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.

 

 

 

GRS in a “Third Space”: Sharing ‘Stewart Gold’ with the Native Sons of the Golden West

(Thanks to the kindly efforts of WordPress Happiness Engineer, the missing post has been found!)

The Native Sons of the Golden West is a fraternal lodge like the Elks, and does community service like the Lions.  It comes from a noble old tradition of men’s lodges and women’s clubs which did much good work in their communities before government had the resources or the inclination.  Part social, part uplifting, part hard work and fund-raising.  These are community groups in some ways similar to Christian churches, since the meetings usually include a meal – a “communion,” one might call that – followed by shared exhortations and fundraising to fulfill community needs. Service/fraternal clubs often emphasize one or two areas of need.  Shriners built a hospital for crippled children; the Lions Club builds parks and helps the blind; the Grange supports farmers.

George and Ted (Theodosia) Stewart played an important role in the service/fraternal club movement during their years at the University of California, Berkeley.  In 1927, Ted helped found the University Section Club – so named because it had sections for members with different interests.  The Drama Section was the one in which George and Ted were active, writing and performing plays in a reader’s theatre style.  The socialization was a highlight for the Stewarts and the other members; and in the best tradition of such clubs, money raised by the Drama Section Club was used to buy milk for poor children.  The Section Club’s motto, “Friendship and Philanthropy,” is a fine statement of the character of all such groups, including the Native Sons of the Golden West.

In such friendship and philanthropy, the service/fraternal groups are an excellent example of what Robert Putnam, in his classic work Bowling Alone, calls “high social capital.”  According to Wikipedia, social capital was first defined in the way Putnam uses it by a West Virginia Educator, Supervisor of Rural Schools L.J. Hanifan.  Hanifan wrote:

I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbour, and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbours.

(Read the entire book here.  Chapter VI is about social capital.)

The next leader to use the term was another famous educator, John Dewey.  It is interesting to note that educators, like Hanifan, Dewey, and Putnam understand the need for and the positive power of social capital, while some businesses and public agencies seemingly do not.  t.

George R. Stewart wrote about attacks on social capital in a brilliant chapter in his award-winning book Not So Rich As You Think. Although primarily about pollution and waste, Stewart also considers the waste of human talent that low social capital a threat to society.  As I wrote, in an earlier post about the book:

In a chapter entitled “Waste Without Weight” Stewart describes how the modern corporate state weakens social capital by constantly moving people around and thus prevents those people from ever developing a sense of community.  He suggests that the disorder caused by [such practices] may have a terrible effect on the personalities of humans, theorizing that juvenile delinquency may be one result.

In a society driven by the “bottom line,” economic capital becomes pre-eminent, and social capital is (purposefully, perhaps) weakened.  But the Native Sons, the Section Clubs, and their ilk, keep social capital alive. These organizations are “Third Spaces” – places other than home or work where people informally gather to share ideas and meals in a relaxed, informal, voluntary atmosphere, and often organize to plan improvements to their communities.

So when old friend Paul Lapachet, at his sister Beth and Brother-in-Law Brian’s annual Christmas Eve Gathering in their beautiful Twin Peaks Home,  invited me to speak to the Native Sons of the Golden West annual Discovery of Gold Celebration Banquet (which honors James Marshall’s discovery of the nugget that started the Gold Rush) I enthusiastically agreed. In the stressful time of a major move, it was good therapy to work up a presentation that would appeal to the diverse membership of the NSGW who were attending the banquet. 

The banquet was held in Rancho Cordova, close to the Gold Discovery site at Coloma. A great storm which hit the area didn’t  deter attendance.

The talk was well-received.  Several people asked for more information about GRS and his work.  Hopefully,  there’ll be some new GRS fans soon.

Old friend, John Lucia, formerly of California state parks, an avid collector of and restorer of historical objects and houses, attended the talk. Afterwards, I accepted John and Angela Lucia’s kind invitation to leave the  motel and stay in their magnificent home in an historic neighborhood of Sacramento. p1040663

John Lucia on the porch of his and Angela’s historic Sacramento home.  (Angela was cooking.)

Then the massive storm  – a GRS Maria if ever there was such – cleared, Donner Pass opened, and I headed east and south in the aged Chinook, to Carson City, Nevada.  It’s not easy to make such a major change at this stage of life; but talking about George R. Stewart, staying  with the Lucias (who knew the Stewarts), and then  moving to Stewart Country, was encouraging and uplifting.

So far, I’ve met a fine bookseller, an artist, a writer, and other residents who inform me that Carson City has decided to become a city of outdoor recreation and the arts.  GRS would be most happy – as I am. I feel  at home  here.

I’m now staying within walking distance from Stewart, Nevada, where GRS took this iconic portrait:

Author George R. Stewart in one of his favorite places, Nevada

Thanks to Paul Lapachet, I’ve learned a lot about the NSGW.  For one thing, I’d always assumed that one had to be a descendant of someone who arrived in California before 9,9, 1849.  But that’s not the case – anyone who was born here can join.

I also learned how much good work the NSGW does in the field of historic preservation and interpretation. For example:  the group places historic plaques in many locations;  saved Sutter’s Fort from demolition; and is raising the funds to restore the Pioneer Monument at Donner Lake State Historic Park (a monument they originally built and donated to the state) AND build a new interpretive center there.

I intend to join the NSGW.  I encourage all of you to consider it, too.

(Written in Stewart Country, not far from the California Trail  and Donner Pass.)

George R. Stewart’s STORM in a new book about storms

One of the best rewards for writing the George R. Stewart biography and creating this weblog is the community of Stewart people  who follow it.  At the last count, there are followers in roughly 60 countries.  This week, we’ve had visitors from the UK, France, Morocco, India, and the US.

Some of those visitors leave comments, and I can begin to put a face on those people.  A few, like Christopher Priest, are well-known, most simply Stewart aficionados .  But all of the comments are interesting, and all of the visitors who comment enrich this work.

At times, one of the visitors will point out some new GRS treasure.  Ross Wilson Bogert, for example, who has become a good friend, brought the Wilson family into our dialogue – Stewart’s mother was a Wilson –  and donated an exceptional 1929 film of Stewart and his parents at the Wilson house in Southern California.

One theme that comes from reading the thoughts of others is the current rediscovery of George R. Stewart’s remarkable work.  Although GRS seems not to be widely-known to  the mainstream publishing/literary establishment,  articles are being written about him, there are new reviews of his books and his work, and his ideas are being included in others’ work.  One example is the one being discussed today, thanks to Joe Livak.

Joe sent a comment last week about a new book which examines Stewart’s STORM from new points of view.  The book, SNOWBOUND, by Mark McLaughlin, is available on McLaughlin’s website.  Joe heard Mark speak about the book in Reno.

McLaughlin, who studied cultural geography at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a prolific author and frequent public speaker on topics relating to the history of the Lake Tahoe region.  He’s published hundreds of articles and several books, and regularly presents talks at various local groups, to high praise.

McLaughlin’s new book describes the ten greatest storms to hit the central Sierra Nevada.  On pages 58 to 60 McLaughlin takes a close look at Stewart’s STORM, digging into real events which he believes were likely inspirations for Stewart’s ground-breaking novel.  McLaughlin also describes a couple of other storm-related tragedies, which had military connections but which Stewart does not include, speculating that he did so to respect the privacy of the families of the victims and also to protect military secrets.  McLaughlin fleshes out his GRS pages with images of the front pages of local papers describing the events.

My only small disagreement with his book is the idea that Stewart has been forgotten –  that’s only true for the “establishment” mentioned earlier.  Earth Abides, in particular, never out of print, is in 20 languages and is now slated to become a mini-series.  It enjoys healthy sales to this day.  Other GRS books are honored by other authors, like William Least Heat Moon, who devotes one section of Roads to Quoz to Stewart’s U.S. 40U.S. 40 is also honored by Larry McMurtry in Roads.   And the mother’s Fourth of July speech in Ivan Doig’s English Creek was inspired by Stewart’s Names On The Land.

Slowly, GRS is returning to the attention of the public, and books like McLaughlin’s are a major step in that new awareness.  Hopefully, the “establishment” will soon have a re-awakening of interest in the work of George R. Stewart.

Thanks to Joe Livak for pointing us to McLaughlin and his work.

For more information about Mark McLaughlin and this book, click the image below.

mark-mcl-book

 

And So We Come To A Milestone

Ish's Hammer(1)

After five years and 171 posts, reviewing George R. Stewart’s work, reporting on projects being developed to honor him, and describing his influence on human societythis web log about George R. Stewart has come to a milestone.  The weblog’s author is moving.

It’s been a luxury to have a comfortable place to research and write about him, and hopefully that’s been reflected in posts that are longer and more readable than ones written on the fly.  Now, the author  is leaving his comfortable office, and heading out to seek new adventures.  This means that there may be gaps in the posts, and posts may be less developed.

Fortunately, this is a milestone in other ways.

For one thing, all of his major work has been described here on this site.   So without reading all of Stewart’s books, the fans of some of them can see the intellectual and artistic context in which they are placed. His masterwork Earth Abides, for example, can be seen as the pinnacle of his ecological novels – the books in which the ecosystem, not humans, is the protagonist.  And readers of this web log will now also know that Stewart’s ecological best sellers, published long before Earth Day or the rise of the Environmental Consciousness, certainly helped bring that Consciousness about.

It is a milestone, too, in sharing those honors which he is increasingly gathering.   The interpretive sign at Donner Summit is in place during the summer when the old highway he immortalized, U.S. 40, is open to traffic.  The GRS ePlaque is now online at the Berkeley Historical Plaque site.  (Someday, if funding is found and permission gathered, a physical plaque could be placed at the site of Stewart’s San Luis Road home.)   Junlin Pan, Chinese scholar, is well along in her difficult translation of Names on the Land for an immense Chinese audience eager to learn about America.  The sheet music for Philip Aaberg’s Earth Abides is soon to be published, thanks (like the US 40 sign) to the contributions of friends of Stewart.  And, just perhaps, there’s an Earth Abides mini-series on the horizon.  It’s been a pleasure and an honor to have been part of these things.

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New GRS Interpretive Sign, Donner Summit, Historic U.S. 40, just above the Rainbow Bridge and Donner lake, and just below George R. Stewart Peak.

Along the way of the weblog, we’ve been reminded of how Stewart’s work still directs us, and encourages us.  One of the great Stewart interpreters, for example, recently refused to sign an illegal loyalty oath in his unenlightened college system – a college system in a state whose voters salivate over the chance to pack weapons into diners, but apparently have little use for freedom of thought.  Surely, that Stewart interpreter, that hero of thought, (a famous poet and author), was inspired by Stewart’s Year of the Oath.  And as the ecosystem gets our attention through climate change, we can all be reassured by the ecological novels that humans can survive and transcend any such changes.

Stewart once wrote that although his scholarly life had often been a lonely
one, he had enjoyed some fine meetings along the way. That is true for this web log, as well.  It’s brought us into conversations with a professor at Temple University, well-known author Christopher Priest, and several dedicated Stewart fans, who’ve all shared their experiences with Stewart’s books.  It brought into the light a remarkable 1929 silent film of George R. Stewart and his parents, visiting his wife’s Wilson relatives in Pasadena – a film now copied, thanks to Ross Wilson Bogert and his son, and placed in the Bancroft, other Stewart collections, and the collections of the Stewart family.

So we’ve done a lot. And if this weblog needs to take a break, it’s earned the right to do it.

But the site will return, because there’s much yet to discuss.  Stewart’s friends, for example, like C.S. Forester and Wallace Stegner and Bruce Catton and Frost and Sandburg and all the rest.  And there will be news, of that you can be sure, about George R. Stewart and his continuing influence on us all.

Thanks to you, readers, for enriching and expanding this weblog with your comments, your encouragement, your suggestions, your support, and your continuing interest in things Stewartian.

 

Author George R. Stewart in one of his favorite places, Nevada

from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

George R. Stewart, Space Explorer

Say what?  GRS a space explorer, decades before we had humans in space?  How so?

In Ordeal By Hunger and Storm, Stewart writes the view from space into the work.  The Ordeal By Hunger entry is especially interesting.  He describes the view of northern Nevada along the California Trail so precisely that in the NASA days when I asked Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu to photograph it on ISS Expedition 7, and had the passage sent to him, the photos that came back showed how accurately Stewart had visualized the space explorer’s view – 25 years before any human actually saw it for themselves.

 

Storm begins and ends with a view of Earth from space – the opening passages, like those in Ordeal By Hunger, give a view from near space.  The closing passages move farther out, into the solar system, where he gives the view from Venus.

Interestingly, he changed the space-perspective section in Ordeal By Hunger for the second edition; but once humans had gone into space, he put the original back.

He was a pioneer in the Whole Earth Perspective, including the close view from within the ecosystem here on Earth, and the overview, the Astronaut’s View, from Low Earth Orbit.  So it seemed to make sense to use him as a model for a new way to interpret the Earth and educate others about it. When the opportunity came to present a teacher’s workshop at a Mars Conference, in 1998,  I used that theme.   Accidentally, today, I came upon that workshop paper in researching another talk.  The paper lists all the resources for space education, many now gone, available to teachers in 1998.  GRS wanders into the paper on page 8.

Here’s the paper,  for your edification and amusement.

 

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.