The Ranger, The Astronaut, and George R. Stewart: To the Third Millennium, and Beyond!

A recent post on this weblog calls Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger the first ecologically-based history.  But it’s more than an ecological work.

It is also the first work to combine the ecological perspective – “The Ranger’s Perspective” – with the view from space –  “The Astronaut’s Perspective.”  By using  those two perspectives to give an ecological understanding of human events, Ordeal By Hunger can be called the first “Whole Earth” book.

Ordeal By Hunger opens with the suggestion that a reader should:  “Imagine himself…raised in space some hundreds of miles above a spot near the center of the state of Nevada, ” then describes the scene so accurately that photographs from space precisely match Stewart’s  text.  It is the first precise, accurate description of Earth from low Earth orbit in popular literature.  And the first description of the Astronaut’s view, here used for geographic understanding.

Near the end of the history, Stewart writes, “I have in the telling often stressed the scene until the reader has, I hope, come to feel the land itself as one of the chief characters of the tale.”Stewart has realized – and educated his readers about – the influence of the ecosystem on human affairs.

The world is not merely a stage; it is a chief character in any human drama.

To understand Earth and its human inhabitants, Stewart suggests, we need to observe this world from space, and from within the ecosystem.

An important part of such research is education.  The public is interested in both the ecosystem and space exploration, they fund much of the research, and so it is to the advantage of the research agencies to share their goals, methods and results.  It is also, of course, to the advantage of the citizens of nation and world, as is all true education.

50 years after the publication of Ordeal By Hunger  and 30 years after a young boy discovered Stewart’s books, an idea took shape.  The seed planted by Stewart began to sprout.  The boy, now a man, had worked with both ecologically-oriented public lands agencies, and space exploration groups.  When he discovered that NASA was tasked to do ecological research from space, Stewart’s vision blossomed out in a new proposal: That the National Park Service – the Rangers – should join with NASA – the Astronauts – to do joint earth system research and education.

The proposal became a program.  Today, NASA and selected national park sites are working together on related research ideas.  NASA uses the sites for “analogue” research – that is, to do research here on Earth in settings analogous to other worlds.  The National Park Service does related and concurrent research in the same units, using the results for better resource management.

In some stellar cases, the two groups work together – for example, during and after the 1988 Yellowstone fire, where NASA used its space and flying laboratory resources to help the park find its fire spots, and then followed up with ground truth research in the park to see how accurately remote sensing data matched ground data.

A real payoff for this partnership is in the gift of knowledge it brings the public.  Education of the public – or, as the Park Service calls it, “interpretation” – can be done much more effectively in the national parks, due to their access, their size, and their huge visitations than NASA can do it in their ten, small centers.  And visitors to the parks come ready to learn.  People who would never take a course in wildlife biology or the geology of glaciers will willingly line up behind a Ranger and walk through wilderness with enthusiasm – and what they learn they, they respect and they retain.  And since most of the nature hike groups are family-based, the members of the family can reinforce each other’s learning after the hike.

Most important, national parks welcome three hundred million visitors each year.  Not all of those, of course, will be visiting parks where NASA does research; but since Yellowstone and Death Valley are NASA-research parks, and since Yellowstone has about four million visitors each year, education about the research can be spread wide among Americans and foreign visitors. (By comparison, all NASA visitor centers combined have fewer annual visitors than Yellowstone.)

Combining NASA and the National Park Service in joint research and education just made sense. The young man presented the idea to appropriate parties, and it was adopted.   Now, several national park sites are involved in the partnership.

One of the leading sites is a national monument in Idaho:  Craters of the Moon.  The site has a long connection with NASA, stretching back to the Apollo program when Apollo moonwalkers trained with geologists in the lunar-like geography of Craters of the Moon.  Geologist (now retired) Doug Owen and Chief Naturalist Ted Stout have nurtured the relationship during the past decade.  More recently, NASA has established a base in the Monument, where it conducts extensive research.  Craters of the Moon National Monument is now the only national park site to be a Space Grant member.

During the total Eclipse of 2017, the two agencies held major public events both within and beyond the Monument – setting several visitation records along the way.   Several of the “campfire” talks were given by NASA scientists:  “Astronauts” working as “Rangers.”  Thousands of people had the flesh-and-blood chance to interact with those scientists, which brought the research to life.  (One young visitor I had the chance to talk with, for example, was inspired to consider a career in astrobiology.)

 

 

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NASA and the NPS:  Principal Investigator and Researcher for NASA Eclipse balloon experiment at the Craters of the Moon Event.  Craters of the Moon Chief Naturalist Ted Stout and a Craters Volunteer are in the left background.

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Waiting For Totality

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Totality near Craters of the Moon 

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An interesting short video has been posted about the NASA-NPS  partnership at Craters of the Moon, here.

 

 

 

For those interested in a wider focus on the program in several national parks a longer video featuring famed NASA Astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay is here. Video quality isn’t ideal, but the good Dr. McKay presents the information with wit and clarity.

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George R. Stewart had a vision far ahead of his time.  The view from space was used in several of his books, in Storm and Earth Abides as well as Ordeal By Hunger.  His ecological perspective became so ingrained in his work and thinking that by 1948 he wrote “ I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.   This, decades before “ecologist” became a household word.

His vision, and the masterful way he shares it with readers – so subtly they don’t  realize they’re learning one of the great paradigm shifts in human thinking – planted seeds that influenced many better-known leaders of thought, like Walt Disney, and huge numbers  of the citizenry of Earth.

His work was a foundation for the Environmental Movement; he was John the Baptist to the later work of many artists and scientists.  That work which includes the The Astronaut and The Ranger, a model for exploration and science.

It is another gift of Stewart.

 

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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Is Maria Dead?

USA Today has run a front-page article announcing that names used for last year’s devasting season have been retired, never to be used again.  If the newspaper, or those who killed the names for storms had done any research, they’d have learned that Maria stands apart for all storms and should have never had her name retired.

Maria was the name George R. Stewart had his Young Meteorologist give the tiny storm he was tracking.  Maria would grow into a hearty adulthood, reshaping the human and natural world over the twelve days of her life.  She was a West Coast/Sierra Nevada version of a great hurricane.  Her interaction with humans gives his fine novel its ecological focus and can’t-put-it-down drama.

Stewart’s naming of the storm was an idea borrowed from Napier Shaw.  (Always ethical, GRS admits it in the beginning of the book.)

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STORM is the book that gives us the practice of naming storms.The book was widely-read, especially the WW II paperback version issued to GI troops, (The GI version had the kind of racy cover encouraging young men to read it in search of the action the cover promised.)  After the war, some of the military  readers – Vic Moiteret comes to mind, since he eventually became “Chief Areologist” (Meteorologist) for the Navy and had influence – and the idea was adopted as a formal practice.

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Now we’re told  Maria’s name is no more.  (Ironically, it’s not Maria that caused the greatest human suffering, but national inattention to post-storm conditions in Puerto Rico.)

Be reassured!  Stewart’s Maria has NOT been put to death.  If the World Meterological Organization or the national  fishwrap had bothered to do some research they would have discovered that the first named storm, the one which gave us the practice of naming storms, is NOT “Maria,”  “Mar-ee-a.”   It’s “Maria” – pronounced, as GRS puts it, in the old-fashioned way, with a long i:  “Mar-eye-a.”  Since Walt Disney filmed the novel for TV and Lerner and Loew “borrowed” the name for one of their best-known songs,  Maria will thrive whether the WMO puts their Maria out to pasture or not.

Long live our Maria.

 

Earth Day Reflections on George R. Stewart

I am convinced that the Founding Father of Earth Day and the Environmental Movement was George R. Stewart.  Many contributed, of course – Mary Austin, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, the Sierra Club, Stephen T. Mather, Ansel Adams, TR, Gifford Pinchot, and so on.  But before Stewart, the preservationists, conservationists, and environmentalists spoke mainly to a literate urban elite, not a vast middle class.  So the ideas stayed within a comparatively small circle of people.

George R. Stewart, professor at Berkeley, was a member of that elite circle; but he was also a great admirer of the common man.  His interest was in educating the general literate middle class about the ecological point of view.   So he wrote for that audience (and did it in a manner so well-researched and literate that he also reached those in the small circle of elite environmentalists).  His first ecological novel, STORM, focused on common folks as ecological heroes.

In FIRE, his next ecological novel, Stewart makes the different but related views of the common man and the elite when he  introduces two characters who represent the views of the two groups:  In one of the most remarkable passages, an old ranger and the young college-educated Chief Ranger debate the value of fire in the ecosystem.

Stewart used several techniques to reach the literate middle class.  Primary among these was basing the novel’s human protagonists on the common man – and in fact at times using the real stories of real people who became the real-life models for the heroes in his novels.   Johnny Martell (as I recall the name) apparently did walk across the front of a Sierra dam as storm water poured over the dam’s top.

Other characters, like  The Junior Meteorologist, are never named — thus making them Everyman.

Letters to Stewart show how powerful and appreciated was his presentation of common folks as environmental heroes.  In one, now in the Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, a supervisor involved in the incident with the over-flowing dam, thanks GRS for showcasing the daily courage of such people, most never named or known.   In another, relating to Earth Abides, the writers talk about how that book encouraged to “the little people” like themselves. (That letter is also in the Stewart Papers.)

STORM and FIRE became international best-sellers and Book-of-the-Month Club selections.  Millions of people, most of them NOT in the older environmental elite, read the books and were educated in the ecological/environmentalist point of view and were inspired to see humans and their world in a entirely new way.  Although there was little in the national media about that viewpoint – the media, like the government, is usually years behind the general literate population – it had spread widely, long before there was an “Environmental Movement.”

Some elites helped the process when they, like GRS, spread the word.  Walt Disney, a great fan of Stewart, presented a fine short film version of Storm on the widely-viewed Disney television program and the ecological message of the novel reached a massive audience.   A Storm Called Maria, aired in 1959, trumpeting Stewart’s educational message to a huge audience.  Since it was airing when the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams/Nancy Newhall exhibit, This Is The American Earth, was first presented, the Disney film saw its influence – and the teachings of GRS – multiplied exponentially.  Those who’d read the GRS novel could see the characters – especially the storm, Maria – come to vivid life, reinforcing the message that environmentalism belongs to all of us.  Those who’d not read the novel were educated in the ecological point of view by the film.

Since Disney used real people in the real roles they play in the novels, it underscored the idea that common men and women, not simply the elites,  are environmentalists.  Disney’s subseqent TV film, “A Fire Called Jeremiah” expanded the audience and reinforced the GRS message.

By the time Stewart wrote Fire he understood what his vision was and how he could teach it to others.  In an extraordinary letter, sent in 1948 in answer to questions from the publicist for the Book-Of-The-Month Club, Stewart wrote:

I consider the main theme … to be the problem of the relationship of man to his environment.  I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.  

Long before “ecology” became a common phrase, Stewart had realized he was teaching his readers – his vast number of readers, some in the elite but mostly middle class people – the values and principles of the ecological or environmentalist point of view.  He was doing it as early as the mid-1930s, in his ecologically-based history Ordeal By Hunger.  But by 1948 – seven years before This Is The American Earth and two decades before the first Earth Day, Stewart was preparing his readers – teaching them – educating them – to the ecological point of view.

Clearly, George R. Stewart was a Founding Father of Earth Day.  Perhaps THE Founding Father.