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.

 

Carrying the Fire of George R. Stewart. Kaplan and Kehlmann II – The First Publisher

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Born in New York City, and speaking with a distinct accent, Alan Kaplan brought a distinctive character to his work as a Naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks.  Based in Tilden Regional Park, in the hills behind Berkeley, Alan interpreted the history and natural history of the area through guided hikes, school programs, and the preparation of exhibits for many years, until his retirement. He’s also provided leadership in organizations that provide education in interpretation for his fellow naturalists in the west, through his work in the old Western Interpreters Association.     (Note that “interpreter” in the park sense refers to what used to be called “naturalists” – those  people in distinctive uniforms who interpret the advanced concepts of a park’s cultural and natural history into common English for visitors.)

That’s where I first met him.  There,  he played a foundational role in the publication of the George R. Stewart biography.  He was the First Publisher of my writings about GRS.

In 1986, the WIA conference was held in Yosemite National Park.  I presented a talk, “George R. Stewart:  An Author for Interpreters.”  As the the title implies, Stewart’s histories and ecological novels are excellent resources for those interpreting the natural or human history of the West.

I was pleasantly surprised when Alan, then President of WIA, encouraged conference attendees to attend the GRS session.  And even more pleasantly surprised when the session was crammed full of enthusiastic naturalists and interpreters.

As the session ended, Alan, who was in the audience, rose to second my comments about Stewart’s value for interpreters.  He emphasized the power of Stewart’s writing by quoting the closing lines of FIRE.  Doing so, he even educated me – I knew FIRE well, but had never given the ecological power of its closing such careful attention. (FIRE was so well-researched and written that the U.S. Forest Service used it in their training programs for summer fire lookouts.)

Alan asked for an article for the WIA Newsletter, Bayways.  Entitled “The Man Who Named The Wind,” the article was a written summary of the GRS talk.  It was the first publication, for a large audience, of material which would eventually expand into the McFarland biography.

Alan also interpreted the work of George R. Stewart to Tilden Regional Park visitors.  For many years, on a weekend close to the day in August when Stewart died, Alan led a “George R. Stewart Memorial Hike” to the summit of one of Tilden’s peak .  The hike focused on Stewart’s work, especially his remarkable NAMES ON THE LAND.  The book is not a dictionary of American place names, but a history which explains in beautiful prose WHY we named places a certain way in a certain era.  As Wallace Stegner once wrote about NAMES (here paraphrased) “No one ever wrote a book like this before; no one has written one since.”  Visitors who joined Alan’s hike learned about Stewart, his work, and especially his unique work about place-naming.  (NAMES ON THE LAND has just been translated into Chinese for the millions of citizens of that country who are enamored of American culture.)

Once, friends and I joined Alan on the hike:  George  and Theodosia’s son Jack, Jack’s wife Joyce, and former high school student Denise L. Barney and her husband Barney hiked along; afterward we crammed into the back of the tiny Chinook microcamper with Alan to share some good wine and crackers (Alan abstained!)

As the GRS biography was written, and published, Alan joined public events which described GRS and my work.  Once, to my chagrin, he was at a talk at the Bancroft Library and I did not notice him so did not introduce him; fortunately, when he came up afterward to say hello I was able to give him a well-deserved gift – a first edition of STORM, autographed by GRS, with a rare misprint on one page.

He also shared our GRS dinner at the beautiful, historic  UC Berkeley Faculty Club, sitting next to me, and we were able to talk about shared GRS experiences.

To sum up – Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, played a major role in the work which led to the eventual publication of THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART.   He also inspired me to take a second, deeper look at Stewart’s books, especially FIRE.  Stewart, and the GRS biography owe him much.  I am deeply grateful for his encouragement.

A Day of Celebration – The National Park Service Turns 100

George R. Stewart was not really a national parks person; he was more active in national forests, where he did much of his research.  But we met at a small state park, Thornton State Beach, where I was a Ranger.  And there, thanks to fellow Ranger Steve Gazzano, we named our nature trail for Stewart, not realizing then how much it would mean to him.  Stewart was enthralled with place-naming.  To have someplace beautiful named for him was, in his eyes, an exceptional honor.

GRS Trail Guide

State park systems grew from the National Park system.  So this tale of the founding of the National Park Service is part of the George R. Stewart story:

100 years ago today, the bill establishing the National Park Service was signed.

The National Parks were established before the Service, but there was no coordinated management and things were poorly run.  Wealthy businessman (he gave us Twenty Mule Team Borax) and conservationist Stephen T. Mather wanted a Service that would make sure all parks had good management and staffing.

Mather had been escorting a group of influential writers and businessmen, which included the famous photographer of Native Americans Edward S. Curtis, on a strenuous trip along the just-finished John Muir Trail.  His assistant, Horace Albright, had stayed in Washington to make sure the bill was passed and signed.  As soon as it was passed, Albright took the bill to the White House, in the evening, to get it signed.  President Wilson was not well, but he was able to sign the bill and did so at 9 pm.   Albright immediately sent a telegram to Mather, who had finished his Mountain Party and was staying with the group at the Palace Hotel in Visalia:  “Park Service bill signed nine o’clock last night. Have pen President used in signing for you….”

Here’s the whole story, from Albright:

The opening lines of the Organic Act of the National Park Service still ring as some of the most beautiful legislative language ever written:

“The fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations… is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The world changed that day, and we’ve all benefited.  There are now national parks and national park services in many countries, inspired by this action.

Like many lucky folks, I did a stint as a National Park Service Ranger.  I worked on Alcatraz, at Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site in Montana, and – on a detail – in the Superintendent’s office at Yellowstone National Park during the Fires of 1988.  Since the Superintendent’s office at Yellowstone is a summit of Rangering, it was all downhill from there, and I left the Service in 1992.   Yet I’d accomplished a few things in those 6 years:

  • Helped upgrade the interpretive program from a movie version of Alcatraz history into one which emphasized the roots of the penitentiary idea in the work of Founding Father Benjamin Rush. (And had the rare pleasure of meeting his great-great-great-etc grandson, Benjamin Rush, on one Cellhouse tour.)
  • Thanks to Ranger Ted Stout and District Ranger Armando Quintero, developed and presented a series of workshops about the history of the National Park Service and UC Berkeley. The Service was born and initially housed at UCB, where Mather and Albright had been students. (Many people don’t realize that the Ranger Stetson is actually the “Senior Sombrero” for Albright’s class of 1912.) (There’s some debate about the year of the Stetson; but the one on display at Berkeley a few years ago had “1912” embossed on the hatband.)  Quite by coincidence – or was it a coincidence? – the Mather family showed up on Alcatraz just in time for Stephen T. Mather’s great-grandson, Stephen Mather McPherson II, to be involved in the workshops.)
  • In a story whose details must remain secret, I unknowingly helped derail the plans of the Superintendent of the GGNRA to “destroy” – his term – the National Park Service.
  • And in Yellowstone, I was able to build on pre-existing work and bring NASA into the fire effort, thus establishing the concept of NASA-NPS partnerships which continue to this day – most recently, in Craters of the Moon, with the leadership of NASA’s Dr. Chris McKay and Craters of the Moon’s visionary and excellent Chief of Interpretation, Ted Stout.

The Yellowstone effort, informal as it was, is especially rewarding.  It was a fulfillment of an idea that came from George R. Stewart’s work, which gave the literate public the first example of the Whole Earth vision, first presented in Ordeal By Hunger:  That humans can now understand Earth from the two perspectives of space and ground.  Chief of Interpretation at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Ranger Ted Stout, and NASA’s Dr. Chris McKay,  have done much to bring that idea into fulfillment.

Now, NASA, under the direction of ISS Expedition 48 Jeff Williams,  has illustrated Stewart’s pioneering vision, in honor of the Centennial of the National Park Service. Click on the mission patch to see his video.

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Credit for such accomplishments is not always given.  But the important thing is that  work was done,  for the good of the Agency and the public.  It’s what public service is all about.

There were rewards, though, in addition to the doing of it.

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Book dedication Mathers

  • Connections with Dr. Chris McKay and NASA-Ames Chief Education Officer Garth Hull led to a wonderful career with NASA Education.
  • An invitation to the Dedication of the Ranger Museum in Yellowstone.
  • The  gift of a biography of Stephen T. Mather, autographed by the Mather generations.
  • And an unexpected experience in England that reinforced how important the National Park Service is to the world:

Attending a conference on heritage preservation at the University of Warwick, I went down late one morning to get breakfast in the university dining hall.  The couple seated across the table were distinguished in appearance and demeanor.  He was all in black except for a gold chain of office around his neck.

He said nothing.  She nodded.  Then asked, “Where are you from?”

“I’m an American, here to attend the conference.”

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a National Park Service Ranger.”

At that, he put his fork down, looked at me and said, “I say.  This is an honor, to meet you.

“Do you get to wear one of those hats?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I would give anything for one of those hats,” he said.

He paused, then said, “You know, I think that if America has an aristocracy, it is the National Park Service Ranger.  You represent the best your nation has to offer.”

And he went back to his breakfast.

All the time, his wife was listening with a smile on her face.  Now, she asked, “Do you know who he is?”

“No, ma’m.”

“He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

I have one regret about our meeting – I never sent him a hat.  But his words showed just how important the National Park Service and its Rangers are, and how important it is to keep that integrity alive – not easy to do in a day of skimpy budgets (except for war) and politically-inspired personnel practices.

The battle continues – the NPS has been weakened by poor funding and poor, political hiring and promotion practices in too many cases.  We need another Mather, and a re-creation of the National Park Service.

Yet, this is a day for celebration; and whatever the issues or the challenges, we have this wonderful Agency with us, pointing us down a good path, into a better future.

So let’s give three Huzzahs for the National Park Service, and its dedicated Rangers.  People like Ted, John, Phil B., Bob V., and all the others who work for sunsets so we can hike the trails in Mather’s and Muir’s footsteps.

Let us all thank the Mather family – Steve MM and Steve MM II – who carry on the work of their ancestor.  Huzzah to the Mathers!

And let’s add one more Huzzah – for the Rangering in the parks that brought me to  George R. Stewart.

 

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