George R. Stewart and a Centennial Celebration in the Donner Country

P1060586Although George R. Stewart was still in graduate school when the Pioneer Monument was dedicated at Donner Lake Memorial State Park, and just beginning his career when Donner Lake Memorial State Park was established, he would become the leading historian and novelist for the area.

Stewart was a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  He was  interested in the geography, history, and field exploration of California and the West.  When a new Head of the English Department took a disliking to Stewart, and denied him his deserved promotion, Stewart decided to write in a field which interested him, Western history, and would bring him extra income to help support his growing family.  As he said, “What did I have to lose?”  So he would NOT write arcane books about punctuation in Elizabethan English or some such.  Instead he wrote the best history of the Donner Party ever published:  Ordeal By Hunger.

Stewart went whole-hog in the research and writing of the book.  He bought a cabin (partly for his family) at Dutch Flat, invited his colleagues from UC’s  history, geography, and art departments to visit, then hiked much of the Donner Trail with the others, using them as on-site references.   (They found – or may have found – one of the most important campfires along the trail.)  He earned sweat-equity knowledge about the great effort required by the Donners to cross deserts, face the Sierra, and endure the storms.   He also studied the books –  like the original diaries of the Donner party members, especially Patrick Breen’s moving pages (now online, here).

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The most important result of the field research was Stewart’s great epiphany:  “the land is a character in the work.”  That is to say, it was the Donners’ ignorance of the ecosystems they passed through that caused their great tragedy.

Thus, Ordeal By Hunger can be considered the first ecologically-based history.

Although Stewart did not influence the establishment of the Pioneer Monument or the establishment of Donner Memorial State Park, the success of Ordeal By Hunger  inspired readers to visit the park.

The Pioneer Monument itself, and the park, are gifts in large part from one of the most important fraternal organizations in California:  The Native Sons of the Golden West.  The Native Sons, who are organized into lodges called parlors, do a massive amount of charitable work.  One of their charities is a fund to help the healing of those with cleft-palate; the other is the support of California history through the acquisition, protection, and memorializing of events of the Gold Rush and similar milestones.  (The term “The Golden State” comes from the first historic plaque they placed .)  The NSGW built the Monument, and donated it and the land on which it sits, to be the foundation of Donner Memorial State Park.  It was only one of many such gifts from the Native Sons  – others include Sutter’s Fort and the Petaluma Adobe.

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P1060557The re-dedication of the Pioneer Monument on its Centennial was worth the trip – especially since it included the chance to drive Historic U.S. 40 over Donner Summit to (finally!) see and photograph the George R. Stewart Peak Interpretive Plaque on the Summit. (Placed with the help of another fine organization, the Donner Summit Historical Society.)

At Donner Lake, The weather was cold, the wind intense, and the noise of wind and Interstate 80 drowned out most of the re-dedication speeches.  But there was a chance to speak with some of the local history people and view the NSGW booth.  A highlight was meeting some of the descendants of the Donner Party, history brought to life.

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One of the Visitor Center people, when asked which of the several Donner Party histories to buy, said the park usually didn’t recommend Ordeal By Hunger.  He also said it was far and away the largest seller.  That, of course, is what counts, especially since Stewart’s book is still the best history of the Donner Party.

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A century after the Native Sons of the Golden West donated money to create the Pioneer Monument and 82 years after the publication of Ordeal By Hunger the Centennial re-dedication of the Monument reminds us to re-read Stewart’s book; and, as time and weather permit, to travel to Donner Summit on U.S. 40; and Donner Lake which sits below George R. Stewart Peak. There, one can reflect on the land, the Donners, and those who memorialized them – like the Native Sons of the Golden West and George R. Stewart.

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Page Stegner Has Passed Away

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Page Stegner, who knew the Stewarts, was a distinguished and award-winning author with literary interests similar to those of George R. Stewart.  Page wrote about the environment and the West,  books which have become classics, like  American Places, which also included the work of legendary photographer Elliot Porter and Page’s father Wallace Stegner.  He passed away just before Christmas of 2017, in the quintessenial Western town, Reno, about 30 miles away from where this is being written, in Carson City, in the middle of a “March Miracle” of a heavy snowstorm.

Page Stegner wrote fiction and non-fiction, reviewed books for leading magazines, edited some of his father’s work.  He also helped run the Peace Corps in Latin America for a time, took his students on river-runs in the west, and played bluegrass.   Like Stewart, he was a true polymath.

He was also a great help in the writing of the George R. Stewart biography.  When his father was fired at Stanford, the two families often visited each other.  Jack Stewart remembered driving from Berkeley to Palo Alto down the rural two-lane highways of the day (the 1940s and 1950s), to the Stegner hamburger barbeques.  Jack attended Stanford, sometimes visiting the Stegners while he was there.  I wrote his memories into the biography.

Page Stegner was kind enough to answer emailed questions about family visits to the Stewarts in Berkeley.  He gave a good sense of those more formal days, when children of academics did not necessarily eat at the same table with parents and thus did not feel themselves a part of the adult world.

During the research for the George R. Stewart biography, we were able to arrange a reunion between Jack Stewart and Page Stegner.  The original photograph was included in the biography.

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Dr. John H. (Jack) Stewart  and  Page Stegner reunion at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park

Jack and Page suffered from the same fate – children in the long shadows cast by famous fathers.  Yet, Jack and Page were as accomplished as their fathers – Page through his writing, teaching, and other creative work;  Jack through his brilliant work as the USGS geologist for Nevada, and as the creative geologist assistant to his father on the writing of some of GRS’s novels.

Here’s an Amazon link to the books which Page Stegner wrote, co-wrote, wrote the introductions for, or edited:

It was an honor to know Page Stegner.  I  recommend his books; American Places is one of the best books about this land.

Wolf Willow, for which Page wrote the “Introduction,” has a special meaning to me.  The book, by Wallace Stegner, is about his boyhood in the town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, which he calls “Whitemud” in the book.   Page and other members of the Stegner family were instrumental in helping the town of Eastend, the Province of Saskatchewan, and the nation of Canada, preserve the Stegner House as a Canadian Heritage Site.  The Eastend Arts Council manages the house as both a Memorial and a residence for writers and artists.  I was fortunate to be one of those selected to work there, I researching and writing the Stegner chapters in the book.  Including the climactic chapter, where, during a major prairie thunderstorm, I found the truth of George R. Stewart’s life and work.

Grateful for Page’s help with the book, I am as grateful for his work on the Stegner House program.

 

 

 

 

 

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

BIG NEWS – GRS BIO PRICE DROPS TO $35

Cover of the McFarland Book

Those of you who are loyal followers of this weblog are among the first to know this – The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart: A Literary Biography of the Author of Earth Abides has just had a major price reduction.  Originally $55.00, McFarland has reduced the price to $35.00.  The  new price puts the book well within the budget of most GRS fans.

(Like Amazon, McFarland ships free.  Click on the book cover to go to the book’s page.)

As the authorized biography of GRS, the book contains previously unpublished photographs and other materials about Stewart, and also his mid-twentieth century community of American writers and scientists, and others .   There are photos of Wallace Stegner, C. S. Forester, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and others.  Manuscript materials include quotations from letters from Walt Disney and others, a radio mystery script “starring” Stewart, and a previously unpublished Civil War Journal from the Battle of the Peninsula.

The book is meticulously, thoroughly researched.  Written for a general audience,  Feedback indicates it’s well-written, easy to read, and interesting.

It will take a week or two for the price drop to be reflected at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Then, for the price of a few lattes, you can have your own copy of this well-reviewed biography of one of the great writers and thinkers of the last 100 years.

P.S. If you want to save even more money, you can buy it as an ebook, here, in several formats, for less than $13.  Of course, you’ll lose the wonderful texture and of the printed book.

 

 

 

 

George R. Stewart, Predictor of 7-20-1969

George R. Stewart opened Ordeal By Hunger, in 1936, with a look at northern Nevada from a 200 mile high orbit – and described the scene so perfectly that when Astronaut Ed Lu, of ISS Expedition Seven, photographed it,  Stewart’s words and Lu’s photos matched precisely. In Storm, Stewart ended the book with a view from Venus, in which his imagined watcher from that world saw no sign of storms disturbing our world. In both these books, Stewart – perhaps not realizing it, or perhaps realizing it, was preparing for that great event that took place 47 years ago today:  the First Step on another world.

Working for NASA, and working with Star Trek artists,  I’ve been honored with some exceptional gifts that memorialize that great day.  I’ll celebrate by contemplating a wonderful gift given by Mike Okuda and another gift from NASA education days.

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Saturn 5 by Mike Okuda

 

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Space flown Apollo 25th Anniversary flag, courtesy NASA. (Signatures collected later.)

Take a moment, if you will, to honor those heroes, and all those who supported them, and the artists who inspire us to follow that dream.  Artists like Mike Okuda, Rick Sternbach, Doug Drexler,  Chesley Bonestell, David Hardy, and so many others, who fire our imaginations to design and build ships to explore other worlds.  And literary artists like George R. Stewart, who prepared us wonderfully for that First Step.

By the way, NASA has restored the entire 3+hours that Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the moon on Apollo Day I.   You can see it or download it here:

MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING – George R. Stewart in the Donner Summit Historical Society Newsletter

October’s issue of The Donner Summit Heirloom has a series of articles about George R. Stewart, or topics that relate to Stewart’s subjects.  There’s a good article about the search for the California Trail route over Donner Pass, which includes some information about the Lincoln Highway route – think Stewart’s U.S. 40 and The California Trail – a review of Stewart’s landmark work, Ordeal By Hunger, a description of the new George R. Stewart interpretive sign.

There’s also my article about Stewart, with an emphasis on his connections to the Donner Summit area.  It gives a good overview of the man and his work.  If you’d like a quick introduction to GRS, you’ll find the article – and the other articles – useful.

Here’s the October 2015 Heirloom:

By the way, if you have an interest in GRS, or Donner Summit, or Lake Tahoe, you might want to join the Society.  It costs little, but supports the historic preservation and interpretation of the area.