Wilder Bentley – The Younger and The Elder

Featured

Wilder Mayo Bentley — Wilder Bentley the Younger — passed away in the fall of 2018, and an era ended.

Wilder Bentley the Younger was the scion of a distinguished but largely unknown Bay Area family.  His Great-Grandfather Robert Bentley was a distinguished, progressive Methodist minister who eventually became the Presiding Minister of the largest Methodist District in California, the Sacramento District.  He and his family lived in a simple, elegant Dutch-style cottage in the Berkeley Hills —  one of the few to survive the 1923 Berkeley Fire.  His sons Charles and Robert founded a fruit canning company which became one foundation of the Del Monte brand.

Charles’s son, Harvey Wilder Bentley – Wilder Bentley the Elder – was a poet, a distinguished printer and graphic artist, and a professor of English at San Francisco State.  He was also a painter, well-taught by his old friend and colleague, Chiura Obata.  Always interested in fine printing, Wilder the Elder and his wife founded the Archive Press in Berkeley, now memorialized online by the Berkeley ePlaque Project.  The Bentleys printed the first book of Ansel Adams photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in the late 1930’s.  (You can buy one from the Bentleys’ limited edition of 500 copies here – if you have $8565.  Even the later reprints go for several hundred dollars.) (Copies of the book were sent to Washington to encourage the protection of the Sierra at the southern end of the Muir Trail.   Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes lent his copy to FDR – who refused to give it back.  Ickes had to get another copy.  The book resulted in the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)  Wilder the Elder’s printed works, including his 26 scroll set The Poetry of Learning, are held at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  (To see some  works bythe Bentleys Younger and Elder, visit ABE books.  As of this date, The Poetry of Learning is described at the bottom of the list.)

Archive Press cover

Cover of the later reprint, hard-cover version

Like his father, Wilder the Younger was a gifted artist, taught by Chiura Obata.   He was also a writer, art-glass maker, book-maker, poet, historian, and craftsman.  Some of his works are archived in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley (which also houses the Mark Twain Papers and the papers of George R. Stewart).  His works are also held at the Rosicrucian Museum, UCLA, and the New York Public Library.  His work is sometimes available for sale, as online listings reveal.

He learned to set type at a very early age, working with his parents.  Later he followed their example, establishing San Francisco’s Bread and Wine Press and publishing several works by local poets including Dick McBride.

Later, Wilder the Younger moved to Sonoma County’s Wheeler Ranch where he and his wife Penny lived for many years.  He continued his creativity, including researching, illustrating, and writing a book about the historic bridges of that area.

Although I never met Wilder the Younger, he played an important role in the creation of the George R. Stewart biography.  I was able to interview him by email and mail.  His emails – and his printed autobiography, a copy of which he kindly sent — filled in important gaps in the chapters on Thornton State Beach (where I met George R. Stewart, and Wilder the Elder and Obata and where Ranger Nick Lee educated me about the importance of the two artists.)

In one of those episodes which seem to validate Carl Jung’s idea that there are no accidents, it was Ranger Nick Lee who sent the news of Wilder the Younger’s passing.   In his letter, Nick included a notice about a retrospective of Wilder the Younger’s work that was being arranged in Sonoma County at the end of March, 2019.  In the years since Thornton Beach and the writing of the GRS biography, I had become friends with Jean and Roger Moss and learned that they knew Wilder the Younger quite well. I called the Mosses to let them know about Wilder’s passing and the retrospective, which Roger attended.

Thornton State Beach, now abandoned by the state parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, played a role in the STEAM history (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) of Northern California.   The Bentleys, Obata, and George R. Stewart, and others of their ilk enriched our days there.  Nick, who was the catalyst for the trail named for GRS, also helped engineer the trail, created beautiful poetry and works of art, wrote articles, and played his part the creation of the GRS bio.

Thanks to our small community at Thornton Beach, and Nick, I had the honor and pleasure to know Wilder the Younger through our mail communications. Like Nick, Wilder Bentley the Younger enriched the book about GRS.   When he left us last fall, a chapter in California history closed.

How lucky we were, all of us,  to work there together, that place in which literature, art, printing, and all the rest of STEAM, were enfolded in a small wilderness near a large city, a park of ‘small compass and unusual value.’

 

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.

fire first cover

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.

Ø Ø Ø

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.

 

resiliencebuttecountyproudipa-2

 

 

 

Kaplan and Kehlmann: Carrying the Torch of George R. Stewart Onward, I: Robert Kehlmann

Although George R. Stewart is not as well-known as other authors of his day, there is a distinguished band of people who know, value, and carry on his work.  Other authors, including Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Christopher Priest, Wallace Stegner, William Least Heat Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others, acknowledge GRS either openly through essays or quietly through references in their work. Walt Disney filmed two of Stewart’s books for the Disney TV show.   Stewart’s millions of fans, of course, keep his books alive; several, like Earth Abides,  are still good sellers.  And there are those who actively memorialize and share Stewart’s work.  Two of these are Robert Kehlmann of the Berkeley Plaque Project and Naturalist Emeritus Alan Kaplan.  This post focuses on Robert Kehlmann.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, now living in Berkeley, California, Robert Kehlmann is a distinguished glass artist, a “painter with glass.” Initially trained in Literature, Kehlmann began to see paintings as similar to poems in their effects on the viewer; and he decided to produce new works of painterly glass “paintings” that would encourage that response.  He helped found a movement taking artistic glass from its traditional use in architecture to a more painterly use, in which glass becomes the “paint” of an artist’s work.  Kehlmann’s work is found in many collections, including the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Corning Museum of Glass, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and others.

Kehlmann is active in historic preservation in Berkeley.  Former Director of the Landmark’s Preservation Commission in Berkeley, Kehlmann founded the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project in 1997.  On its elegantly designed site, the Plaque Project lists Berkeley historic sites and people with physical or online plaques.  One of those honored by Kehlmann’s project, byan ePlaque,  is  George R. Stewart.

(Also honored with an ePlaque is Wilder Bentley the Elder, and his family.   Bentley, an exceptional poet and printer, was a regular visitor at the former Thornton State Beach in the days Stewart and his family visited.  The Bentleys’ Archive Press published the first book of Ansel Adams’ photographs – a work which led to the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)

Kehlmann is one of several fine partners we work with in this tiny but determined project to honor the work of George R. Stewart and educate others about Stewart’s work.  He joins Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, who spearheaded the George R. Stewart Interpretive Plaque on Historic US 40 at Donner Summit, Phil and Patty Aaberg at Sweetgrass Music, who published Phil’s Earth Abides sheet music, Baiba Strads and the others of the Bancroft Library, and the select group of people who’ve dug into their pockets to fund or develop these works:  Steve Williams, Doug Raybeck, Junlin Pan, Joyce Colbath-Stewart, Dee and Barney Barney, Bob Lyon,  Beth Lapachet, Brian Byrne, Ross and Charlene Bogert, John and Angela Lucia, Willie Stewart, Paul F. Starrs.

And Alan Kaplan, subject of an upcoming post.

GRS Supporter Michael Ward’s Wonderful Projects and Pages

Stewart fans owe Michael Ward a great deal.  He volunteered to create and post the George R. Stewart web pages, at his own expense.  The pages contain an excellent repository of information and links about Stewart and his work.  This blog reports the news about GRS; Mike’s pages are the best overview of basic information for Stewart.

We owe publication of the Stewart biography to Mike, as well.  Science fiction author G.D. Nordley, a fellow participant in the annual CONTACT conference,  suggested I contact Mike and his fellow organizers of the speculative fiction conference, Potlatch, to offer to participate on a panel about their Book of Honor that year, I jumped at the chance:  the book was Stewart’s Earth Abides. Mike, the panel organizer Tom Becker, and the others, graciously welcomed me to the program, and the panel.

One of the vendors there recommended submitting my book proposal to McFarland for consideration.  Agent Sally van Haitsma did so, and McFarland agreed to publish the book.

So it can be said that Mike Ward, his associates, G.D. Nordley, and Sally van Haitsma brought the GRS biography to life.

Now Mike keeps the GRS pages alive for our common interest.  Many of those who visit this weblog are directed here by Mike’s website, so he does a fine job of spreading the word about Stewart.

Mike has his own websites, and projects, and they are interesting and in at least one case wonderful research resources.

He has a site, Hidden Knowledge,  for the works of several authors, among those books the great adventure stories of Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini knew how to write a good tale.  Like C.S. Forester, Sabatini’s books are about the sea in the 18th century.  But Sabatini wrote pirate stories.  Like Forester, Sabatini’s work was filmed Captain Blood and and  The Sea-Hawk wonderful swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn, are probably the best-known.

(Please note that the links to buy the books no longer work.  So simply browse the site to learn more about Sabatini’s books, and the others Mike lists.)

Another of Mike’s sites is devoted to the art of magazine covers.  MagazineArt.org has more than 15,000 examples of cover art and magazine ads on the site – a virtual Smithsonian for the wonderful art of those printed wonders that enriched the lives of Americans and others before television or film or radio – and after, as well.

He has sites devoted to historic travels and travelers.  TravelHistory.org,  and another for the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  The many articles on the travel history page make for fascinating reading, allowing you to be an armchair traveler in the days of the web.

His pages link to other sites, about Burton Holmes, Rafael Sabatini, and George R. Stewart.

Thanks again to Mike Ward, whose GRS pages were the first major web presence for those of us who are fans of Stewart’s work.  Mike’s GRS pages bring others to this weblog.

His other pages are worth a browse.

Steve Williams: Stewart Scholar, Artist, and creator of Stamps

The painting of George R. Stewart’s books and the Hammer of Ish that heads this weblog is the work of Steve Williams.  Steve grew up in Liverpool, went to art school there (with Lennon and McCartney), married Carol, found a good job, and raised a family.  He discovered George R. Stewart along the way, becoming quite a Stewart scholar.

I met Steve when he traveled to Berkeley to research the Stewart papers at the Bancroft Library.  Later, when I went to Britain, Steve, Carol and family hosted me on a tour of Beatles sites in Liverpool and Castles in Wales.

Steve retired several years ago.  Returning to his first love, he began teaching art and  painting.  You can see his work and watch a video of him discussing his art here:  http://community.saa.co.uk/art/stevewilliamsart

He paints a wide variety of subjects:  Lancaster bombers heading out on a raid, a ferry crossing the Mersey River, landscapes of this and other worlds.  One subject he’s focused on recently is Bletchley Park, where British intelligence successfully broke the German codes in World War II.  He’s donated several paintings to the site, which were sold to raise money to support its restoration and operation as a museum and education center. Here’s a site which showcases the Bletchley paintings.

One of Steve’s Bletchley Park paintings is of Alan Turing.  Turing played a major role in the code breaking, a role now showcased in The Imitation Game, when he refined the Polish Bombe Machine.  With the growing interest in Turing, and Bletchley Park, Steve was asked to donate several paintings to be used on stamps honoring  the role played by place and person.  The stamps were released recently:  Here’s the order form.

In a special Centennial Stamp set, Steve’s paintings of the Bombe machine, Turing’s Cottage, and a reunion of Bletchley Park workers  is paired with a painting of Turing by another artist.:

Turing set

The “Fellowship” of George R. Stewart is populated by people like Steve – creative people inspired by the remarkable ideas and books of Stewart, who express that inspiration in  personal acts of creativity:  Composer Philip Aaberg, NASA-JPL Ranger Mission Project Manager James D. Burke, Walt Disney, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen King, and many more.