Of Fires and FIRE

A reading of David J. Strohmaier’s The Seasons of Fire , and reflections on the massive fires of 2018 have encouraged this post about Stewart’s Fire. Now, in the season between the fires, there’s time to share some information about George R. Stewart’s pioneering and thrilling ecological novel.

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George R. Stewart’s second ecological novel was about fire.  Stewart’s normal method of writing was to create something new with each work.  He didn’t want to repeat himself.  So he regularly created new types of literary works with each new book – between his first ecological novel, Storm, and the first-ever “autobiography” of  humankind, Man, he wrote the first and only history of national place-naming, Names on the Land.  (That link takes you to a fine in-depth review of NOTL by Christine Smallwood, which also includes a mini-review of Fire.)

When Stewart’s publisher and agent and the reading public begged for another novel like Storm, he resisted the call.   When the Book-of-the-Month club weighed in, promising huge sales, he finally agreed to write it.  But to make it creative, unique, challenging, and more interesting, he set the novel in a fictional National Forest rather than real locations like the ones he’d used for Storm.  His fictional forest, the Ponderosa National Forest, located adjacent to the Tahoe NF on the north side, was as accurate as any real national forest because his son Jack (later become the USGS “Man” for Nevada) helped him create the terrain and the maps.  Naming features of that imaginary landscape and giving it a history was easy – he’d just finished his book about place-naming, was already an expert on the naming of Sierra features, and knew the Ponderosa NF’s history would be very similar to the other national forests of the central Sierra.

He named features for people he knew and respected; so Jack had a creek named for him, as did Stewart’s English Department colleague Jim Hart and many others.   His final stroke of genius was the creation of a topographic model of the fictional forest – painted by his colleague David Park whose works can now sell for over a million dollars.   (The model is safely stored in one of the Bancroft Library’s secure storage facilities.)

Christine Smallwood’s mini-review of Fire in her larger review of Names On The Land includes a good quote showing Stewart’s prolific use of names in the novel, which I’ll borrow here to give an idea of Stewarts’ poetic style in the book:

Humbug Point saw the blow-up, and Lovers Leap. Horse Mountain reported, and signed off, quoting Joel 2:30–“and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Far to the north, Sheer Rock saw it suddenly above the high shoulder of Howell Mountain. Hamlin Point saw it build up above the round top of Cerro Gordo, like the towering smoke of a new-born volcano.

(The names are those of fire lookout towers,  which GRS uses here to “name” the fire spotters in the towers.)

When all was said and done, Stewart’s careful “design” of his national forest, helped by Jack Stewart and David Park, was so real that for years travellers would hunt for the forest during trips to the Central Sierra, and were always disappointed to discover it was fictional.   (Interestingly,  the fictional forest and the fictional fire’s location would be close to the area of the massive Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise last fall.)

Once GRS had the setting and the characters down, he wove his story.  The novel uses the same exceptional – interesting, educational, and (as Christine Smallwood puts it) thrilling mixture of action and information –   used in Storm.  Stewart glissades smoothly from a god-like overview of history, fire science, fire ecology, wildlife biology, myth, geography, and the like, to the dramatic experiences of several human characters in several places – including one of the fire towers – during the huge blaze.

The novel opens with that god-like view, of the High Sierra and its western foothills, as lightening suddenly flashes down onto the tinder-dry duff of the forest.  It ends with a similar perspective, but this time in one one of the most beautiful statements of the cycle of fire ecology ever written, as the heat of the fire opens the serotinous cones and their seeds drop onto the newly-ash-fertilized earth of the burned areas.

Ecology is the novel’s major theme, as it is in his other ecological novels, Storm, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock.  One of the most memorable scenes  in Fire is between the old Ranger who loves the beauty of the forest, heartbroken when “the glen” is burned into ash,  and the new, young, college-educated Forest Ranger Supervisor.  The old Ranger is saddened by the burnt wreckage of his special place of re-creation.  But the Forest Supervisor tells him that beauty depends on your ecological view of things.  To a  rabbit scrub brush would likely be far more beautiful than the glen.   It’s a wonderful, gentle pioneering statement of the ecological view in which humans are only one small part of a vast ecosystem.  The old Ranger isn’t convinced; he’s lost his beloved glen.  But Stewart has made his point about the need to see such things through an ecological sense.

The novel has its share of sad and tragic passages, like the description of the Camp Fire of its day, Peshtigo, far deadlier in that time before good forest management.  Yet GRS does not dwell on the gruesome, but simply offers it as a part of the story of fire.

As usual, GRS did extraordinary research before he even picked up one of his tray of sharpened pencils and write.  His office at UC Berkeley was adjacent to the University Library and the Bancroft Library, so he could dig deep into the literature of fire.  His colleagues in the natural sciences and geography were a great help in the details of the work.

But in the best GRS tradition, he did not write the book from other books and quiet conversations.  He had himself appointed as a “Collaborator” for the US Forest Service, and headed out to help fight some major forest fires.  Stewart was so involved in that potentially deadly research that the Forest Service lost track of him and got quite worried.  But he’d simply slipped away into the depths of the fire-fighting.   He did almost lose his life once.  Walking down a muddy trail he spied a burning snag just beyond and above him.  He decided he could outrun it and jumped across a pool of water between him and the danger.  But he slipped and fell face-down in the water.  Which was a good thing – the snag fell just as he jumped; it would have hit him if he’d not slipped.

The book became a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  It was filmed twice – once, in a hatchet job by Paramount as Red Skies in Montana, which ignored GRS’s ecological message. And once, for television by Stewart’s great fan Walt Disney, as A Fire Called Jeremiah.  The Disney film had some Disneyfication, but is much closer to the ecological view of Stewart’s novel.

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We read about the deadly fires of our time, or watch their smoke, and mourn the loss of those killed by them.  Perhaps we lift a glass of Sierra Nevada’s Resilience Ale, that great act of kindness from Sierra Nevada Brewing, who created it, and 1400 other breweries around the world, who, like Sierra Nevada Brewing, are donating all profits to the victims of the Camp Fire.

A suggestion:

While you’re sipping that good ale, or some other result of ζύμωσις+ἔργον – zymurgy or the science of brewing beer – to quench the fires of your thirst,

Read – or re-read – Fire, by George R. Stewart.

 

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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

Eclipse 2017

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.

 

2019: EARTH ABIDES ACHIEVES PLATINUM

Ish's Hammer(1)According to Google, both the 70th and hundredth anniversaries are honored with platinum gifts.  Since Earth Abides is closing in on the 70th anniversary of publication, George R. Stewart’s epic work is approaching platinum.

The novel was published on October 7, 1949.  It immediately caught the attention of reviewers for its well-written, epic tale of humans living in a world they no longer dominate.  One later reviewer went so far as to call it “a second work of Genesis.”  With its title from Ecclesiastes, and the old testament rhythm of its language, it is almost biblical in its feeling.

Stewart later insisted he didn’t intend it to be a religious work.  But even he admitted that there was “a certain quality there.”  The language was one reason.  Stewart taught himself Hebrew before he wrote the book.  He wanted to translate portions of the Bible into more-modern English.  He was surely influenced by the style of ancient Hebrew.

The book has had enormous influence.  Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides, Grammy-nominated composer Philip Aaberg wrote “Earth Abides,”  Jimi Hendrix was inspired to write “Third Rock From the Sun” by the novel (his favorite book), other authors and scientists honor Stewart’s works.  It is published in either 20 or 27 languages, depending on who you ask.  There is some talk of producing a film version of the novel.

The best essay about the novel was written by James Sallis and published in The Boston Globe.  Like Stewart, Sallis realizes the importance of integrity and beauty in his work, and it’s reflected in his essay.  (Sallis is a distinguished novelist and poet, whose noir novella Drive was filmed by Nicolas Winding Refn.)

The novel has never been out of print –no thanks to its original publisher.  Random House decided to pull the novel in the early 1970s.  Fortunately, Stewart and small fine press publisher Alan Ligda quickly got together and brought out a beautiful copy from Ligda’s Hermes Press.

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The Hermes edition sold well.  Random House quickly realized they’d made a mistake and bought the rights back.

Thanks to Alan Ligda, Earth Abides has been in print for seventy years come next October.  He is a Hero of the novel.  Sadly, he died young, and won’t be able to help celebrate the book’s Platinum Anniversary.  So please take a minute (or more) to say a silent thanks to Alan Ligda while you celebrate the novel.

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And read the novel again.  (You’ll have to do a number of readings to catch up with Steve Williams, the Pilgrim, who doesn’t know how many dozens of times he’s read it.)  As you read, reflect on Stewart’s role in raising our consciousness of the ecosystem.  His wildly popular ecological novels, Storm, Fire, and Earth Abides, and his less-widely read “post-modernist” ecological novel, Sheep Rock, have shaped our thinking.  Like most great creative works of thought, they have more power than all the armies in existence.  That pen (or, in Stewart’s case, pencil) is mightier than the sword.

By the way – if you want to buy a signed first edition,  Morley’s Books in Carson City just happens to have one.  It comes with a custom box to protect the classic.  Only $1600 – about half the price of another on offer at ABE.

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The End of the World, Past and Future

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others)  one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels.  Its long history of popularity —  never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work.  Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization.  One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer.  The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.

When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical.  There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers.  The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially.  They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance.  But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids.   The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families.  Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.

The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later.  It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving.   While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like  psalms,  the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.

Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting.  But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction.  It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras.  But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist,  who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning.  Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting  through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.

Then,  in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle,  the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned.  Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion.  Yet, like When the English Fall,  it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.

In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.

Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere.   I highly recommend them  to anyone influenced by  George R. Stewart’s  Earth Abides.  And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.

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.