stewarts were living in the house they had owned for several years, so the novel wouldn’t have been written on Virginia Street. The Stewarts had been long gone from the house on Virginia Street when STORM was being written.

To verify that, I asked Jack Stewart if he remembered his father writing at their friends’ house.  “No, I don’t.  And I don’t think he would do that.  It’s not like my father.”

Since GRS had an excellent “monk’s cell” in their house which was filled with resources a writer needs and the volumes of research material he needed while writing the novel Jack’s expert intuition was certainly correct.

So:  is there any truth to the story?  Or is it simply STORM  Lore?

Here are some possibilities:

Since the Stewarts and Taylors were friends, we can assume that the Stewarts visited them regularly.  If they visited while GRS was writing his novel, they may well have discussed it and those discussions may have influenced the writing.

There is a possible chance GRS was asked to watch the house for a short time when the Taylors had to leave for a family emergency or vacation. If so, it would be likely that he worked on it while in the house.

Or perhaps the two bits of Data – “The Stewarts lived in this house in the early 1930s; and, his friends Taylor and Lange lived here while GRS was writing STORM, ” mingled and were transmuted into Lore:  “George R. Stewart wrote STORM in this house.”

We’ll never know.  But this is the type of interesting scholarly mystery that needs to be investigated as far as we can go with it if our books are to be true, believable, and interesting.

Thanks to Bookman Roger and Daniella Thompson, we know now much more about the lives of GRS and his family than when the biography was written.  I find it of great interest to know the Stewarts lived in that exceptional, iconic house on Virginia Street just as GRS was beginning to change the world’s vision of human-Earth relationships; and that the remarkable Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor moved into the house when the Stewarts left.

Many of you may not know Lange and Taylor, but they were perfect friends for the Stewarts, and like GRS worked to change the world.  Lange immortalized the common folk of the time, creating one of the greatest and best-known photographic portraits  of the era;  Taylor, like GRS, a professor at UC Berkeley, integrated social concerns of workers and other common people with photography, and hired Lange to take the photos (then married her); GRS was a great admirer of the uncommon common people that the Taylors worked, and used similar characters in his novels.

The friendship of the Lange and Taylor, and the Stewarts, and their sequential sharing of that house is worth a book in itself. In fact, I believe the house is worthy of National Historic Landmark status.

At least the mystery has been more or less cleared up, and we can turn our gleanings over to future scholars.

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, once a resident of the House on Upper Virginia Street.


stewart.1-2021 STORM cover

George R. Stewart’s STORM is getting stop-the-presses-treament.

This month, the New York Review of Books Press is re-publishing Stewart’s classic novel – the first ecological novel – and offering it as the August selection for those in the NYRB Classics Book Club.  It’s available for purchase from their site (or your local bookseller). 

The book has a new introduction, written by novelist and historian Nathaniel Rich.  Rich joins a small, distinguished company of those who’ve written introductions for earlier editions of the novel – Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner and Ernest Callenbach

It is as timely a read as Stewart’s FIRE, profiled here recently.  Already, flash flood warnings are going up in areas still burning as recent rains rush over the now-burned-bare ground.  Those dangerous conditions will continue for some time, until new ground cover and trees grow large enough to slow the speed of rain water hitting the ground.  So mudslides, floods, avalanches, and debris flows will be the norm in those areas. 

Stewart’s book, his first ecological novel – in fact THE first ecological novel –  is the autobiography of a massive winter storm that sweeps across the central section of California, bringing floods, blizzards, massive banks of snow in the mountains – and death.  As in FIRE, GRS writes in the best STEAM manner – weaving science, technology, engineering, art, and math together in a compelling manner to create a book which is still a page-turner, and still accurate, even after the 80 years since it was published.  He is so successful that the book can be found on sites or in other books about weather science, literature, or history.  It is a true interdisciplinary work. 

Stewart’s novel was a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, read by millions, It was referenced in literature (James Jones “Some Came Running”) and the movies (Disney filmed a version for his TV show which had about 35,000,000 viewers per week). In addition to giving readers a fine literary adventure, it educated them.  Anyone who reads the book learns the details as well as the drama and sacrifices of humans in the vast community we share, to keep the roads open, the towns dry, the airplanes or trains safe and running, the phone lines connected. 

Stewart teaches readers about the incredible web of life all lifeforms share on this Earth.  He also ntroduces  the science and the vision of ecology.  Beginning with STORM and continuing with FIRE, EARTH ABIDES, and SHEEP ROCK, he would give tens of millions – or maybe hundreds of millions – an eco-epiphany, and teach them the knowledge that underlies it. 

By 1948, in a reply to a publicist, Stewart realized,  or at least admitted, what he was doing:  he wrote that he was “might be called an ecologist.”

One of the results of STORM probably came from a decision to distribute a portable pocket version to US soldiers during WW II.  At least GRS thought so.  He assumed thousands of troops read the novel.  When they returned to peacetime America,some of them became meteorologists, and they thought Stewart’s idea to name his storm made sense.

There are human characters; but most  are unnamed, only known by the titles Stewart gives them:  The Young Meteorologist, The Pilot, The General.  The primary name is reserved for the storm itself:  Maria (“pronounced in the old-fashioned way” as Mariah).  The result, which has spread around Earth, is that storms are now named. 

Few people today alive know Stewart’s work  (although that is changing) but almost everyone knows we name the storms.  And most of us know that the wind is named Mariah.

Storm with dj, military

“She was a wild Woman On The Loose!”  The military version with tantalizing cover art.  What young soldier could resist?

rare army storm

A more sedate version that could be taken home to share with the folks

(Much harder to find now!)

Stewart’s novel also shaped the life of a young Californian who would become a pioneer of the Space Age.  James D. Burke spent some of his formative years living with his family in a cabin near Big Bear Lake in the Transverse Ranges of Southern California.  While there, he read STORM.  Stewart’s ability to teach another lesson – about how humans work together to solve problems or explore new worlds – led Dr. Burke to NASA_JPL.  There, he became the first program manager for the Ranger program, then worked on many other projects as well. And he gained another distinction which GRS, place name expert that he was,  would have found most satisfactory – Dr. Burke has an asteroid named for him: 4874 Burke

STORM is still a wonderful read, teaches the reader about ecology using the techniques of STEAM, and as the book gives us the practice of naming storms is well worth a read.  The NYRB re-issues of Stewart’s novels have excellent introductions and are bound ruggedly.  I’m anxious to read the new Introduction by Rich.  And, although I have many editions of the novel in my collection this edition’s rugged cover will make it perfect to carry in the Toyota Chinook micro-camper for camp reading.

Highly recommended to all.



It is the Season of Fire

Just now, the huge Dixie Fire is burning through the up-and-down country south and west of Lassen Volcanic National Park.  The Bootleg Fire is creating its own weather in Southern Oregon.  Lightening has sparked several new fires in California and Oregon.  British Columbia is burning, and one town has disappeared from the Earth. Fire season still has months to go.  It’s a good time to write about George R. Stewart’s classic novel about fire, humans, and fire ecology:  FIRE.

fire first cover

Available in many editions.  This is the dust jacket-wrapped first edition of 1949

 The novel is a “biography” of an ecological character – a fire named “Spitcat.” 

There are also other characters, human and non-human, who bring drama into the 11-day life of the fire.  Judith Godoy is a young woman working a summer as a watcher in a mountain fire lookout tower.  Dave Halliday is a meteorologist. (There is a secret about these two characters, which Stewart fans who’ve read his other novels will easily discover; so it’s good to see them meet here.) The Supervising Ranger – whose name is “Ranger” – is a new type of US Forest employee, college-educated and ecological in his thinking.  Bart is the old-style Ranger educated in the way Thomas Jefferson described Meriwether Lewis:“…He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here…”  Bart loves the forest, especially a retreat he’s named the Glen. 

As always in a Stewart ecological novel  a major character is the land itself:  in this case the Forest. 

Stewart generally preferred to use real places, sometimes lightly fictionalized, as the settings for his eco-works – US 40 and Donner Summit in STORM, the Berkeley Hills in EARTH ABIDES, for example.  But here he creates a fictional forest, the Ponderosa, so brilliantly and thoroughly described that for years tourists drove north from the Tahoe National Forest looking for the Ponderosa National Forest.

One reason the Ponderosa is so realistic is that GRS used experts to help “design” it and visualize it.  His son Jack, who was studying to be a geologist, helped with the lay of the land, using nearby landforms as models.  Once the landscape was fully developed, GRS asked a Berkeley colleague, the distinguished painter David Park, to create a model of the landscape, and paint it.  Then, as always, GRS added appropriate names to the landforms. 

Stewart believed the most enduring human connection with the Earth’s geography was with its place-names. In both STORM and FIRE, Stewart inserted what might be called “landform litanies” to his work.  STORM has several – litanies of “the cities of the plain,” of the Sierra Peaks, of the Points and headlands and their lighthouses.  In FIRE, he includes a litany of the creeks and rivers.  In this case they’re all fictional but several are named for people he wished to honor, like “Hart” or “Jack” or “Potter.”  

Stewart also went into the event to fully research it and understand a wildfire and the relationship with the humans involved, either as fire fighters, residents, or victims.  He went missing for a time which worried the Fire Bosses for a while, until he wandered in and reassured them that he’d been on the front lines observing the fire.  In another incident, he slipped while trying to jump a muddy creek and so missed a burning widow-maker that dropped on the trail where he would have been if he’d not slipped.

As usual, Stewart was a brilliant prophet, and there are many similarities between the Spitcat Fire and current wildfires.  For one thing, as happened on the recent Tamarack Fire, fire crews believed that this one had been extinguished.  But it flared up like the Tamarack to demand massive increases in equipment and fire fighters. For another, the underfunding of the Forest Service meant that a critical bit of fire prevention infrastructure, a lookout tower and access road in an important part of the forest, was not built because funding was denied. 

In STORM and FIRE GRS uses technique that might be called “STEAM writing.”  That is, like a modern person wandering the Web in order to understand all dimensions of an event, he beautifully integrates , science, technology,  art, engineering, and the mathematics of fire and fire-fighting in an extraordinary way.  When a reader is finished with the novel he or she have a “Whole Earth” understanding of the ecological event and its human dimensions.

Stewart’s ecological perspective comes through most completely in two passages.  The first is a conversation on horseback between the Supervising Ranger, a college-educated man, and the old, school-of-the-forest Ranger Bart.  They have ridden a muddy trail seeking to discover where the fire began and what started it. Bart is mourning the loss of his beloved forest and the Super tries to encourage him:

“Don’t take it too hard, Bart.  It’s just part of the way things are!”…

“Yes,” the Supervisor went on, “where there are pine trees, there’s also going to be fire, because if there’s no dry season, you’ll have a hardwood forest.  You might say if there weren’t fires, there wouldn’t be pines.”

“I’m thinking of some of the places I used to like to go.”

“It’s hard to tell about it all, Bart.  The way a rabbit thinks, a brush-field must be the Garden of Eden, compared to a pine forest.  In nature–whatever that means–a raw gullied canyon-side may be just as good as a fine slope of trees. The difference is in our minds.

“That’s a big difference to me,” said Bart. 

(That debate goes on even today, as armchair quarterbacks who mostly have NO experience with wildfire, criticize the wildland firefighting heroes – and probably oppose any more spending for the public lands agencies.) 

The other ecological wisdom is in the last sentence in the book.  You’ll need to read FIRE to learn what GRS writes there.

FIRE was a best-seller, Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was filmed twice.  Once by Paramount, so changed that it has little to do with Stewart’s fine novel.  The second time, in a low-budget manner for television by Walt Disney, with the ecological message intact.  That second version was seen by millions, helping to educate them about fire and fire ecology.


This book is highly recommended – especially now, in our season of fire.