It’s A Wonderful Story

This is the time of year when most of us watch the classic Christmas movies.  A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 54th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales,   (An almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot), It’s a Wonderful Life.

Here in Arroyo Grande, the local theater,  owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy.  This year, it was the venerable old classic about Kris Kringle, the old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus – and maybe is – and restores the faith of others in the spirit of Christmas.  To see that film on the big screen, surrounded by local neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost, as we watch movies on TV, but less intently – a kind of a digital sampling of the films.  Like a CD, we miss much when we do that.  But in the theater, yesterday, we missed nothing.  And – how long since you’ve experienced this? – the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus.  It was a great, traditional, American Christmas experience.

 

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For most of the people I know, It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.  So those who are George R. Stewart fans should know about the connection between that classic film and GRS.

George R. Stewart was raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived.  His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson,  planned to be a teacher, and even helped found a school nearby (which would become the prestigious Kiski School).  But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family; so he went into the mercantile business.  He  had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart.  That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also born and raised in Indiana.

George and Jimmy looked alike.  With all the similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related.  But they  shared only one possible distant relative.  And they lived in different worlds, in Indiana.  The George Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents went to the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill.  GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.

Still, the lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, as an advisor to Walt himself.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.  But, ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.

Their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905, when he was 12.  That was the year James Stewart was born. Out west, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.  Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it even if he did go to the movies.

Yet, in this Christmas season, we should remember there is one thing they shared; and thanks to the film, we all share it with them:  The experience of life in a small American town, in the early 20th century.  Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place; and, for a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.

Here’s a passage from my book about Indiana, Pennsylvania, as Bedford Falls:

George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart, who played “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.   Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.

Each year, Indiana holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate,  tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.  It’s a winter festival; so the people lining the streets in their warm clothing bring life to a snow-bound town, like the movie brings life to the streets of the movie set town.

(The film’s Producer Director, Frank Capra, probably modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls; but for the star of the movie, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he and George R. Stewart grew up, was the place he kept in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life.)

So this Christmas, when you watch Capra’s great film (which, by the way, is playing here today in three nearby theaters), give a thought to the boyhood of George R. Stewart.  GRS celebrated his Christmases in a town which for Jimmy Stewart was the model for that iconic American town, Bedford Falls.

Merry Christmas to all.

 

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Frank Brusca’s U.S. 40 Rephotography Project

Frank Brusca is a George R. Stewart Scholar with a special interest:  U. S. 40.  He discovered the book when he was a boy, and it has shaped his life since.  Frank’s goal is to re-photograph as many of the places Stewart photographed in 1949 and 1950 as he can, to record the changes over time.  Geographers Tom and Geraldine Vale did that for their 1983 classic U.S. 40 Today, which tracked changes over the 30 years since GRS published his book.  Brusca has more elaborate plans – he’s including color and virtual panoramas of some sites.

His love affair with U. S. 40, highway and book, helped Brusca connect with author William Least Heat Moon, who wrote the classic Blue Highways. Eventually  Least Heat Moon and Brusca traveled the old highway together.  Those journies are the meat of four chapters about Brusca and GRS and his road book in Least Heat Moon’s Roads to Quoz. (Least Heat Moon is also a fan of GRS’s other work, and so there’s more GRS influence in  Blue Highways.)

Last Sunday, Frank held a web meeting for a small group of road scholars, describing his project in detail and showing his photos of the GRS sites on the old highway.  It was impressive to see how much he’s done so far.  His work, like that of the Vales, expands Stewart’s ground-breaking book.

Brusca has a deep understanding of Stewart’s book.  During the web session, Brusca revealed how to identify a first first printing of U.S. 40 – one photo is a mistake, so the book was pulled and corrected.  (The photo, from a Hogback ridge west of Denver, was supposed to show the town and valley to the west of the ridge, but a photo from the ridge showing the eastern view was printed.)  If you have a copy with the wrong photo, you have an early first printing.

His knowledge of the book and the highway helped my GRS biography.  Brusca directed me to German Filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky, whose U.S. 40 West was inspired by Stewart’s book. Bitomsky agreed to a long interview about the film and Stewart’s influence on the work; much of that interview is in my book.

Frank is off on a road photographing trip this summer.  He drives from Massachusetts to San Francisco, and then zips back, photographing as he goes.  (I hope to join him for one or two days in Calfornia.)  He will also copy some of the original negatives for U.S. 40, in the Bancroft Library.

All of this is expensive. Just copying the Stewart photographs in the Bancroft would cost more than $5,000.   So far, it’s been self-funded.  But now Brusca has a Kickstarter proposal to help fund the effort.  If you’d like to help, you can do so here.  A small 30 dollar pledge gets you an ebook with all of the 120 photos he’s planning to put in the book.  More important, you become a patron of continuing the U.S. 40 work of GRS, the Vales, William Least Heat Moon, and Frank Brusca.

Christopher Priest and George R. Stewart

The last few weeks have brought some interesting comments and communications from several places.  A student in Germany who’s doing a dissertation on science fiction and GRS, an academician who wants to translate one of GRS’s books into an Asian language, a professor in Philadelphia who sent his students’ reviews of Earth Abides, and the Keeper of one of the Disney blogs (THE Disney Blog, in fact), asking to mention the posting about GRS and Disney.  But the most interesting of all popped in just a few days ago – Christopher Priest, sending a link to his article about the influence George R. Stewart had on his work.

I knew Priest’s name, but went to the web to find more detail.

Christopher Priest is a distinguished, award-winning author of complex, literary science fiction written with a light touch.  One of his novels, The Prestige, was made into a film  by Christopher Nolan.  (The ending of the film differs from that of the book,  and seems to weaken the effect Priest so skilfully created in the novel.) Priest’s other novels get excellent ratings from readers and critics.  Here‘s a list.

Priest’s comment to the EA/GRS weblog was short, a link to a review of another author’s book.   “Standing On Shoulders” refers to Newton’s comment that he was merely standing on the shoulders of the great minds who preceded him.  In his case, Priest writes that he stands on the shoulders of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and George R. Stewart.

As a young man, Priest saw four of Bergman’s films in two weeks – “Sawdust and Tinsel”, “Summer With Monika”, “Wild Strawberries”, and “The Seventh Seal” — and, he writes, the films transformed him.  Having seen three of those four myself, and at about the same age, I second his statements about their power.  (Years later, when I taught Film as Art in high school in San Francisco, I showed “The Seventh Seal”.  The students were so affected that they did not stir when the film – and the period – ended.  It was several minutes before anyone got up to leave, in complete silence, with none of the typical high school bantering back and forth as they left.)

At about the same time, Priest discovered Earth Abides; and, thus, George R. Stewart.  I”ll not go into detail here – read his article if you will – but I’ll say that in our brief conversations since his first comment to the web logwe’ve had some interesting talk about GRS and his brilliance.

Priest and I also had an interesting back-and-forth about the definition of “science fiction.”  Stewart’s best novels are all, in the purest sense, science fiction – that is, fiction based on and about solid science. But few readers would see Storm or Fire as conventional science fiction. Only Earth Abides qualifies.  Does that mean we need to come up with a new term to describe the type of fiction which is set in the future, or a parallel universe, or on an alien world?  Priest has proposed “visionary realism,” an excellent term but not yet popular with fans of the literature.  Maybe one of the readers of this post will have an idea?

If you’re on this page as a Stewart reader, I  strongly encourage you to pick up one of Christopher Priest ‘s novels. (I’m ordering a couple on payday.)  If you’re here as a Christopher Priest reader, welcome – and I suggest you read Earth Abides.

I also suggest GRS’s  Sheep Rock.  That novel has some of rich complexity and layers of truth which are the hallmarks of Christopher Field’s work.

It was a pleasure to learn that Christopher Priest found this weblog interesting, and I’m honored that he’s joined this conversation.   The circle of George R. Stewart is growing; and in the best sense of the STEAM movement, connecting art and science.  A small interdisciplinary fellowship of GRS followers is building, and that’s a good thing.

The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse

Although George R. Stewart was not a fan of the audio visual media of his day, after World War II he would find himself deeply involved in radio and film.  He became a character on a radio mystery show (more about that in a later post); and he spent a week in the Kingdom of the Mouse – the Walt Disney Studios – helping Disney develop new ideas for films.  Years later, that would lead to the production of two Disney movies based on two of Stewart’s best-selling novels.

Disney was a Stewart fan – that’s clear from the letters Disney wrote to Stewart.  The two men thought along similar lines, at least in terms of the relationship between humans and nature, and in the types of art that communicate those ideas.

Disney was working on Bambi while Stewart was writing StormBambi, which views the world from the perspective of non-human nature and  portrays Man as dangerous to non-human nature, has many parallels with Storm. It is likely that Stewart did not see Bambi, since he was not a film-goer. But it is likely that Disney read and enjoyed Storm since he was a voracious reader and the book was a well-publicized best-seller.

Stewart’s next best-seller was Names On The Land.  With its history of American ways of naming things over time, the success of the book indicated that readers were interested in Americana.    Disney was also interested in Americana, and in presenting it in Disney cartoons.

World War II was hard on the Disney studios.   Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money due to the loss of the European market.  Disney also turned over most of the studio’s facilities to the production of training films for the military, who did not pay the studio very well.  And after a bitter strike, the studio became a union shop with increased salaries for the animators.

After the war, Disney scrambled to find new types of films that would bring in the kinds of money returned by Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons.  He thought there would be a huge market for civilian educational films, modeled on his war training films.  Disney also believed that movies based on Americana themes would be popular, since the country was tired of war and would be looking for reassuringly sentimental films.

Impressed by Stewart, he invited him to the studio for a short time.  He asked Stewart to prepare suggestions for educational films.  He also wanted to hear Stewart’s recommendations for films based on Americana.

Stewart went to the studio, talked with animators and producers, and wrote up his ideas for Disney Producer Ben Sharpsteen. Although there’s no record (outside of Disney Archives) for Stewart’s recommendations about educational films, there is a record of his Americana thinking.  He suggested  a series of animated movies about American folklore; and that it begin on the East Coast with early tales, moving west and forward in time as the series progressed.

Before he left, Stewart had a fine lunch with Walt Disney.  After he returned home, Disney sent him a personal letter:  “The type of work you are doing is of much interest to us,” he wrote, “and I hope when you do have the time you will visit us again.”  Stewart never returned to the Studio.  But Disney did make a series of cartoons and films based on American folklore or fiction that is folkloric in nature – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Carl Carmer is credited as the main consultant for the films, so Stewart’s influence was probably minor.

Yet, if Stewart was not the primary influence on Disney’s Americana films, he had influence.  The True-Life Adventure Series and the Americana films at least show that the two men  had  similar ways of thinking. But Disney’s greatest compliment to Stewart and his work came a decade later.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Disney produced film versions of Storm and Fire for The Wonderful World of Color.  A Storm Called Maria was a good made-for-tv version of Storm.  Its use of documentary footage and real people playing their own roles gave the movie believability.  A Fire Called Jeremiah was also realistic – except for a few Disney “cute” touches – and it closely followed the ecological sense of Stewart’s novel.  (A version made by another studio strayed exponentially from Stewart’s Fire, mentioning nothing about ecology.)

So the short visit between George R. Stewart and Walt Disney, spent in the Kingdom of the Mouse at the Disney Studio, led to film versions of Stewart’s work with would teach his ideas to millions of Disney TV viewers.  It was another example of the far-reaching influence of George R. Stewart, scholar and author, who did so much to change our way of thinking about our Earth, and its culture.

 

 

FIRE – Stewart’s Second Ecological/Geographical Novel

Time for a slight change in focus.

Although I consider Stewart  an ecological author – that is, one who defines human character by how individuals relate to the ecosystem – a good friend who is a distinguished geographer reminds me that Stewart can also be considered a geographic author – one who writes about the land as a character in the work.  Stewart probably considered himself more geographer than ecologist or environmentalist until the Environmental Movement came to have such an influence on the world, even though he was one of those who laid the thought-foundation for that Movement.  But whether we consider him a geographic or ecological novelist, his second novel about “the land” fits well under both definitions.

Fire is the story of another ecosystem event.  This tim. it’s a huge fire in the Sierra Nevada, north of the Donner Pass region.  As in Storm, the fire becomes the protagonist, and human character is defined by how his characters respond to the great fire.  Again, he names the fire – Spitcat – although this time he also names most of the humans as well.

The book focuses a little on ecology than Storm does, opening and closing with events that reveal the interrelationships in the ecosystem.   It opens with a lightning strike, and closes with the fire-opened serotinous cones dropping their seeds to the ash-enriched, now-sunlit earth.   In one of the strongest passages, the old Ranger and the young Chief Ranger talk about the effect of the fire on one of the most beautiful parts of the forest – a glen, frequented by deer.  The old ranger is broken-hearted to see the glen burned over, and the deer killed.  It has been his wilderness temple.   But the young Chief Ranger tells him that seeing something as beautiful depends on our place in the ecosystem.  To a rabbit the brushy landscape that will replace the glen for a while is a place of great beauty.  The old Ranger, who grew up in the forest  is a Man of the Forest – he only knows that he has lost what he loves the most.  The Chief Ranger, college-educated, is the spokesman for the ecological view of Earth.  In their conversation, the reader, for the first time, feels the drama of the dawning of the ecological view of the world.

Fire is the only novel in which he repeated himself.  That is, he used similar techniques to tell a similar eco/geographic story, and set the story in what appears to be the same landscape, the central Sierra Nevada, where Storm is set. But Stewart challenged himself in writing the book. Although the novel is set in a national forest just north of Tahoe,  that forest does not exist. To make it seem real, he asked his son Jack to create a map of the forest, sprinkled with names on creeks and mountains and ridges and lakes; then had famous impressionist painter David Park sculpt and paint a model of the forest.  Working from the excellent map and model, he could easily visual the terrain of the fictional Ponderosa National Forest, and thus the events on that terrain.

People still look for the Ponderosa National Forest, but it is only to be found – like Middle Earth – between the pages of a book.

The book, like Storm before it, was both a best-seller and a Book-of-the Month Club selection.  And, like Storm, it would be filmed.  There are two versions of Fire – one, so corrupted by the Hollywood studio which bought the rights that it is unrecognizable, became Red Skies In Montana.  The other version was a TV movie done by Walt Disney.  While somewhat lightweight, A Fire Called Jeremiah kept the ecological focus of the book.

Disney was quite a fan of Stewart’s work.  Before Fire was written, Disney invited him to the studio to work as a consultant.  Stewart spent a few days there, working up ideas for educational films and a series of proposed series of films about American folklore.  Although never credited, I believe his influence can be seen in the folklore films – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, and the others – and the True-Life Adventure films.  Stewart and Disney had lunch together during Stewart’s studio time; and Disney sent a warm letter to Stewart after his visit.

With the publication and massive readership of Storm and Fire, Stewart had begun laying an intellectual foundation for the paradigm shift which led to the Environmental Movement, and the acceptance of environmental thinking by most people today.   But it was his next book which would cement that paradigm shift into the consciousness of humankind.  That third ecological novel, now considered one of the great American novel, and never out of print, is one of the great intellectual and literary accomplishments of the 20th century – and perhaps of the second millennium.

O Pioneers! II

More about the Pioneers who were the first to like the facebook post:

Philip Aaberg‘s music of place was inspired by the work of Wallace Stegner and George R. Stewart.  I met Phil thanks to Teacher Richard Brong of Galena Hi in the Reno area.   Phil composed “Earth Abides,” and Richard wondered if the title referred to Stewart’s great novel.   I tracked Phil down, called his company, Sweetgrass Music, spoke with his manager (and wife) Patty, and eventually to Phil.   And thus began a friendship.  Phil spoke and played at the CONTACT George R. Stewart Symposium, endorsed the GRS biography, and did a fine review of the book for the Great Falls Tribune.   He’s been busy recording new CD material, and is working on a classical CD at the moment.

Paul Starrs, distinguished professor of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno, was another endorser of the GRS biography.  Jack Stewart connected us, and Paul invited me to address the Geography Graduate Colloquium.  He’s published books about one of the places Stewart wrote about; and recently, about California agriculture.   The photos from the latter book are now on display in the Bancroft Library — which is also keeper of the George Rippey Stewart, Jr., Papers.

Michael Ward is an active ePublisher, a judge for the HUGO awards, and the creator of the George R. Stewart webpages (accessed through a link in the menu at the top of the page).  He has been instrumental in the production and publicizing of the book, and is thus deserving of great praise and appreciation.

I’ve known Diane Farmer Ramirez almost since she was born.  Her mother and my then-wife worked together.  Her father, Dave, is a fine photographer, a collector of Leicas, a very good friend (notably in times of need) who once sold me a good car for 50 bucks.   Diane and her husband are raising a wonderful family – which is somewhat hard to visualize since to me she’s still a kiddo herself.

One of the leading experts on U.S. 40 and the National Road, Frank Brusca was a great help with the book.  He’s quoted in the chapter about Stewart’s classic U.S. 40.   Frank has written for AMERICAN ROAD magazine.  He has a minor starring role in William Least Heat Moon’s latest book, ROADS TO QUOZ, appearing in several chapters about the National Road and George R. Stewart.  Frank is currently working on an update to Stewart’s U.S. 40.

Gus Frederick, artist, publisher and CONTACT Board of Directors member, helped with the cover art for two books related to GRS — notably a teacher’s guide entitled From GeoS to Mars.   When he’s not working on one of his projects, he has been a great supporter of the GRS work. Gus also works closely with Dr. Penny Boston, exploring caves that may hold secrets to life on Mars.

Julie Shelberg is another kind stranger who likes the GRS page.   Since she’s a reader of science fiction, I assume she found us through searches for Stewart or EARTH ABIDES.   I do know that two of her daughters have just graduated from college, and that she has some fine, stirring quotes on her facebook postings.

Frank Brusca pointed me toward Harmut Bitomsky.  Inspired by U.S. 40, and commissioned to do a TV film about America’s Westward Movement, Bitomsky decided  to focus on the highway rather than the wagon trails.  The result was Highway 40 West, a film series which has become a classic in Germany. Bitomsky was Dean of the Film/Video School at CalArts, a university appropriately founded by Walt Disney, so our email interview was pretty easy to do.  He shared a deep understanding of why he made the film, adding some comments about other books of Stewart that have become favorites of his.  Bitomsky plans to release the film in an English version soon.

A key player at the old Walking Box Ranch – see her interviewed at about 38 minutes into this excellent BBC documentary Paula Garrett field manages the place for UNLV.  She had the great good sense to hire me as Caretaker; and the even greater wisdom to include my interpretive ideas, and me, in the planning process.   She’s also bought the book, and read it, the sign of a good mind.

In the next and final list of Pioneers, I’ll introduce those who like, and follow, the weblog pages.

A Milestone Spring

It’s been quite a spring.  NASA Education is back, with Angelo Casaburri of JSC successfully hunting me down to encourage more work on NASA Ed.  “I’m a writer, now, Angelo,” I said; but he talked me into helping set up a new NASA workshop with UNLV and CSN, to be held partly here at the historic Walking Box Ranch.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98wtDTbGBvk) (Ranch shows up about 38 minutes into the film.)

The National Park Service is back, interested in some role in the future of the ranch.  One of the players is Alan O’Neill, twin brother of the late superintendent of the GGNRA and Alcatraz, where I last worked for the agency.  The National Parks and Conservation Association is playing a key role in this, and local business folks are heavily involved.  I can finally use some of my interpretive program development experience again.

The houses have increased in value so that after 6 years of wandering and 3 of life in the Chinook, we are above water.  And the Chinook is still alive, at least mostly.

And — THANKS TO YOU — this web log has finally passed 30 followers on Facebook.  That means Facebook will now provide page statistics, which will help me to know how well it’s being received.  We’re actually up to 35 likes on the facebook page, and there are 8 followers of this wordpress page.

I’m not sure exactly who number 30 was — contenders include Hartmut Bitomsky, Rich Lapachet, Andrew Chaikin, Martyn Fogg, Anna Estrada — but I’ll research that tomorrow.  I also plan to put together a list of the Pioneers, and will post it at some future date.  At any rate, deepest thanks to all of you who’ve liked the page.  May you continue to read and enjoy it, as we saunter our way through the life and work of George R. Stewart, related topics like NASA, the old Walking Box, the music of Ray Scott, Phil Aaberg, Anna Estrada, the art of Mike and Denise Okuda, Rick Sternbach, et al, and all the wonderful stuff of life on Earth.