Ranger Bob Valen on George R. Stewart’s Ecological Novels Storm and Fire

A few years ago I published a post here about one of San Francisco’s fine old used bookstores,  Holmes Books .  Last week, Bob Valen sent me a copy of his latest weather column and it brought back many memories of the days he and I spent browsing Holmes Books.

Bob and I met at Thornton State Beach near San Francisco in the early 1970’s. He was majoring in Geography at San Francisco State and working the Striped Bass tag survey during summers.  I’d graduated from State, taught for a while, and then found myself working several months each year as a “SPRINT” – a State Park Ranger Permanent Intermittent.

Bob and I were later able to say that we’d worked in the then-planned Golden Gate National Recreation Area before it opened.  After the GGNRA opened and Bob graduated, he went to work for the National Park Service as a Ranger/Naturalist.  He married another Ranger when they both worked at Cabrillo National Monument; they had shared careers all over the west.  He retired a few years ago, his wife Janet just retired.

While Bob and I worked together, I made the startling discovery that George R. Stewart, who had pointed me down the trail toward Rangering years earlier, was (with his wife Theodosia and often his family) a regular Thornton visitor.  So we got to know the Stewarts well.

On days off, Bob and I would search used book stores for first editions of Storm and Fire, and Stewart’s other works – a leisure activity that led to (in my case at least) a large Stewart collection.

Eventually, Bob and I went on to our different life paths.  But we always kept those Thornton State Beach days – our George R. Stewart Days  – in warm spots of our hearts.  And when our paths crossed again, we’d often chew over the memories of that extraordinary place and those days. stewart.1-2021 STORM cover When you read the just-released New York Review of Books Press edition of Storm that Bob mentions in his column, note how beautifully Nathaniel Rich brings his Introduction to a close at Thornton State Beach.

Here’s Bob’s column.

Storm and Fire

 By Bob Valen

 Together we have experienced another meteorological threshold and we are now in autumn. Temperatures are falling and many of us are breathing a slight sigh of relief. Wildfire smoke as dissipated yet, we are still in drought. Nationally, our region is in the sixth percentile of Exceptional Drought, also known as “D4”. Areas to our south are still burning. The largest wildfire still active is the Dixie Fire in Northern California at well over 900,000 acres. Here in Washington state, the Schneider Springs Fire near Yakama is 106,000 acres.


The El Nino–Southern Oscillation (ENSO),  the varying temperature phenomena of the Tropical Pacific Ocean, the El Nino/La Nina system, is emerging into La Nina again. This system affects much of our global climate. Climatologists watch this system carefully. Up-to-date measurements are pointing at a La Nina event this fall-winter. For the Inland Northwest, our diminutive region of Planet, may see cooler temperatures and more precipitation. Precipitation in the form of winter snow storms – we shall see.  


Considering wildfires and storms, I’m reminded of two books written by the author George R. Stewart. Stewart was born in 1895. He was educated at some of nation’s finest universities. He became a professor of English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He was much more than professor – he was a historian, novelist, toponymist and a founding member of the American Name Society. It was in his later years that I met him and his wife through a good friend – twice in fact. By this time, the early ‘70’s, he had nearly completed his writing. His earliest book in 1930 and the final in 1979. I believe a total of [28] titles.


Storm was first published in 1941 – the year the United States entered World War 2 – a type of global storm created by madmen. Fire came out in 1948 – I was just an infant. Later, as an adult, I would spend 15 years of my career on seasonal duty with western wildfire Incident Command Teams. Storm was recently republished by New York Review Books (New York Review of Books Press) with a forward by Nathaniel Rich.


As you begin this book, consider this, the protagonist isn’t a person. The protagonist is a storm – a thing of immense air and water vapor affected and sculpted by atmospheric pressure, topography and the jet stream. The people in (the) book are like us. When we find ourselves in an event that is utterly and absolutely out of our control, we hunker down. We tolerate what occurs all around us; we cannot change it. Part of our lives is shaped in those hours. All the while we hope to pull through without harm to us or others.   


In Storm, a name appears, Maria. It is the storm’s name. Stewart and his novel Storm are credited as (providing) the motivation for naming storms. The United States officially started the practice in 1953.


Stewart’s Fire captures early fall conditions of a Sierra Nevada forest and the ultimate aftermath of a lightning storm. Our protagonist, once again, is a thing, a thing of heat, fuel and air. Yes, the fire has a name – Spitcat. The people in the story, rangers, smoke jumpers, fire lookouts – reflect the era this novel was written. It’s post World War 2. Stewart captures the essence of a California forest. Though the name of the forest is fictional, the nature of a living forest is real. The trees, the animals, living separately from each other yet, all are truly interconnected and are part of a larger, organic, functioning ecological system. In his research for Fire, Stewart actually spent time with the Forest Service fighting fire.


I encourage our local Friends of the Library to add the above titles that Stewart wrote as well. …….


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