Of FIRE and Flu

George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character.   Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.

This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease.  There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come.  Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none.   The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee.   Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders.   And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.

Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE.  The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels.  STORM ends with a reference to California history.  FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.

FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest.  Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest.  In the same way, his story is developed.  It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017.  By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science.  And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.

Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.”  It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.

The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today.  When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy,  he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault.  And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.”  Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life.  There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here.  (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)

Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels.  In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho.  In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work.  And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.

EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans.  In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.

Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.  AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims.  But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide.  Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps.  But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape.  GRS got the flu.  He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena.  But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.

Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus.  So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine,  CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus.  Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu.  Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it.  Here’s the link

As Murphy writes,  Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans.  Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.

 

 

 

Maria Returns

For those not familiar with the novels of George R. Stewart, Storm is the well-researched story of a California storm that slams into and across the central transect of the state in one dynamic week.  It was a ground-breaking work, the first fictional work to make the ecosystem a protagonist in human affairs.  Still in print, Storm continues to get good reviews from its readers.

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Cover of the Modern Library Edition

Stewart, who taught English at UC Berkeley, was always deeply interested in geography and its related sciences.  So he used the input from his colleagues in those fields to bring accuracy to the book.

Stewart also did field research – sometimes dangerous research – to get the feeling of a storm.  He traveled with the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans), worked with those who maintained the P.G.&E. dams in the Sierra, and even rode with the California Highway Patrol over the central Sierra Nevada highways.

His wife, Ted,  remembered that on one trip he rode over 7000 foot + Donner Pass, during a major snowstorm, on the cowcatcher at the front of a steam locomotive.  When she picked him up on the other side he was nearly frozen.

Stewart, in writing the book, slowly realized it was a novel about the role of the ecosystem in human affairs.  To make the point, he named few of the human characters.  But he named his storm.

Wildly popular, the novel was distributed to soldiers in World War II.  Those who returned to become meteorologists were so taken with the book, and the idea of naming storms, that they adopted the naming practice, now widespread.  One of the readers, Vic Moitoret, went on to become Chief Areologist (Meteorologist) for the U. S. Navy — later founding the George R. Stewart fan club, and becoming a fine amateur fine quality printer.  (Moitoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, never losing a small book which included a list of his favorite books – first listed was Storm.)

The novel was filmed by Walt Disney for Television in the 1950s.*  So its ecological approach, and the name Stewart gave his storm, became part of the common culture of the time.  Disney even used the name of Stewart’s storm as the title of his film.

And the name?  Maria.  Pronounced, Stewart was careful to point out, “in the old-fashioned way” with a long i:  Mar eye ah.   That, by the way is why the wind is called Maria.

The book is now considered a California Legacy Book.  It’s still a good read, as the reviews reveal.

Stewart’s name has endured, too.  It was used for a 2005 storm, a 2011 storm.  Now it’s the name of a storm heading toward Florida:  This storm is not in the Central Sierra Nevada – although we’re getting a big solstice storm here, which includes tornado warnings.   But in the Caribbean, it’s as powerful as Stewart’s Maria, with Category Five winds.

This would be a good time to give Storm a read; and give a nod of thanks to George R. Stewart, “The Man Who Named The Storms.”

And, as Stewart’s “Young Meteorologist” says, in Storm, “Good luck, Maria!”

*It may be possible soon to view Disney’s “A Storm Called Maria” on Amazon.  That’s assuming this Amazon link goes live.

Carrying the Fire of George R. Stewart. Kaplan and Kehlmann II – The First Publisher

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Born in New York City, and speaking with a distinct accent, Alan Kaplan brought a distinctive character to his work as a Naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks.  Based in Tilden Regional Park, in the hills behind Berkeley, Alan interpreted the history and natural history of the area through guided hikes, school programs, and the preparation of exhibits for many years, until his retirement. He’s also provided leadership in organizations that provide education in interpretation for his fellow naturalists in the west, through his work in the old Western Interpreters Association.     (Note that “interpreter” in the park sense refers to what used to be called “naturalists” – those  people in distinctive uniforms who interpret the advanced concepts of a park’s cultural and natural history into common English for visitors.)

That’s where I first met him.  There,  he played a foundational role in the publication of the George R. Stewart biography.  He was the First Publisher of my writings about GRS.

In 1986, the WIA conference was held in Yosemite National Park.  I presented a talk, “George R. Stewart:  An Author for Interpreters.”  As the the title implies, Stewart’s histories and ecological novels are excellent resources for those interpreting the natural or human history of the West.

I was pleasantly surprised when Alan, then President of WIA, encouraged conference attendees to attend the GRS session.  And even more pleasantly surprised when the session was crammed full of enthusiastic naturalists and interpreters.

As the session ended, Alan, who was in the audience, rose to second my comments about Stewart’s value for interpreters.  He emphasized the power of Stewart’s writing by quoting the closing lines of FIRE.  Doing so, he even educated me – I knew FIRE well, but had never given the ecological power of its closing such careful attention. (FIRE was so well-researched and written that the U.S. Forest Service used it in their training programs for summer fire lookouts.)

Alan asked for an article for the WIA Newsletter, Bayways.  Entitled “The Man Who Named The Wind,” the article was a written summary of the GRS talk.  It was the first publication, for a large audience, of material which would eventually expand into the McFarland biography.

Alan also interpreted the work of George R. Stewart to Tilden Regional Park visitors.  For many years, on a weekend close to the day in August when Stewart died, Alan led a “George R. Stewart Memorial Hike” to the summit of one of Tilden’s peak .  The hike focused on Stewart’s work, especially his remarkable NAMES ON THE LAND.  The book is not a dictionary of American place names, but a history which explains in beautiful prose WHY we named places a certain way in a certain era.  As Wallace Stegner once wrote about NAMES (here paraphrased) “No one ever wrote a book like this before; no one has written one since.”  Visitors who joined Alan’s hike learned about Stewart, his work, and especially his unique work about place-naming.  (NAMES ON THE LAND has just been translated into Chinese for the millions of citizens of that country who are enamored of American culture.)

Once, friends and I joined Alan on the hike:  George  and Theodosia’s son Jack, Jack’s wife Joyce, and former high school student Denise L. Barney and her husband Barney hiked along; afterward we crammed into the back of the tiny Chinook microcamper with Alan to share some good wine and crackers (Alan abstained!)

As the GRS biography was written, and published, Alan joined public events which described GRS and my work.  Once, to my chagrin, he was at a talk at the Bancroft Library and I did not notice him so did not introduce him; fortunately, when he came up afterward to say hello I was able to give him a well-deserved gift – a first edition of STORM, autographed by GRS, with a rare misprint on one page.

He also shared our GRS dinner at the beautiful, historic  UC Berkeley Faculty Club, sitting next to me, and we were able to talk about shared GRS experiences.

To sum up – Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, played a major role in the work which led to the eventual publication of THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART.   He also inspired me to take a second, deeper look at Stewart’s books, especially FIRE.  Stewart, and the GRS biography owe him much.  I am deeply grateful for his encouragement.

To See: George R. Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision Realized

George R. Stewart was an “inventor” of the Whole Earth Vision – the recent realization that Earth, in an immense universe, is one small, blue, life-bearing place, only fully understood if it’s explored from two perspectives – that of the ecologist, who studies it from ground level, and that of the astronaut, who examines Earth from space.

Stewart used that vision for the first time in Ordeal By Hunger.  He begins the book by asking the reader to “imagine yourself poised in space” in what we would now call LEO or Low Earth Orbit, about 200 miles up.  In the book’s Foreword he describes northern Nevada precisely, as photos taken from the International Space Station reveal.  (Stewart used the techniques of fiction to make the history dramatic and engaging, and did that so well that some readers still think they’re reading a novel.  They’re not; they’re reading history.)

The book then moves into the ecologist’s point of view, ground level, as Stewart makes the case that the Donner Party’s tragedy was the result of the party’s ignorance of the ecosystems it passed through.  At the book’s end, he writes, “It should be obvious…I consider the land a character in the work.”  The land, of course, is the ecosystem.

Today, most of us can wander our ecosystems easily.  So far, the perspective of the astronaut is restricted to a lucky few.  But – would Stewart not love this? – we can watch Earth from LEO on a continuous feed, here.

NASA Strategic Planner Jesco von Puttkamer suggested we are now living in the “New Enlightenment of Spaceflight.”    That Enlightenment began with Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision.  The New Enlightenment expanded its reach exponentially with the first photos of the Whole Earth from space, most dramatically “Earthrise” from Apollo 8. von Puttkamer’s slogan for the age, borrowed by Star Trek for the series’ first movie, is

Space:  The Human Adventure is Just Beginning

Today, we know Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision from both perspectives – of the land, and from LEO.  We have joined von Puttkamer’s New Enlightenment of Spaceflight, and gained Stewart’s Whole Earth vision and have a greater understanding of and love for our home planet.

We have become enlightened.

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Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

GRS in a “Third Space”: Sharing ‘Stewart Gold’ with the Native Sons of the Golden West

(Thanks to the kindly efforts of WordPress Happiness Engineer, the missing post has been found!)

The Native Sons of the Golden West is a fraternal lodge like the Elks, and does community service like the Lions.  It comes from a noble old tradition of men’s lodges and women’s clubs which did much good work in their communities before government had the resources or the inclination.  Part social, part uplifting, part hard work and fund-raising.  These are community groups in some ways similar to Christian churches, since the meetings usually include a meal – a “communion,” one might call that – followed by shared exhortations and fundraising to fulfill community needs. Service/fraternal clubs often emphasize one or two areas of need.  Shriners built a hospital for crippled children; the Lions Club builds parks and helps the blind; the Grange supports farmers.

George and Ted (Theodosia) Stewart played an important role in the service/fraternal club movement during their years at the University of California, Berkeley.  In 1927, Ted helped found the University Section Club – so named because it had sections for members with different interests.  The Drama Section was the one in which George and Ted were active, writing and performing plays in a reader’s theatre style.  The socialization was a highlight for the Stewarts and the other members; and in the best tradition of such clubs, money raised by the Drama Section Club was used to buy milk for poor children.  The Section Club’s motto, “Friendship and Philanthropy,” is a fine statement of the character of all such groups, including the Native Sons of the Golden West.

In such friendship and philanthropy, the service/fraternal groups are an excellent example of what Robert Putnam, in his classic work Bowling Alone, calls “high social capital.”  According to Wikipedia, social capital was first defined in the way Putnam uses it by a West Virginia Educator, Supervisor of Rural Schools L.J. Hanifan.  Hanifan wrote:

I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbour, and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbours.

(Read the entire book here.  Chapter VI is about social capital.)

The next leader to use the term was another famous educator, John Dewey.  It is interesting to note that educators, like Hanifan, Dewey, and Putnam understand the need for and the positive power of social capital, while some businesses and public agencies seemingly do not.  t.

George R. Stewart wrote about attacks on social capital in a brilliant chapter in his award-winning book Not So Rich As You Think. Although primarily about pollution and waste, Stewart also considers the waste of human talent that low social capital a threat to society.  As I wrote, in an earlier post about the book:

In a chapter entitled “Waste Without Weight” Stewart describes how the modern corporate state weakens social capital by constantly moving people around and thus prevents those people from ever developing a sense of community.  He suggests that the disorder caused by [such practices] may have a terrible effect on the personalities of humans, theorizing that juvenile delinquency may be one result.

In a society driven by the “bottom line,” economic capital becomes pre-eminent, and social capital is (purposefully, perhaps) weakened.  But the Native Sons, the Section Clubs, and their ilk, keep social capital alive. These organizations are “Third Spaces” – places other than home or work where people informally gather to share ideas and meals in a relaxed, informal, voluntary atmosphere, and often organize to plan improvements to their communities.

So when old friend Paul Lapachet, at his sister Beth and Brother-in-Law Brian’s annual Christmas Eve Gathering in their beautiful Twin Peaks Home,  invited me to speak to the Native Sons of the Golden West annual Discovery of Gold Celebration Banquet (which honors James Marshall’s discovery of the nugget that started the Gold Rush) I enthusiastically agreed. In the stressful time of a major move, it was good therapy to work up a presentation that would appeal to the diverse membership of the NSGW who were attending the banquet. 

The banquet was held in Rancho Cordova, close to the Gold Discovery site at Coloma. A great storm which hit the area didn’t  deter attendance.

The talk was well-received.  Several people asked for more information about GRS and his work.  Hopefully,  there’ll be some new GRS fans soon.

Old friend, John Lucia, formerly of California state parks, an avid collector of and restorer of historical objects and houses, attended the talk. Afterwards, I accepted John and Angela Lucia’s kind invitation to leave the  motel and stay in their magnificent home in an historic neighborhood of Sacramento. p1040663

John Lucia on the porch of his and Angela’s historic Sacramento home.  (Angela was cooking.)

Then the massive storm  – a GRS Maria if ever there was such – cleared, Donner Pass opened, and I headed east and south in the aged Chinook, to Carson City, Nevada.  It’s not easy to make such a major change at this stage of life; but talking about George R. Stewart, staying  with the Lucias (who knew the Stewarts), and then  moving to Stewart Country, was encouraging and uplifting.

So far, I’ve met a fine bookseller, an artist, a writer, and other residents who inform me that Carson City has decided to become a city of outdoor recreation and the arts.  GRS would be most happy – as I am. I feel  at home  here.

I’m now staying within walking distance from Stewart, Nevada, where GRS took this iconic portrait:

Author George R. Stewart in one of his favorite places, Nevada

Thanks to Paul Lapachet, I’ve learned a lot about the NSGW.  For one thing, I’d always assumed that one had to be a descendant of someone who arrived in California before 9,9, 1849.  But that’s not the case – anyone who was born here can join.

I also learned how much good work the NSGW does in the field of historic preservation and interpretation. For example:  the group places historic plaques in many locations;  saved Sutter’s Fort from demolition; and is raising the funds to restore the Pioneer Monument at Donner Lake State Historic Park (a monument they originally built and donated to the state) AND build a new interpretive center there.

I intend to join the NSGW.  I encourage all of you to consider it, too.

(Written in Stewart Country, not far from the California Trail  and Donner Pass.)

George R. Stewart Finds Treasure Island

When I was a boy, the folks bought a record player and a recorded version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  Dad said I wore the record out, especially the beginning with its stirring lines:  “If ever a boy loved adventure, Jim Hawkins was his name.”

When George R. Stewart was a boy, wandering through the treasures in the family attic in Indiana, Pennsylvania, he found a copy of the book, Treasure Island.  He took it downstairs, opened it and began to read. It changed his life.

He became fascinated with maps and mapping, inspired by the map to pirate’s treasure.  Years later, he may have learned that Stevenson was similarly in love with maps; and he often mapped a story out first and then let the tale unfold as the map directed. Like Stevenson, Stewart would become an author of place, of geography, and of maps.

Stevenson’s book stayed with Stewart.  When he was at UC Berkeley, working on his Master’s Degree, two fine professors helped him discover his style of writing and his subject – the geography and history of the west.  He decided to write a Master’s Thesis which would combine the two.  Treasure Island came to mind.

There was some evidence that “Treasure Island” was, in fact, located in the landscapes and history of the greater Bay Area.  (One giveaway was the presence of rattlesnakes among Coast Live Oaks in the novel.)  Stewart decided to use the internal evidence from the novel, research into Stevenson’s writings, and field research to see if he could discover where the Island was located.

Stewart found Treasure Island.  The wave-swept beaches were the shores of Monterey Bay.  The Coast Live Oak forests backed the Bay.   The flat-topped mountain, Spyglass Hill, was Mount St. Helena, where Stevenson and his bride Fanny spent their honeymoon.

And the abandoned mine where the Stevensons spent their honeymoon gave Robert Louis Stevenson the name for one of his characters – one of the great characters of English literature.

Robert and Fanny stayed at the “old Juan Silverado mine.”

In English, roughly translated, that’s “old John of the Silver.”

“Long John Silver.”

Stewart had discovered not only the landscapes; he’d found Long John Silver himself.

If you visit the Napa wine country of California, it’s a short but winding drive north from Calistoga to “Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.”  Hike the short Memorial Trail to find a plaque memorializing the Stevensons’ honeymoon – placed where the mine cabin, the Old Juan Silverado mine cabin, stood.

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Or you can choose longer hikes which wind around and up and down Mount Saint Helena.

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Afterward, visit one of those fine Napa Valley wineries and raise a glass of  the wine Stevenson described as “bottled poetry” to celebrate your discovery of Treasure Island, and your meeting with Long John Silver himself.

For more information about Stevenson’s time in California, visit the pages of the Robert Louis Stevenson Organization.

Before you visit the park, review this page from the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.   And read The Silverado Squatters, Stevenson’s record of the California years.  If you read the version edited by James Hart, From Scotland to Silverado, you’ll find George R. Stewart honored in the “Introduction” for his re-discovery of Treasure Island .  As at Donner Lake, Stewart’s research and writing were the foundation for a California state park.

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After Robert Louis Stevenson died, his widow, Fanny Stevenson, built a beautiful home on Hyde Street, near winding Lombard Street, on that long stretch of hill made famous by the Powell-Hyde Cable Car.  The house eventually went to Noel Sullivan, a member of the family of Mayor James D. Phelan.  Sullivan turned the place into a center of learning and the arts, holding frequent gatherings that included many members of what Ansel Adams once called “The Northern California Enlightenment” [or words to that effect].  Robert Louis Stevenson would have found that use most satisfying.

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Another Honor For GRS: George R. Stewart in “Stewart Heritage”

Two distinguished British authors, Henry Fothringham, OBE, and Charles Kinder Bradbury,  have just released their beautiful coffee table book, Stewart Heritage.  The book devotes a page to each of several dozen famous and influential Stewarts.  One of the Stewarts they profile is our focus in these pages:  George R. Stewart.

This is the third recent work honoring Stewart and his work.  There was an essay in the literary magazine of the Chicago Tribune, “George R. Stewart: Unrestrained by literary borders,” the several pages devoted to Stewart’s Storm in  Snowbound,  Mark McLaughlin’s just-released book about the largest storms recorded in the Sierra Nevada, the fine interpretive sign at Donner Summit so ably designed and place by Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society (followed by several articles in the Society’s magazine), the Berkeley ePlaque edited and published by Robert Kehlmann and his stalwart colleagues; and now this fine one-page essay which succinctly summarizes Stewart’s life and work.

Although I can’t reproduce the entire GRS page from Stewart Heritage for reasons of copyright, I can post a portion here to give readers the chance to see the quality of the book and the George R. Stewart entry.

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There is clearly a continuing interest in George R. Stewart and his work.   The new, reduced price on the GRS biography and the planned mini-series of Earth Abides will increase that interest.

This weblog is not designed as a marketing tool.  But when something  exceptional  related to George R. Stewart comes along, I’ll always share it with you.  If you are a Stewart, or know a Stewart, or a passionate fan of George R. Stewart and his work, you might consider Stewart Heritage (which I understand was printed in a limited edition).

Post Script.  Having had the chance to review the book in more depth, I find it rich in history across disciplines, across borders, even across racial lines.  There are entries which sweep the Earth from Panamint City near Trona, California – founded by stage robbers who discovered silver there – to Brittany (“Little Britain”) and a tussle there between Satan and Saint George over Mont St. Michel – to Hollywood and James Stewart – and on and on.  Disciplines include science and engineering – the authors have expertise in chemistry and metallurgy – painting, music, film, sport, military accomplishments, academia, politics, law – think Justice Potter Stewart – and, of course, writing.  It is a fascinating read.