About rangerdon

Teacher, photographer, Ranger, writer. Author, THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART. Father, grandfather. Wanderer

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. …….

 

After the Caldor Fire – Thoughts From A Volunteer Ranger

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In Fire, George R. Stewart closes his pioneering and page-turning novel with optimism.  The last sentence in the book beautifully describes the serotinous pines – which only set seeds after a hot fire melts the resin holding the cones closed – and the gentle floating to the ground of the coated seeds thus released – seeds which sit in the nutritious ash from the fires until the heat of a future fire melts the coating so the seeds can germinate. 

Here’s another version of events post-fire. 

John Lucia, GRS follower, has finished his Volunteer Ranger work on the Caldor Fire at Kyburz in the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of Echo Summit,. .  Here is his final report to date, which includes lessons from the experience. 

Sunday, September 9, 2021 – The Volunteer Ranger’s Final Report on the Caldor Fire

A welcome rain, early this morning.  The air is clean and for the most part, the fire has burned around and not through Kyburz.  Three weeks ago, a small burn near Caldor (from the abbreviation, California Door) has now become almost 200,000 acres.  Six times the area of the county of San Francisco.  It will continue to expand, I am told, for at least another month.   Resin-loaded stumps will burn for weeks.   What was green and pleasing to the eye, will appear as sepia in an old photo.  The forest is exactly the same size and shape, but now only brown, dead, brittle and lifeless.  During the three months of winter, most will lose all their needles.  The beautiful gown that once was, will transform from exquisite to skeletal.  Heads will turn wanting to ignore and put out of their brain, what was imprinted for so long, as a way it always would be.  Like something beautiful slowly aging and dying, this is but instantaneous and more lasting.  Restoration of a forest, with good luck, takes 40 years or more. 

Children, family, friends less than a month before came into this cathedral of nature taking it all for granted.  Enjoying the cooling of the shade, the ultra-green hues close and distant, the fragrance of life to be enjoyed with every breath. Now the forest will try to heal itself.   This fire fortunately was mostly slow and was not too hot around Kyburz. Soon, the north facing slopes will show the first indication of life.  Countless evergreen and deciduous trees, millions of seed laden plants and flowers sprouting in the warmth of next spring.  Fighting to survive all competing for the one required resource, water. 

If God is kind, the winter will be hard, the snows heavy, the road closed more than usual, the spring late, dogwoods flowering into June.  Maybe even remnant snowbanks over the summit on the three days associated with labor.  Nature fighting to keep us all out as long, as possible.  Allowing us back only when the days are long.  Telling us it needs to be alone.  It needs to heal.  Wounding nature was easy.  It was always vulnerable, it was always there for you, just as you assumed it would be.  We say how much we enjoy our wooded surroundings, but we became complacent, lazy, and failed to protect.  As in any relationship, words are fine, but they alone cannot prove fidelity.  It matters not what you think or feel, actions always speak loudest. You cannot possibly love this land if you don’t at least notice it fighting to survive.

If our forests could speak, it might say, “your abusive, selfish desires may seal my fate”. Thousands of Keep Tahoe Blue stickers, on countless Tundra’s, Sequoia’s, Yukon’s and Tahoe’s do little to maintain the Azul.  What are we really willing to give up to save our relationship with our only home?  We constantly utter words of admiration, but rarely support them with proper actions.  Do we really love to be in nature?  When did camping become a 24-foot-long house dragged along by an F250 diesel?  How can one honestly justify dish tv on their time of being one with nature?  The guaranteed fact is those days and nights in that carbon heavy assault will be quickly forgotten.  The hot shower, the comfortable bed, 140 channels, the climate/bug control, the aluminum ceiling blocking the stars, the frozen food and ice cream, the real half and half for the Starbuck’s coffee and all that makes us believe we are happy.  There was a time, a few short years ago, when tents were only used in time of rain.  Most campers said, it just wasn’t camping inside a tent, and now those in tent’s are “roughing it”. 

This is just one of several wildfires burning in the Sierra right now.  The Caldor, with 3000 firefighters, at least 1000 direct support members, I guess 700-800 law enforcement officers make up the human component.  I estimate a ton of line lunches and five tons of bottled water every day.  Over 1500 trucks of all shapes and sizes, a few dozen attack planes and helicopters, around 50 earth movers and with all that, the one thing that can never be supplied, is luck.  If all goes well, the winds are normal we could still be wrestling this burn into October.   Today’s fires start in the spring and continue through Halloween.  Success or failure is measured on structure loss.  I will be forever grateful all our neighbor’s homes were saved.  Over 500 families have lost their home, and many will never rebuild.  A house can be replaced in a few months, but how many will have the desire or ability to wait thirty years to experience the same views from their porch and windows? Most forests on the Pacific slope just never fully recover.  I have witnessed four major fires on the 50 Corridor.  Some leave a small scar, but most expose a sterile landscape, even after 50 years.  People are impatient.  We will bring a house to a forest but are not willing or able to wait for the forest to surround the house. 

I don’t know the answer or solution to this problem that affects us all.  I now believe slow moving, control burns done in late fall or early winter may be one of the only ways to bring our forest closer to a natural cycle.  Are we, as a society, capable of budgeting more dollars to action than reaction?

We live in the new age.  The age of the super fire.  Like it or not, we are forced to deal with it.

 

 

A Major George R. Stewart Anniversary is Soon Upon Us

EA Morleys

In early October, 1949, Random House published the First Edition, First Printing of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Since that day, October 7, 1949, Stewart’s novel has never been out of print, and the impact of the work on society and culture has been substantial. See this article for a summary of the book, its themes, and its influence.

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Recently republished by Mariner Books, with a fine new Introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson, the novel continues to inspire its readers with page-turning prose and provocative ideas. If you’ve never read it, this would be a good time – as the nights lengthen and the weather encourages evenings sitting by the fire with a good book at hand – to read the new edition. If you’re a fan of the novel, this would be a good time to read it again, seated in the easy chair by the fireplace.

Ish's Hammer(1)

Nathaniel Rich and Chris Jennings Discuss George R. Stewart’s STORM

George R. Stewart’s pioneering and prescient writings about humans and the ecosystem are reaching out to a new generation of writers.

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Nathaniel Rich  is the author of several well-received books.  He writes non-fiction books and essays about contemporary environmental issues, like Second Nature and Losing Earth; an intriguing novel set in New Orleans a century ago, King Zeno; the novel Odds Against Tomorrow,  about the possibilities both good and bad of the immediate future.  See the complete list here. ( He’s also written a book I’m anxious to get my hands on:  San Francisco Noir, a description of more than 40 noir films set in San Francisco and  their settings.)

Rich has written a fine new Introduction to the recent New York Review of Books Press edition of Stewart’s pioneering ecological novel Storm.  He closes with a reference to the storm that destroyed the George R. Stewart Trail at Thornton State Beach – a fitting end to the story of GRS and that place on Earth once described as “of small compass and unusual value.”

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Rich’s friend, colleague, and fellow writer, Chris Jennings, has published a history of those American utopian communities that hoped to change society for the better:  Paradise Now:  The Story of American Utopianism.   One of the interesting ideas Jennings explores in the is how the Utopians’ ideas were affected by where they lived  – not unlike Stewart’s idea that “the land is a character in the work.” 

Rich and Jennings recently joined in a web conversation to discuss Stewart’s Storm from the environmentalist viewpoint.  The discussion was sponsored by an excellent local independent bookstore, Point Reyes Books – which as the store’s name indicates is located in the small town of Point Reyes Station near magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore.

Their excellent discussion, a thorough and wide-ranging description and consideration of the book, lasted for about an hour.  I was especially happy to note how the novel and the ideas of Stewart’s it contains had come almost as a revelation to Rich and Jennings, members of a new generation of  ecosystem warriors.  The book was teaching them – as it taught so many of us in the mid-twentieth century.

Watch the discussion here.  (If you haven’t yet read the book please be aware that there are a few spoilers in the talk.)

Afterwards, I suggest that you read or re-read Stewart’s page-turner of a novel, which is a mind-enriching, pioneering book.  It is the first ecological novel and the book from which we get the practice of naming storms.  For those of you who live in the central swath of California where the storm takes place, it will help you prepare mentally for the storms sure to come this winter. If you live elsewhere, the novel’s global vision will teach you how weather ties all of us together, and ties everything in the ecosystem into one web of life, land, air and water.

 

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If you decide to purchase (the reasonably priced) Storm or one of the books by the speakers you may want to do so through Point Reyes Books, as a thanks for sponsoring the talk.

A  George R. Stewart-inspired Perspective on Fire, From the Front Line

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John and Angela Lucia have Ranger backgrounds and a GRS connection.  Both those things were revealed when John went into the Caldor Fire as a Fire Volunteer, providing courageous support in Kyburz, on US 50, with Angela offering critical home base support by forwarding his messages and providing R & R – including excellent meals – when he was finally able to take a break last weekend.

John and I met at Thornton State Beach on my first day as a Ranger, .   We met Angela when we all worked at Half Moon Bay State Beach near Angela’s  family home.  Over the years we’ve shared many meals and many tales of adventure. John’s tales of the Caldor fire are especially gripping, worthy of inclusion in a library like the Bancroft.

I’m including three of his posts, and a link to a news story about John.  The first post is John’s general report (forwarded by Angela) about his efforts in the fire.  The second contains his reflections on the fire from the viewpoint of someone well versed in  the novels of George R. Stewart – as if John had stepped into Fire and Earth Abides for a time.  The third is joyful – as a friendly rain falls from Carson City Nevada to Half Moon Bay, and over the Caldor Fire!

John and Angela and I have gone on to different careers; but as the story shows we’re always Rangers, and always thinking in the ecological way that George R. Stewart taught us.

1

CALDOR FIRE

John Lucia

Mostly this is to all our neighbors who have friends and family along the highway 50 corridor between Riverton and Tract 35, but I encourage the rest of you to want to read along. The Wednesday before last (8/25) I was called out to repair and operate the DB4 drafting pumps near station 16 in Kyburz. Arriving just before the fire hit, and only able to return late last night when the electric power was restored to the area. Station 16 is the only high-volume water source between Fresh Pond and Camp Sacramento. I can tell you many stories of the last 10 days, but the fact is the fire crews did a great job! They all work shifts that exceeded 25 hours, travel up to 45 minutes to their hotel, clean up, eat, rest and to return an hour or so before their shift begins. They receive a briefing, do another 25 hours and repeat. It is grueling! This is a job for the young, District chiefs that I saw, were in their early fifties or younger. The firefighters were all younger than my two sons, and I met over hundreds of them. They were friendly and were always concerned about my well-being always asking if I needed anything. Water, food, masks, etc. “I love those line lunches”!  As I filled their tanker, they would tell me about their families, how they long they have been away, and the towns they come from. Yreka, Humboldt to Murietta, Encinitas, Oak Harbor, Washington and Yuma Arizona. And even Sky Walker Ranch for you Star Wars fans. If you have a cabin in the area of Riverton and Milestone 35 I can tell you first hand it is exactly as you remember it. As I was able to view them personally. Most of this area shows very little fire damage. There was a very well-orchestrated down burn on the south side of the American River which was still consuming ground fuel as I drove through late last night. During the fire, there was either an engine with four fire fighters posted in front of your home or in front of your next door neighbor. Hose upon hose stretched in every direction anticipating the approaching inferno. They stayed, stood their ground and not a single structure was lost, period. All night and day you could hear them shouting, chain saws whining, and burnt trees falling to the ground. For those of you in Sacramento that think that AQI index of 120 was high, it was well over 500, days on end. Visibility at best was 500 – 800 ft max. At the end of their 24-hour shift, they would convoy down HWY 50 in their dirty tired engines. Most of them waving as they passed the drafting station. The lucky crews would be returning to their families after some of them being away for weeks. The point and the fact that I want to make is when you make your home or cabin a defensible space, you are proving to the firefighters that you care about their safety which ensures that they will even fight harder to protect your home. It would be very easy to go on but in closing I would say, it was an honor to work with and meet all these young heroes.

Sincerely,

John Lucia

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2.  The Caldor fire has been burning now for 4 weeks and seems as it may finally be slowing down. For the first three weeks I felt as I was living and breathing “Fire” there was a constant pressure, with a foreboding sense of the unknown .  Everyone was vital and we all had our place in this battle, those going without nearly enough rest to the front lines and those returning dirty and exhausted. I was fortunately in a very safe place able to aid but more importantly from my standpoint  able to observe. Making a point to speak to as many firefighters as possible and engaging  them in conversation of things other than what was on everyone’s  mind. After asking about their families the one question I ask most of these guys was “have you read Fire?”  You both would be impressed how many responded with a yes!  They agreed it was the best account of the real thing  they had read;  I told the ones that hadn’t it was a must read.

The fire passed has through here now, the pumps have been shut down for almost a week ,the hundreds of hoses laid out everywhere have been collected and most all resources are in the Tahoe basin. For the last few days it feels a little bit like Earth Abides, there is heavy traffic for a couple of hours in the early morning due to the shift change and then a quiet which I have never experienced here before, highway 50 is  almost deserted, all of the homes in Silverfork and Kyburz are vacant, the water lines are empty and the electric is on although most everyone evacuated during the day so hardly any lights are on, at night there is darkness were there was previously lights . I can not recall ever see so much wildlife, in just these few short days there seems to be a lot more activity on the ground and in the air close to the houses, also bird species I hadn’t made note of ,maybe with no one here there is less to fear. Because it has been three days since I spoke with anyone face to face I think I have a small window as to what Ish must have sensed, although unlike Ish I am pretty much staying in one place and he traveled about. I know I am living a capsule version only, but that is still more than I ever thought possible.

As  sidenote Earth Abides was published the year I was born and the house we live in here in Kyburz was built by a Stewart ,Bernie Stewart. Our complete Stewart  library, thanks almost entirely to Don Scott, is normally housed here but when we were evacuated we brought down to Sacramento for safe keeping.  I am looking forward to those days in the near future and  beyond with the sound of children on vacation, and friends and family relaxing take center stage. A time when we all get to enjoy Angela’s wonderful cooking!

Sincerely John

9-10-21:

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3.  Good morning     Big news is it rained early this morning. A little after midnight I awoke to very load thunder claps sans lightning, a few minutes later a gentle rain started to fall.  To my surprise  within a few minutes my sinus was irritated and my eyes started to water.  I believe the accumulation of ash everywhere, especially on the roof in this case was the culprit . this morning visibility is very good   and the AQI is 39  but it is still difficult to breath , I believe we are experiencing a form of acid rain . It is now 10 am and the air quality  has improved only slightly .

  This morning saw fewer engines and law enforcement.     Groups of PG&E equipment were headed east early  this morning, yesterday afternoon I noted PG&E dump trucks coming down filled with burnt transformers wire etc. restoration of power on top is a priority.

 . I am curious about the effect of the rain on the hot spots and how that will affect the opening of the road which for 20 out of 24 hours is deserted .

John

Here’s a link to Channel 13’s interview with John, in Kyburz. (It is copyrighted; used here under Fair Use Law)

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.

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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.”

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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.

After FIRE, STORM

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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.

 

A quick Post about Dutch Flat

Deborah Bruce, whose parents were introduced to each other by George and Ted Stewart, has fond memories of the Stewarts.  The Stewart family had a cabin in Dutch Flat, the old gold mining town in the western Sierra Nevada foothills on historic US 40.  The family, and friends like Deborah Bruce’s Dad when he was a boy, loved their visits to the cabin.  It was also a perfect spot for GRS, because he was working on his classic book about the Donner Party, Ordeal By Hunger, and he could easily explore portions of the Donner Trail from the cabin.  The location of what GRS  called his “scholar’s tent” is still visible near the cabin.

At the request of Deborah Bruce, I’ll post a photo of the cabin taken in the days of the Stewarts’ residence.  May you all enjoy this.

Dutch Flat

From the Anna Evenson Stewart Family Photo Collection.  Used with permission.

The cabin is still there, now owned by the family of one of Stewart’s students.

If you’ve not yet read Ordeal By Hunger, it is highly recommended. Many editions are available, most of them used, some collectible, on the ABE site, Amazon, or others. Always try your local bookstore first!

Earth Day and the author of Earth Abides

Forty years before the first Earth Day, George R. Stewart saw his greatest novel published. Like any powerful classic, the novel goes on and on, helping its readers deal with one of the greatest changes in vision of the last 100 years – the Earth-centered environmental view of things.  Readers of the novel receive an education in practical ecology, often without realizing they’re getting educated, since the work is so masterfully written. 

Stewart knew what he was doing, though.  As he was working on Earth Abides, he defined himself as “what might be called an ecologist” in a letter to a publisher. 

The novel has just been reprinted by Mariner Press with an excellent introduction by award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.  Even if you’ve read Stewart’s novel before, it’s worth buying for the introduction – and the price is more than reasonable.

The world moves on – on this Earth Day NASA produced the first oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and flew the extraordinary Ingenuity helicopter for a second time on Mars – higher, and farther.  All of this so that when humans leave our ecosystem to explore other worlds’ ecosystems, we will be prepared. 

And thanks to Stewart and his great classic, we will go with the Ranger’s ecological view of our new worlds.

Let us now celebrate this exceptional man and his classroom-in-a-novel on this Earth Day 2021.

George R. Stewart listens to a Ranger read from Earth Abides