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.

 

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

Page - outposts

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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:

NAMES ON THE GLOBE

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George R. Stewart’s last great book was Names On The Globe.  He wrote another names book, American Given Names, before he died, (see earlier post about  that book) but it was a dictionary and history of selected American names.  Names On The Globe, like his classic and never-duplicated Names On The Land, was a history of place-naming – in this case, on a global scale. Here, in the last post about one of Stewart’s major publications, is a short essay about the book.

As in Names On The Land, Stewart has created a rich, complex, and deep – but easily understood – history of the process of place naming and of eras of place naming.  Although it is supposedly about global naming, for many obvious and practical reasons GRS focuses on names in the areas we then called “western civilization.”  He was not a Chinese or Japanese scholar, nor an African one, nor one who knew much of Aboriginal languages and culture.  So he stuck with what he did know, with some brief chapters and comments about other regions of the world – assuming, probably, that others who came after him might add deeper histories of the naming in those places.  Another reason for emphasizing “Western Civilization” is that he spoke or read many Indo-European languages, and had studied the history of most Indo-European countries (save India), so he could do the scholarship necessary to tease out the story of those names.

He takes a different approach to understanding place naming in this book, beginning with an examination of Man as a Namer.  No recorded human society is without names.  Some have evolved, GRS says, and others were bestowed.  That is, in finding a previously unknown river its name “new river” evolved from the name of the original river.  But Tamsen’s Town was a name that would have been bestowed on a place by settlers of travelers.

GRS continues by considering the mind of Man the Namer, as he explains the types of place names given, and the reasons for giving them.  Some places, for example, were important to the namers because of incidents that happened there (Colt Killed Creek), others show possession  (Wassa’s Town, Washington),  others commemorate great (or small) events (Washington’s Crossing), and so forth.

In Part III, the longest section, GRS describes the names and naming in various places around the globe.  In discussing Celtic names, in modern Europe, he points out that they were so well-connected with the land that they outlasted the names later given by the Romans, even if in altered form.  But, as he points out, some of the “Celtic” names were probably originally given by earlier settlers.

Part IV is especially interesting, as Stewart considers important uses for ancient names – as tools for archaeologist, historians, and other scholars.  Fittingly, since Stewart was, after all, a poet who wrote prose, he ends with a chapter about place names as useful tools for poets. “…The romantic appeal springs from sonorous syllables, and from a sense of the strange, bizarre, and wonderful. …” Stewart writes, noting that the poet or author needs not to know the meaning of the name to use it in his work.  He quotes several famous poets who are known for the excellent use of such names, mentions Stephen Vincent Benet’s American Names.  And he quotes, appropriately, the beautiful opening of his own Names on the Land, where he lists the wonderful names found here – Gunsight Pass, Lone Pine, Broken Bow, Roaring Run, and the others.

He finishes the book, as he sometimes finished his works, with a reflection on even the most prosaic seeming of names, Cowbridge.  Did a cow fall from the bridge?  Or refuse to cross?  “….even the simple Cowbridge stirs the imagination,” George R. Stewart writes, as he finishes his great work.

The Author’s Note brings that work to a close.  He will finish and publish his book on American given names, but this, he knows, is his last great work.  So he honors his greatest friend, his wife, Theodosia, “who,” he writes, “might well be given the title Encourager of Books.”

And, thus, Opus Perfeci.  For this study of the books of George R. Stewart, and his life, and related topics.  Depending on what may come, I plan to add more as things of interest show up.  And since Stewart wrote of Earth from the view of space, ground, ecosystem, language, history, literature, and so on, I still have a broad canvas to draw on.

In the meantime, many thanks to all of you – from nearly 60 countries, in every continent save Antarctica at last count – who have visited this site, read the posts, commented on them, and encouraged the work.  You have been an inspiration.

 

 

 

American Place Names

In William Least Heat Moon’s American classic, Blue Highways, Least Heat Moon explains that one of the goals of his 11,000 mile American journey was to visit towns with unusual names.  Since another of his goals was to follow the old U.S. Highways, I guessed he knew the work of  George R. Stewart.  So when I met him, I said, “You’ve been influenced by George R. Stewart.”  He looked up from the desk where he was signing books and said, “Yes.  Profoundly.  How did you know?”  “Because I’m a scholar of GRS’s works, and Blue Highways is clearly influenced by U. S. 40, Names On The Land, and American Place Names.”

American Place Names is one of the last books – all about names – that Stewart wrote before his death in 1980.  He had a fascination with names, of place particularly, and with what names tell us about the people who do the naming.  Names on the Land is his masterwork, a history of American place naming – which Stewart considered untranslatable since it included so many unique American references.  (But that’s not stopping Scholar Junlin Pan, who, following a request from one of the most distinguished publishing houses in China, is well along in her translation – with a little help from someone who knows American history and can give some sense of meanings of American place names.)

Researching  Names on the Land, Stewart had built a huge file of the history of how places were named, far more than could be used in the book.  So now, near the end of his work, he decided to publish those mini-histories of the names.  Released in 1970 by Oxford University Press, American Place Names was described as “an instant classic.”

The book contains the meaning and brief history of approximately 12,000 names of places from coast to coast and border to border, in its  500 plus pages.  Names like Arroyo Grande – Big Gulch or Big Creek or Big Ditch, named tautologically – Arroyo Grande Creek means Big Creek Creek – or for some prominent local feature.  Pismo, as in Pismo Beach, means tar in Chumash, since the area is filled with tar seeps (and now oil fields and a refinery).  Bug Scuffle warns the visitor that he or she should expect to spend time fighting off bedbugs or other members of the insect world.  Likely was named because the locals believed it was unlikely that any other town with a post office would have that name.  Nameless, a humorous name for a small feature or town;  Accident because somebody surveyed some land by accident; Los Angeles, an Anglo contraction of the Spanish name “Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula; Angels Camp, for founder George Angel.  And so on, and so on.

The book is a wonderful read….the type of book to keep by the bed so you can browse through it before sleep and thus perchance dream of all those exotic places on American roads and trails that you hope to see someday.  I also suggest to friends that they keep a copy in their car, so that when they’re on a long trip, they can find the meaning of interesting names of the places they pass through-  Devil’s Churn, say, or Ekalaka, or Deer Lodge, or Ten Sleep, or Monticello, or Yosemite.

William Least Heat Moon visited or acknowledged several places with unusual names on his great odyssey – Dime Box, Texas; Nameless, Tennessee; Igo and Ono, California.  His chapter on Nameless is one of the great pieces of American writing, which everyone should read.

If you’re going to visit these places, you’d better hurry.  The  bowdlerizers are hard at work,  removing some of the most interesting and important names from the map. Nellie’s Nipple may go; Shit House Mountain has probably gone.   In some instances, the names are offensive; but they reflect a part or our history, and the censors should not be allowed to erase that from the map.  But they’re in high dudgeon now, and have the ear – or some appendage – of the establishment, so much of our language is at the risk, including our place names.  Visit while you can.  And in preparation, read Stewart’s book.

The book is available used; check with your local bookseller to order a copy.

 

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.