One of the reasons George R. Stewart has such a wide range of fans is that he wrote on a wide range of subjects – sometimes inventing a type of literature in order to do so. For those interested in California or Western history, Stewart wrote Ordeal By Hunger, The California Trail, and the novel East of the Giants. For readers interested in Western authors he wrote Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile and John Phoenix Esq., The Veritable Squibob: A Life Of Captain George H. Derby, U.s.a. For the lovers of the land, and the ecosystem, the novels Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock. He invented the microhistory to write a history of the day of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. No history of national place-naming had ever been written so he created that literature with Names On The Land. And for those who love roads and highways, he invented the odology – road study – book with
and the two volume NA 1:
(Odology, by the way, probably derives from Hodology, the study of paths.)
Thus, Stewart’s fans come to his work through the many doors of his different books. Authors Christopher Priest and James Sallis from Earth Abides, Ivan Doig from Names on the Land, William Least Heat Moon from the same book and U. S. 40. Composer Philip Aaberg from Earth Abides. And, for today’s post, Fred Cain.
Fred Cain is interested in historic highways, especially Route 66, so it is likely that he “met” Stewart through U.S. 40. Here’s is a message from Fred which, like the posts by John Lucia about the Caldor Fire, show how reading the work of GRS gives a new dimension to understanding what we do.
Dear Mr. Scott,
I have to confess that I have never read Earth Abides. However, during Christmas vacation, I reread your biography or GRS again and decided to obtain a copy of the book. So, when I returned to work, I ordered a copy on Amazon.
As a lifelong Stewart fan, I’m sure I’ll like it.
As a kid, I had my own “Earth Abides” moment. Allow me to explain.
In 1962, when I was just 10 years old, my family and I undertook a coast-to-coast trip on U.S. 40. Then three years later, we went back over the Route in the opposite direction but only as far as St. Louis.
It was an experience that I never forgot. I became a young U.S. 40 fan. I couldn’t stop talking about Route 40 in school and my classmates began to grow weary of hearing me talk about it.
Well, one fine day I happened to be in the library and just for kicks, decided to look up “U.S. 40” in the subject card catalog. (I really show my age with that statement. That was back when there were still card catalogs).
My eyes just about popped out of my head. There it was! “U.S. 40; A Cross Section of the United States of America.”
I was absolutely ecstatic! I checked the book out and took it home to show Mom. Mother was an English major who had graduated from Berkeley. She was just as astounded at my find as I was but for different reasons. Stewart, you see, had been one of Mom’s professors. So, there you have it. I feel like I have at least an indirect connection to GRS through my mother.
I always wished that I could’ve been fortunate enough to have met the man. Although I am not a writer, I have always felt as though Stewart and I had similar interests, nature, wilderness, forestry, weather and transportation and communication systems. So, I feel like there is an invisible connection there.
Later, I also read Fire and Storm. (I’ve read Storm three times). So now I, too, will finally get to Earth Abides. Better late than never. I’m sure it’ll be a good read.
Fred M. Cain,
Here’s another post from Fred, longer, inspired by John Lucia’s posts on the Caldor Fire. It is a good example of how reading Stewart can put something like a huge forest fire – or climate change – into a new perspective.
I’d like to share some thoughts about the Caldor fire and these big, mega fires in general. I’ve been thinking about this now for some time.
We have been told over and over that these terrible fires are the direct result of climate change. That is a very logical conclusion to draw, however that scenario has never actually been proven. The droughts in the West might be caused by climate change or perhaps something else or perhaps even climate change combined with other factors.
It’s possible that the West goes through some kind of long-range, wet-dry cycle with or without anthropogenic-induced climate change. George R. Stewart alluded to this in “Fire”. He suggested that much of California’s forests had evolved in an era where California was wetter.
“Indeed, some said pessimistically that the forests of California had established themselves in some wetter cycle of centuries and that brush, once rooted, would remain until some wetter cycle returned”. – George R. Stewart from “Fire”.
However, another contributing factor to these big fires has to do with the total exclusion of fire from the natural environment. Before European settlers arrived on the scene, lightning-induced ground fires would go through the forests every few years, reduce the fuel loads and expose mineral soil that’s beneficial to new seedlings.
Pine trees, especially ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, are very fire tolerant and fire adapted. The lingering residue from turpentine and other related volatile hydrocarbons in dead pine needles and twigs allows them to burn when they are damp. The result is what we might call a “cool” fire that spreads across the forest floor doing little or no damage to the established pines but kills young hardwood saplings that would otherwise compete with the pines.
GRS was well aware of this. In the novel “Fire”, The Supervisor felt sorry for Bart because he took the Spitcat Fire so hard and told him, “…where there are pine trees, there’s fire, because if there’s no dry season, you’ll have a hardwood forest. You might say if there weren’t fire, there wouldn’t be pines”. – GRS from “Fire”
The human-caused, unnatural exclusion of fire during the 20th Century allowed the forests to grow very thick. So thick, in fact, that in a dry year there is simply insufficient moisture to support that kind of dense growth.
If you can, try and look at this Google Earth “Street View” near Grizzly Flats before the fire:
Some of that stuff is so dense that it’s what’s called in some circles a “dog hair thicket”. I read online somewhere where much of the forest in the Caldor Fire had not burned since the 1930s – nor had any thinning taken place.
Complicating the issue still further is the fact that in the past, bad logging practices and general forest mismanagement have also come into play.
“The western forests were no longer primeval woodlands of big trees through which a fire could sweep and do little damage. On the contrary, because of logging and man-caused fires, the forest consisted mostly of thick and highly inflammable second-growth, made all the worse by slash piles and brush fields”. – GRS from “Earth Abides”.
But there is yet another factor in these large fires. Congress has for years kept the U.S. Forest Service on a very tight, nearly starvation budget. There is simply insufficient staff to jump on and stamp out a small fire when a “red flag day” is in the forecast.
For example, crews were stretched so thin fighting the massive Dixie Fire that they allowed the Tamarack Fire to go since it was burning in a highly inaccessible area anyways. Well, it exploded and burned 68,637 acres before it was finally contained.
I don’t know, but that might also be the case with the Caldor Fire. Perhaps they could’ve jumped on it and contained it the first day *IF* they’d had the personnel.
Although the situation appears both bleak and depressing, there is hope and cause for some GRS-style optimism. I can share a personal experience I had.
When we moved to our seven-acre lot in Indiana back in 1990, there were NO trees nearby. I mean none! The wind whipping our house was so bad that one day it just about ripped my screen door off. I resolved to do something about this.
So, I planted evergreens around our house. White pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, white fir and spruce. Some of the seedlings I planted were no more than two inches tall. My father looked at them in amazement and remarked, “Oh my! Those ARE tiny! You must be quite an optimist!”
Well, at 20 years, they were as high as our two-story house! Now at 30 years they are much higher than the house. Indeed, I unfortunately had to have some removed because I was afraid they might fall ON the house.
My point is, that these trees, once they get a good start, actually grow faster than a lot of people assume. You hear remarks like, “After the The Fire, things will NEVER look the same again.” Or, “It’ll take centuries”, etc.
Well, 30 years after the fire it might not look exactly like it did before the fire, but once those seedlings get started and begin reaching for the sky, it will look somewhat like a forest again. In 50-60 years, perhaps, only a trained forester will recognize that there had been an old fire there.
In 2002 the 468,638-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire destroyed much of the ponderosa pine forest along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Now today, much of that forest is regenerating nicely. Does it look like it did before the fire? No. But much of area is starting to look rather nice again.
Google Earth “Street View” showing pinus ponderosa regenerating near Arizona’s Mogollon Rim:
Mother Nature has a powerful ability to heal herself and to heal her forests quite possibly even in spite of climate change. “Moist and clean, the northwest wind from the ocean blew steadily across the long ridges, and from high-swinging cones, opened by the fiery heat, the winged seeds drifted downward to the earth”. – GRS concluding sentence from “Fire”.
Thank you, Professor Stewart, for writing “Fire”, “Storm” and “Earth Abides”.
Times will change and new problems and crises will come to pass, “but Earth Abides”.
Fred M. Cain,
George R. Stewart’s most powerful literary symbol is the Hammer of Ish – Ish’s hammer in Earth Abides. It symbolizes all of human technology and the civilization it produces. Stewart in fact used that hammer – which, like Ish, he found in the American River Canyon – in building projects around his home.
Stewart’s real hammers were his books – the tools he, great teacher that he was, used to teach Fred Cain; and James Sallis, Walt Disney, Theodore Steinway, Ivan Doig, NASA’s Dr. James D. Burke, and innumerable others about history, ecology, place names, highways, and so on. Clearly George R. Stewart’s tools influenced Fred Cain – as they have influenced many others – including me.