This is a brief note to followers of this weblog.
The post about the digitization of GRS’s recordings of his manuscripts has been polished. You may wish to take another look at it.
This is a brief note to followers of this weblog.
The post about the digitization of GRS’s recordings of his manuscripts has been polished. You may wish to take another look at it.
This is a short update of a post from some time ago, about the possible filming of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.
Since the earlier post reporting on possible filming of the novel, information has surfaced about the team interested in filming Earth Abides. Two of the principles in the production company won Academy Awards; one was involved in the excellent (and similarly hard to film) Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and has a strong interest in filming science fiction classics.
The team plans to do the film as a mini-series. That’s a good idea, since the highly-competitive premium channels are interested in such stories – consider The Handmaiden’s Tale and HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon — and are always looking for projects to film. A mini-series would be an ideal way to bring the novel to the screen.
The project is still “under development.” That can mean a search for funding, or the talent to turn GRS’s book into a successful film. Development can take a long time – it took years for a successful version of Lord Of The Rings to be produced.
In the case of Stewart’s fine novel, any potential producer will need to work hard to convince the money men that the film can turn a profit.
Earth Abides would be a difficult work to transition to the screen. Much of it is somewhat philosophical, or technical. In a way that is distinctly different from current films, violence and sex are low-key and “off screen.” There are no major battles or graphic sex scenes or gun fights. To add such scenes would change the special nature of the book.
(The danger of a bad film translation can be found in Stewart’s own experience. Stewart’s Fire was filmed twice. The Disney TV version keeps the ecological focus of the novel. The other version, by Paramount, was changed to emphasize sex and violence, and ignored the ecological focus. It became Red Skies of Montana, and a good example of how NOT to translate a novel to the screen.)
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The news about the team is encouraging. But there’s still no word about the actual filming. So we continue to wait with bated breath.
The Bancroft Library, nestled between the Campanile and the Doe Library,
University of California, Berkeley
Photo copyright: MikkiPiperImaging.com Used with permission.
The Bancroft Library will digitize recordings of several manuscripts recorded by George R. Stewart.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, GRS decided to record his drafts. (Before this, his drafts were written with sharp pencils, so he always kept a wad of sharpened pencils near his desk). Since tape recorders were not available, we believe he used the Dictaphone or a similar system.
Over the years of researching and writing about Stewart and his works, the idea of finding those recordings and digitizing them never went away. But the big question was whether or not the Bancroft Library had the ability to digitize fragile recordings from an “ancient” format – if they existed and could be found.
Then, this week, a message came from the Bancroft Library:
The answer to the letter was a resounding “YES!” — from the GRS family and those of us sharing George R. Stewart with scholars, artists, and the general literate world.
And so it begins.
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The backstory of events that brought us to this point is full of twists and turns. It depended on the hard work of GRS Helpers, including Michael Ward, Keeper of the George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.
I had contacted the Bancroft as a somewhat-anonymous scholar wondering about digitizing the recordings. But Stewart left strict instructions with the Bancroft: No one was to listen to those recordings without his specific written permission. When GRS passed away in 1980, permission would need to come from the family’s holder of copyright.
The Bancroft Librarians began searching for the family keeper of permissions. Discovering Mike’s excellent GRS website they contacted him, asking if he could direct them to the person who could authorize the digitization and sharing of the recordings.Mike directed the Bancroft to me.
I connected them with Ed Stewart, GRS’s grandson, who manages permissions since his father Jack Stewart’s death. Ed quickly gave his ok.
The Librarians began the process of finding the best and safest way to transfer those fragile old recordings to modern digitized form. The letter explains the next steps they’ll take to preserve those treasures of literature.
Heller Reading Room, The Bancroft Library
The Bancroft Library is one of the great literary repositories on Earth. Their collections include ancient papyrus texts, 49er diaries and journals (including those of the Donner Party), the Papers of the founders of the National Park Service and the Wilderness Society, and Mark Twain. (Clemens’ family insisted on the Bancroft.) And the Bancroft holds the Papers of George R. Stewart, soon, we hope, to include his recordings of several of his manuscripts.*
Of course, as the Bancroft Librarian says, we don’t yet know exactly what’s on those recordings. But there is good evidence that some of them contain GRS’s reading and verbal notes on his great epic, Earth Abides. That novel, never out of print, influenced writers like James Sallis and Stephen King (who based The Stand on Earth Abides), and composer-musicians including Phillip Aaberg and Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix was inspired to write Third Stone from the Sun by Stewart’s book). Stewart’s novel is one of the great inheritances from our time, to all time.
GRS Composer/Scholar Philip Aaberg’s new video from Montana’s HiLine, honoring the Montana Farmers’ Union.
The hope we may soon be able to hear GRS reading parts of the novel in draft form is, well, stunning. The idea that the Bancroft will share that with the world’s scholars is a credit to them and the tools of this age.
It has been a long journey, indeed full of twists and turns, aided along the way by critical helpers, as our small band of scholars seeks the holy grail: To teach the literate world and the STEAM-thinking world about George R. Stewart’s books and his ideas. Now, at a summit on the Stewart Trail, we appear to be close to receiving a boon. That boon – hearing Stewart read his manuscripts – will be shared with the world.
Whatever is on those recordings, I am infinitely grateful for the hard work of all who have brought GRS and his works to this point.
As digitizing progresses, I’ll send updates. Stay tuned.
National Park Service Ranger ready to do NPS research at the Bancroft Library
*The Bancroft uses donations to fund such special projects, and also accepts donations of exceptional items that are within the purview of their collections. You might consider sending them a donation .
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.)
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.
Waiting For Totality
Totality near Craters of the Moon
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.
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.
According to Google, both the 70th and hundredth anniversaries are honored with platinum gifts. Since Earth Abides is closing in on the 70th anniversary of publication, George R. Stewart’s epic work is approaching platinum.
The novel was published on October 7, 1949. It immediately caught the attention of reviewers for its well-written, epic tale of humans living in a world they no longer dominate. One later reviewer went so far as to call it “a second work of Genesis.” With its title from Ecclesiastes, and the old testament rhythm of its language, it is almost biblical in its feeling.
Stewart later insisted he didn’t intend it to be a religious work. But even he admitted that there was “a certain quality there.” The language was one reason. Stewart taught himself Hebrew before he wrote the book. He wanted to translate portions of the Bible into more-modern English. He was surely influenced by the style of ancient Hebrew.
The book has had enormous influence. Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides, Grammy-nominated composer Philip Aaberg wrote “Earth Abides,” Jimi Hendrix was inspired to write “Third Rock From the Sun” by the novel (his favorite book), other authors and scientists honor Stewart’s works. It is published in either 20 or 27 languages, depending on who you ask. There is some talk of producing a film version of the novel.
The best essay about the novel was written by James Sallis and published in The Boston Globe. Like Stewart, Sallis realizes the importance of integrity and beauty in his work, and it’s reflected in his essay. (Sallis is a distinguished novelist and poet, whose noir novella Drive was filmed by Nicolas Winding Refn.)
The novel has never been out of print –no thanks to its original publisher. Random House decided to pull the novel in the early 1970s. Fortunately, Stewart and small fine press publisher Alan Ligda quickly got together and brought out a beautiful copy from Ligda’s Hermes Press.
The Hermes edition sold well. Random House quickly realized they’d made a mistake and bought the rights back.
Thanks to Alan Ligda, Earth Abides has been in print for seventy years come next October. He is a Hero of the novel. Sadly, he died young, and won’t be able to help celebrate the book’s Platinum Anniversary. So please take a minute (or more) to say a silent thanks to Alan Ligda while you celebrate the novel.
And read the novel again. (You’ll have to do a number of readings to catch up with Steve Williams, the Pilgrim, who doesn’t know how many dozens of times he’s read it.) As you read, reflect on Stewart’s role in raising our consciousness of the ecosystem. His wildly popular ecological novels, Storm, Fire, and Earth Abides, and his less-widely read “post-modernist” ecological novel, Sheep Rock, have shaped our thinking. Like most great creative works of thought, they have more power than all the armies in existence. That pen (or, in Stewart’s case, pencil) is mightier than the sword.
By the way – if you want to buy a signed first edition, Morley’s Books in Carson City just happens to have one. It comes with a custom box to protect the classic. Only $1600 – about half the price of another on offer at ABE.
Although George R. Stewart was still in graduate school when the Pioneer Monument was dedicated at Donner Lake Memorial State Park, and just beginning his career when Donner Lake Memorial State Park was established, he would become the leading historian and novelist for the area.
Stewart was a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He was interested in the geography, history, and field exploration of California and the West. When a new Head of the English Department took a disliking to Stewart, and denied him his deserved promotion, Stewart decided to write in a field which interested him, Western history, and would bring him extra income to help support his growing family. As he said, “What did I have to lose?” So he would NOT write arcane books about punctuation in Elizabethan English or some such. Instead he wrote the best history of the Donner Party ever published: Ordeal By Hunger.
Stewart went whole-hog in the research and writing of the book. He bought a cabin (partly for his family) at Dutch Flat, invited his colleagues from UC’s history, geography, and art departments to visit, then hiked much of the Donner Trail with the others, using them as on-site references. (They found – or may have found – one of the most important campfires along the trail.) He earned sweat-equity knowledge about the great effort required by the Donners to cross deserts, face the Sierra, and endure the storms. He also studied the books – like the original diaries of the Donner party members, especially Patrick Breen’s moving pages (now online, here).
The most important result of the field research was Stewart’s great epiphany: “the land is a character in the work.” That is to say, it was the Donners’ ignorance of the ecosystems they passed through that caused their great tragedy.
Thus, Ordeal By Hunger can be considered the first ecologically-based history.
Although Stewart did not influence the establishment of the Pioneer Monument or the establishment of Donner Memorial State Park, the success of Ordeal By Hunger inspired readers to visit the park.
The Pioneer Monument itself, and the park, are gifts in large part from one of the most important fraternal organizations in California: The Native Sons of the Golden West. The Native Sons, who are organized into lodges called parlors, do a massive amount of charitable work. One of their charities is a fund to help the healing of those with cleft-palate; the other is the support of California history through the acquisition, protection, and memorializing of events of the Gold Rush and similar milestones. (The term “The Golden State” comes from the first historic plaque they placed .) The NSGW built the Monument, and donated it and the land on which it sits, to be the foundation of Donner Memorial State Park. It was only one of many such gifts from the Native Sons – others include Sutter’s Fort and the Petaluma Adobe.
The re-dedication of the Pioneer Monument on its Centennial was worth the trip – especially since it included the chance to drive Historic U.S. 40 over Donner Summit to (finally!) see and photograph the George R. Stewart Peak Interpretive Plaque on the Summit. (Placed with the help of another fine organization, the Donner Summit Historical Society.)
At Donner Lake, The weather was cold, the wind intense, and the noise of wind and Interstate 80 drowned out most of the re-dedication speeches. But there was a chance to speak with some of the local history people and view the NSGW booth. A highlight was meeting some of the descendants of the Donner Party, history brought to life.
One of the Visitor Center people, when asked which of the several Donner Party histories to buy, said the park usually didn’t recommend Ordeal By Hunger. He also said it was far and away the largest seller. That, of course, is what counts, especially since Stewart’s book is still the best history of the Donner Party.
A century after the Native Sons of the Golden West donated money to create the Pioneer Monument and 82 years after the publication of Ordeal By Hunger the Centennial re-dedication of the Monument reminds us to re-read Stewart’s book; and, as time and weather permit, to travel to Donner Summit on U.S. 40; and Donner Lake which sits below George R. Stewart Peak. There, one can reflect on the land, the Donners, and those who memorialized them – like the Native Sons of the Golden West and George R. Stewart.
You might think scholarship is boring. Dull as dirt. Best reserved for those in the monastery or the ivory tower.
You’d be wrong.
Scholarship is an adventure, a treasure-hunt. And the quest brings surprising and unexpected discoveries. Researching the George R. Stewart biography, for example, I discovered that famous writers like Stephen King and Wallace Stegner and William Least Heat Moon, musician and composer Philip Aaberg, scientist Dr. James D. Burke of JPL, and Jimi Hendrix were influenced by Stewart’s works.
Walt Disney was also a great fan of Stewart. He even hired Stewart to work at the studio as a consultant. Stewart discussed ideas with various studio personnel; then submitted a report about the potential for American folklore films, and educational films. Stewart’s recommendations went to Ben Sharpsteen, legendary Disney producer and director.
In preparing materials for donation to the George R. Stewart Collection at the University of Nevada, Reno, I happened upon a copy of Stewart’s report to Sharpsteen. The copy came from the Walt Disney Archives (Stewart’s copy is in the George R. Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library). That discovery inspired a wander through Wikipedia and Google to find what was available online about Ben Sharpsteen. Sites recorded his extensive contributions to Disney, where he began as an animator, became a Director (Pinocchio, Dumbo), and eventually produced True-Life Adventure documentaries – work which earned Sharpsteen and the studio multiple Oscars.
And there, among the Google listings, was a golden Sharpsteen nugget: he and his wife, Bernice, had founded a museum, in Calistoga, California, at the base of Mt. St. Helena.
The museum includes the home of Sam Brannan, who started the Gold Rush when he rushed through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle filled with gold, yelling, “Gold, boys, Gold! From the American River!” (Brannan was a businessman – he started the Gold Rush so he could profit from selling supplies to 49ers.) The Brannan cottage contains exhibits and artifacts from the pioneer era in California, including some from the Donner Party, and a massive diorama of the Hot Springs Resort that Brannan founded in Calistoga. (The resort was supposed to be named the “Saratoga of California,” they say, but Brannan’s consumption of the celebratory champagne at the resort’s dedication befuddled his tongue and he toasted “The Calistoga of Sarifonia!” and Calistoga it is.)
The Sharpsteen Museum includes a Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit. Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, visited the area on their honeymoon; and Stevenson used local geography and history in the writing of Treasure Island.
And so we circle back to George R. Stewart, who explored the area in 1919-20 researching his Master’s Thesis on Stevenson and Treasure Island. Stewart had been fascinated with Stevenson’s novel since he discovered it as a boy in the family attic in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Stevenson’s use of maps in the book became a foundation of Stewart’s later work.
Stevenson once wrote “It is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support…. The tale has a root there: it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words….As he studies [the map], relations will appear that he had not thought upon.” Stewart’s ecological novels and histories, like Stevenson’s Treasure Island, would be based on maps.
Stevenson once admitted the scenery in Treasure Island was based partly on California locations. Inspired by that comment, Stewart set out to discover what areas or history were foundational to the novel. He explored the area around Mt. St. Helena, including Calistoga (and with his passionate interest in the Westward Movement, which led to books like Ordeal By Hunger, it is certain he visited the Sam Brannan Cottage.)
Stewart’s field research in the Calistoga and Mt. St. Helens area, his interviews with pioneers who remembered the Stevensons, and his geographic explorations gave him the answer: Flat-topped Spyglass Hill was based on flat-topped Mt. St. Helena. The Stevensons’ honeymoon spot, an abandoned mine on St. Helena – the Old Juan Silverado Mine – gave readers the name of one of the great characters in literature, “Long John Silver.” There is a collection of photographs in the George R. Stewart Papers related to his Stevenson research; some may be from his 1919 reseach trip. (Stewart also met and interviewed Stevenson relatives during his 1921 bicycle trip through Europe – three elderly cousins in Edinburgh who remembered RLS as a boy; and Lord Balfour in England. Davey Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, was based on a real RLS relative.)
Later, Stewart would write his discovery about Treasure Island into Storm – the first ecological novel and the book from which we get the practice of naming storms. Each chapter ends with a “litany” of landforms or places. Here is the beginning of the litany of the coastal peaks:
“This is the roll-call of those chief summits rising against the first in-sweep of the storm from the ocean. Mt. Sanhedrin. Mt. Kinocti that watches above the lake. Sulphur Peak on whose slopes the geysers fume and spout. Then flat-topped St. Helena, named for a Russian princess, transmuted in romance to Spy-Glass Hill. …” [emphasis added]
So the circle continues: Stewart discovers where Spyglass Hill is located, explores Calistoga along the way (and certainly the Brannan Cottage). Later, Walt Disney hires Stewart as a consultant, and he sends his recommendations to Ben Sharpsteen – who eventually turns the Sam Brannan Cottage into a museum, interpreting some of the same history as Stewart – that of the Donner Party, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Disney.
(It’s a personal circle, too. Our family friends, the Broughtons, had a Disney connection. Bob Broughton was in charge of the multiplane camera, the camera department, special effects. The multiplane camera crew included the first employees in the new Burbank studio, working on Pinocchio. Bob worked closely with Ben Sharpsteen on the complicated 6-level shots. Eventually, Bob, like Ben Sharpsteen, became a Disney Legend.)
Inspired, I called the Ben Sharpsteen Museum. Two members of the Board of the Directors, Kathy Bazzoli and Pat Larsen, answered by speakerphone. It was a pleasure to talk with them – they’re knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Kathy followed up with an email that referenced a book for sale in their bookstore, Dutton’s “They Left Their Mark,” which mentions Stewart’s research.
If you’re a Disney fan (and who isn’t?) or a Robert Louis Stevenson fan (and who isn’t?) or a George R. Stewart fan (and there are millions of those), I encourage a visit to the Sharpsteen Museum…and to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena. The Sharpsteen Museum is certainly at the top of my travel list.