Dr. Julian Kilker honors George R. Stewart’s Sheep Rock

Dr. Julian Kilker is a distinguished professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a fine photographer.  I had the honor of working with him  while acting as Caretaker (and unofficial historian) at the historic Walking Box Ranch (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/walking-box-ranch)  in Southern Nevada.(The GRS book was finished at the WBR.)

Paula Garrett was the day-to-day manager at the ranch for the Nevada Public Lands Institute.  Over the years we’ve kept in touch through the occasional email.  Paula sent one of her emails last week, suggesting I read a linked article by Julian.  Always do as your manager suggests – and so I read the article.

Julian is an artist in the photography of the evening and night-time landscapes of the Mojave Desert.  A LIght in the Darkness discusses his techniques – like “painting with light” – and shows a couple of examples of his work. Having taught photography myself, and having painted with light, I found the article head-spinning, stimulating ideas about art and research techniques specific to a place – like Julian’s Mojave Desert.

Deeply into Julian’s article, mind spinning with ideas, I turned the page.  And read:

“…In his 1951 novel Sheep Rock, George R. Stewart recounts the history of a remote Nevada location through the innovative approach of making place the protagonist…”

The dance of celebration that followed took up most of the day.  I called Julian; we talked for some time about his article, the idea of the integration of research and art, photography, and the old days at the Walking Box Ranch.  I contacted the Barrick Museum (publishers of DRY HEAT where the article appears); left a message with Paula; and otherwise made this a GRS day.

Here’s a link to Julian’s article:  https://issuu.com/unlvmuseum/docs/dryheat_issue002

Earth Abides miniseries and [it’s a mystery] Film: Updates

Here’s a brief update on the MGM+/Prime Video miniseries.

Contracts between rights-holders and Amazon have been signed, sealed and delivered.  The script is already written (perhaps by the Producer, who’s been working on developing the series for several years).  A Writers’ Room has been set up. (Scripts are often modified.)

There is also another film in production – it must (for now) remain a mystery, but extensive work is underway.  It promises to be an excellent film, about matters Stewartian The only clue I will offer is this:  https://californiatypewritermovie.com/

If all goes well, one or both of these film projects should be finished and available in 2024 or so.

Ish's Hammer(1)


  Artist, Steve Williams.  Used with permission.

(The Header painting for this George R. Stewart weblog is also by Steve Williams.  Steve attended the Liverpool Institute of Art with John Lennon and Paul McCartney.)

“Will Earth Abides be filmed?”  EARTH ABIDES WILL BE FILMED!

Word came several years ago that a film or mini-series based on Earth Abides was “in development.”  “In development” means that producers (or others) were proposing  to funders and distributors that a work should be filmed.   A little research revealed that the production company doing the proposing was helmed by two academy-award-winning producers, so the prospect was promising.  

After that, nothing.  I’d check regularly, and post an update – which was always an update about silence.  Until now.

A few weeks ago, a trusted source asked my advice about a possible contract for an Earth Abides mini series.  He mentioned the series would be presented on a newly revamped and renamed streaming service premiering on January 15. And indeed, on January 15th MGM +, a premium service owned by Amazon, was announced. So had the series, films, and mini-series MGM+ is producing or has in development – including …. EARTH ABIDES

Since those involved in the effort – Producers Michael Phillips, Juliana Maio, and Kearie Peak, GRS family representative Ed,  HarperCollins Representative Matt S. – are champions of the effort, and since it’s been publicly announced, it’s sure to be a fine work. (Between them the producers have four Academy Awards. Philips for The Sting, Taxi Driver, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Maio for a documentary about the Jewish community Cairo.) The series has already been scripted, which should reduce production time.

The mini-series, once produced will be available on the new MGM+. Judging by the fact that episodes of other MGM+ mini-series are already available on Prime Video, it’s likely that at least some episodes of Earth Abides will also be on Prime Video.

Will the mini-series be an accurate film version of EA?

Here’s a cautionary tale found in three letters to GRS in the George Rippey Stewart Papers (at the Bancroft Library. The letters were from Stewart’s old school chum Buddy DeSylva. DeSylva had gone on to some fame as a composer, discoverer of Shirley Temple, co-founder of Capitol Records, and producer. (There’s even a musical about DeSylva.) DeSilva’s first letter, happy and enthusiastic, informed Stewart that Paramount wanted to film FIRE. The second letter, a few months later warned Stewart Paramount had made a few changes to the novel. The third letter was downright apologetic; Stewart would not recognize his novel at all in the film. (The movie, Red Skies Of Montana, completely omitted the focus on fire ecology which is the central theme of FIRE.) Stewart didn’t seem upset. He knew the novel had a wide audience, and would stand on its own. As it has – his novel is still honored and read; the movie, largely forgotten.

In the same way – No matter how this series turns out EARTH ABIDES will endure. A mini-series, even if it changes the novel in important ways, will introduce the book to millions of new readers. Younger readers. Many of those readers will probably turn to Stewart’s other novels; and they will carry the books and their profound beauty and encouragement forward, into the unknown time ahead. Then the work of all of us who’ve carried the torch of enlightenment found in the works of George R. Stewart forward to the generations yet to come will have done our work. So we can rest, perhaps with a Stewartian Old Fashioned in hand, listening to appropriate music – like distinguished composer Philip Aaberg’s Earth Abides – and consider our work well done.

As George R. Stewart wrote, at the end of his last ecological novel:

Opus Perfeci.

Prepare for a Celebration:


For years this weblog has been promising news about a possible film version of Earth Abides.  There may be more detailed news soon.  That’s all I can report now – but please stay tuned…. and prepare to celebrate.


The late Alan Ligda,  who gets the credit for keeping Earth Abides in print without a break for 74 years.  When Random House dropped the book his Hermes Press bought the publishing rights and produced a beautiful edition.  When that printing sold like hotcakes, Random House bought the rights back. 

Hermes Press edition:Hermes EA

George R. Stewart and the Unnaming of the Land

Words, when written, crystallize history; their very structure gives permanence to the unchangeable past. –Francis Bacon, essayist, philosopher, and statesman (1561-1626)  

George R. Stewart’s Names On The Land was published in 1945 just as World War II ended.  In a letter to Stewart, his friend, Pulitzer Prize Winner Wallace Stegner, jocularly said he was interested in reading the book to see if GRS had included some of the more salacious names on the American land or if he’d cleaned them up so as not to offend the blue noses.  Stewart was name-honest in the book, but discreetly so. 

Today, however, that approach would surely result in loud protests over his description and explanation of the origins of American place names. 

There is a wave of censorship about place names and an avalanche of renaming not unlike the practice in Orwell’s 1984 of changing history and word meanings on a frequent  basis:  Done for political reasons and ignoring the effect on the history of our nation and our times. 

Some names are clearly insensitive, and no one should oppose such renaming.  But many names which WE have made derogatory were in their original meanings only descriptive.  If the naming bluenoses insist on sanitizing them to the detriment of their true meanings it would be unfair to those who originally used them.  Much better to modify them so the original meaning is clear. 

“Squaw,” for example, originally meant “young woman” or woman to Algonquin and other indigenous peoples; when immigrants began flooding here certain of them made the word a slur; but to deny the honest name is to give the racists who changed its meaning another nasty victory over those first American peoples by corrupting their language.  If “Squaw Valley” is offensive, re-name it “Young Woman Valley.”

Place names are also often used to honor people who at particular times in our history had a profound effect on our nation and our world. Sometimes their influence is seen as glorious; sometimes, in hindsight, as dangerous.  Yet in removing “Washington” from the maps because he owned slaves we also remove reminders of him from our history.  Ironically, that could mean other countries who’ve honored the man who led our fight for independence would be celebrating him but Americans would forget who he was. 

One especially egregious example is the current attempt to remove Joseph LeConte’s name from the land.   LeConte and his brother John were Georgians who owned slaves during and before the Civil War.  Extremely racist, they supported the Confederate war effort.   After the rebels were defeated the LeContes moved west to California.   Excellent scientists and university administrators (they’d been professors in a southern university) the brothers were quickly hired by the new University of California to provide strong academic foundations for the new school.   It was a sound decision – John LeConte, Physicist and UC’s first President, established a physics program that would eventually lead to the discovery of new elements of matter – two of which, Californium and Berkelium are named for the University. Californium is at the heart of many smoke detectors. 

John’s brotherJoseph LeConte was a beloved geology professor, botanist, and namer of species, who with his close friend John Muir and a few others founded the Sierra Club.  The good work done by the club and its inspiration for the modern environmental and public lands protections movements are achievements on a summit of the greatest human accomplishments – like the Declaration of the Independence, written by another slave owner, Thomas Jefferson.   Yet the 21st century Sierra Club, which owes its existence to Joseph LeConte, has “unnamed” the Lodge in Yosemite Valley which was built by the contributions of Sierra Club members and UC faculty and students to honor LeConte. 

There was also an attempt to tar John Muir with the brush of racism.  The true danger of Orwellian renaming is this: If those who founded the Sierra Club were racists, why, the Club may be a racist institution, so its arguments and programs for preservation of wild places can be ignored. 

There’s a name for this kind of argument in debate circles: “Ad Hominem” – “To the man” – in which you turn a question of fact into a slander on an individual or an organization to cloud the evidence for the other side’s (stronger) case. 

Another problem with such Orwellian “unnaming” is that it allows history to be forgotten.  As George Santayana wrote, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

In the Lake Tahoe and Carson Pass area, many features and places are named for Civil War people and events.   Fredricksburg (a massive Confederate victory), Burnside Lake (named  in jest by former southerners?) for the Union General who lost the Battle of Fredricksburg), Jeff Davis Peak (named for the President of the Confederacy), Reno (named for a fallen Union General).  Those names are messages to help future scholars piece together the connections between the Lake Tahoe area and a Civil War thousands of miles away. 

The proper way to deal with offensive names or names which carry an offensive history behind them is to add a plaque or addendum on the map explaining why they are offensive and that they’ve been left so people will know their history and not repeat its mistakes. 

George R. Stewart was aware that such unnaming could happen, and he cautioned readers against it in Names On The Land“The classical interests of the later eighteenth century are as much part of the history of the United States as are the existence of the Indian tribes or the Revolution.  To maintain, as many have done, that Rome and Troy are mere excrescences on our map, is to commit the fallacy of denying one part of history in favor of another part–or else is to be ignorant of history.

“The ideals and aspirations of the Americans of that period deserve their perpetuation.”

In a similar way, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein wrote in the LA Times (9-11-22): 

Do Americans today have the courage to look at the mistakes of our past for the sake of our improvement? Courage, in this case, includes our willingness to teach our entire history, to confront the difficult along with celebrating the positive. ….

…“If we’re going to be a country in the future, then we have to have a view of our own history which allows us to see what we were,” historian Timothy Snyder told us. “And then we have to become something different if we’re going to make it.”


Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote   …a name when given should be deemed a sacred property….

George R. Stewart would heartily agree.  Fortunately, through his writings on place names – some in his books, some now preserved in hidden places – future scholars will be able to discover why we named places for certain things or certain people at certain times.  And while they will surely wonder at our glorification of the ignorance of our own history, they will honor George R. Stewart for his celebration of Names On The Land.

A Wonderful Story for Christmas


For many of my friends It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.   They, and George R. Stewart fans, will be interested in the connection between that classic film and Stewart. George R. Stewart – and another Stewart – spent their boyhoods in a town that was one of the inspirations for “Bedford Falls.”

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

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

Still, the two young Stewarts’ lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage,  moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy Stewart also went to Princeton and also moved to Pasadena; then spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like the beloved Christmas classic.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, as an consultant to Walt.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions. 

With all these similarities, their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California when he was 12, in 1905 – the year James Stewart was born. Out West, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.  Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it. (For one thing, GRS didn’t like the mass media and rarely if ever  attended movies.)

Yet in the Christmas season we should remember there is one thing they shared – which, thanks to Capra’s film, we share with them:  The experience of life in a small Midwestern American town in the early 20th century.  For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town, and the time, where both boys grew up. Indiana, Pennsylvania, is one of the inspirations for “Bedford Falls”.

From my book: 

“George R. Stewart’s boyhood town was so archetypically American that it could pass for George Bailey’s “Bedford Falls” in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, the town was “Bedford Falls” – at least for the movie’s male star. Indiana, Pennsylvania, was also the boyhood home of James Stewart, who played “George Bailey” in Capra’s film.  

In fact, Producer/Director Frank Capra probably modeled his set on the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls. But for James Stewart, Indiana, Pennsylvania, was the place he held in his heart as he brought George Bailey to life on the set of “It’s a Wonderful LIfe.”  Although the movie’s “Bedford Falls” was built on a studio backlot in the San Fernando Valley, Jimmy Stewart said that when he walked onto the set for the first time he almost expected to hear the bells of his home church in Indiana.”

Each year, Indiana, Pennsylvania, holds an It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, with a parade, hot chocolate,  tree lighting, and continuous showings of the film at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.  The people lining the streets in their warm winter clothing bring life to the snow-bound town, in the same way the movie brings life to the streets of “Bedford Falls.”

When you watch Capra’s film this Christmas please give a thought to the boyhood town of George R. Stewart, Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he celebrated his Christmases.  A town, which for Jimmy Stewart, was the model for the fictional Bedford Falls. A town which although fictional, brings an American Christmas into our hearts.

Merry Christmas!



Frank Brusca’s Route 40 Today website is live


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, George R. Stewart traveled the “main street of America,” U. S. 40, from coast to coast several times:  He had an idea for a book.  Like most of his works, it would be completely unique, ushering in a new type of book – the popular “odological” or road book.   

U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America was published in 1953.  He chose U. S. 40 since it connected the Atlantic with the Pacific, followed the most central route, and was built upon several historic and prehistoric trails.

It contains essays about the history and development of American roads, the sounds and smells of driving the highway (before air conditioning sealed cars’ windows closed and shut out the external aromas and anti-smoking laws banished the internal aromas of smoke),  a final reflection on the future of highways (freeways were just being developed)  and a photo essay of road signs and and text  about the place names they carry.  He divides the US into sections, east to west, often doing so by the former historic trails that took humans over that particular part of the geography; each has an introductory essay about that section. 

Then Stewart gets to the meat of the work – a series of photographs of  archetypal  locations along the road, some of which contain road-related activities and people, carefully described in the most precise (yet poetic) manner on an accompanying page. 

Thus, photo 26, “Tavern,” shows the historic Red Brick Tavern, built as a waterhole for the “pike-boys” who drove the wagons carrying freight along the National Road that preceded U.S. 40.  Photo 50, “Two Species,” taken at a buffalo preserve just west of Denver, shows grazing buffalo and a few humans observing and photographing them.  Photo 85, “Donner Pass,” taken from an elevation a good climb up a mountain just south of the Pass, shows the beautiful curving highway as it climbs from Donner Lake over the central Sierra Nevada, with the magnificent Rainbow Bridge and a prominent Sierra peak behind it.  And so on, for the 92 photos that define the book. 

(By the way,  the peak behind the Rainbow Bridge at Donner Pass is now officially  “George R. Stewart Peak.”)

With U. S. 40 George R. Stewart created a roadside interpretive guide to the United States of America.  Travelers along the highway used and use it as such a guide.  (I do.)  My collection includes two first editions of U.S. 40 with travelers’ notes in them.  When Wingards of Pasadena, California, for example,  visited a place Stewart described, they penciled in the date on the page; so we know they drove through Kansas City on June 10, 1956, and crossed Colorado’s Berthoud and Rabbit Ears Passes on the 13th.  And some unidentified driver typed and taped a small page on the frontispiece of their copy recording the year and model of their car (a 1941 Dodge Sedan, NY license plate) and listing each day’s mileage and the places they stopped that night. 

The book doesn’t have the widespread fame of Stewart’s Earth Abides, but it has its own power and has created and inspired a network of creative people.  Tom and Geraldine Vale wrote what is certainly the first “descendant”  of a George R. Stewart work:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1533632.U_S_40_Today

U.S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America

Now considered a minor classic, the Vales’ book followed Stewart’s route, photographing and describing most of his sites 30 years after the original U. S. 40 was published. 

William Least Heat Moon was partly inspired by the book to write the brilliant American masterpiece , Blue Highways:  A Journey Into America. A few years later,  working with  road colleague Frank Brusca, he wrote an entire section about GRS and U. S. 40 in his  work, Roads to Quoz, an American Mosey

One more accolade to George R. Stewart and U.S. 40 deserves a mention here.  Production is beginning on a documentary by Filmmaker Doug Nichol about Stewart and the road.  As the project develops, I’ll be sending progress reports.  In the meantime, if you want to see his well-regarded, highly rated, and darn-right-enjoyable work, here’s the link to a wonderful film he recently produced, California Typewriter.

In the meantime,  Frank Brusca is carrying the U.S. 40 torch onward.  For decades, he’s been working to create a work of literature, geography, and photographic that would carry Stewart’s book into the 21st century and the current world of the web.  Now, I can announce that he is premiering the work.   On the “Return to Route 40” website, Frank  carries the site’s followers from east to west along U. S. 40, with maps and current photographs of most of Stewart’s sites.  He adds a description of each site as seen and photographed by Stewart and by the Vales, and includes his own contemporary comments.  It’s really a brilliant site and I highly recommend it to all lovers of things Stewartian, and all lovers of roads – especially the classic blue highways like U. S. 40.  There is very reasonable fee to join his site’s premiere section – well worth it – but also a free section.  So you can get a good idea of his masterwork even without paying the $2.50 a month fee.  In fact, you can even preview the first post on the paid site for free  (There is an error on the page.  Ignore the “this plan cannot be found” and scroll down to see the links to the free website or the paid site.)

Frank’s Return to Route 40 is a work that honors the work of his predecessors, like William Least Heat Moon, Tom and Geraldine Vale, and, of course, George R. Stewart.  If you are an odologist – one who follows the Blue Highways – an armchair traveler, or simply one who, like old Chaucer’s folke —

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
— longen to goon on a pilgrimage,  Frank’s website is a good place to begin. 
Return to Route 40
Return to Route 40 Image courtesy Frank Brusca

A Resource for Stewart Collectors

Over the years, many of those who become followers of George R. Stewart collect his books for their personal libraries. Since “fine” First Editions are rare and increasingly expensive many choose to buy the books without dust jackets. Dust jackets are highly desired by book collectors and are therefore copies with dust jackets expensive. But with a little searching a good “reading copy” without a dust jacket can usually be found at a budget-friendly price, thus allowing the Stewart fan to have personal copies to read or share with friends. Eventually collectors may want to “dress up” their reading copies with a custom or standard book storage box or a dust cover. Custom boxes can be ordered from several places (as this google search shows).

 It’s almost impossible to find good used dust jackets.  They’re rare because as the paper cover of the work they are exposed to rough handling over many years, and when one is found high-end collectors will pay high prices for them.  Sometimes a budget collector – like me and most of my GRS friends – will be lucky enough to find a copy with a cover at a reasonable price and so add that to their collection.  But good luck finding one for Earth Abides, Names on the Land, Sheep Rock, or Storm.  Especially Earth Abides, since Stewart’s great novel in fine condition with a fine dust jacket is now a four-figure purchase.

But there are some ways to add dust jacket art to a GRS collection, or to almost any book. 

The first is do something ‘homemade”.  Find an illustration of the book cover you want online; copy that; and print it into a “dust jacket” format.  There are problems with this approach – mainly the fact that online images are usually very small and thus don’t print well to dust jacket dimensions.  If you have a friend with a good dust jacket, you can ask to scan that, to a higher resolution and get a better result. 

There are a couple of cautions.  

Most dust jackets, like the books they cover, are under copyright.  So while publishers who can no longer offer a dust jacket for sale and are thus OK with your printing one for your copy of a GRS book, don’t print in quantity.

Also, make sure that you clearly mark your printed copy of a dust jacket as a reproduction.

Whatever you do, never try to sell the reproduction cover as an original.  That’s forgery. 

The other way to get a reproduction dust jacket is to by from a legitimate publisher.  One I’ve worked with and have great respect for is Mark Terry of San Francisco. He and his family have been restoring and reproducing dust jackets nearly 25 years.  The income supports his goal to preserve as many of these works of art as he can, and to do so in part by selling the reproduction covers to collectors all over the world.  He has nearly 15,000 dust jackets on his site, available for order.  Considering the amount of work each cover requires, his prices are very reasonable. 

Mark receives high (if I may) marks from at least one other site

There are other dust jacket reproducers listed on Google.  But if I were you, I’d start with Mark.  (Note – I do NOT receive any commission or other emolument  for this recommendation.)

However you decide to do it, I recommend dressing up those first editions by adding the unique works of art that we call “dust jackets.”  In Stewart’s case, several were done by excellent artists; and usually each book had a different artist and therefore a unique style.  For example:

Ordeal By HungerStorm covernotl






“Best Regards, Fred M. Cain”

One of the reasons George R. Stewart has such a wide range of fans is that he wrote on a wide range of subjects – sometimes inventing a type of literature in order to do so.  For those interested in California or Western history, Stewart wrote Ordeal By Hunger, The California Trail, and the novel East of the Giants.  For readers interested in Western authors he wrote Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile and John Phoenix Esq., The Veritable Squibob: A Life Of Captain George H. Derby, U.s.a.  For the lovers of the land, and the ecosystem, the novels Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock.  He invented the microhistory to write a history of the day of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.  No history of national place-naming had ever been written so he created that literature with Names On The Land. And for those who love roads and highways, he invented the odology – road study – book with


and the two volume NA 1:

  George R Stewart N.A. 1: LOOKING SOUTH Mexico to Costa Rica

N.A. 1 Looking North: From the Canadian Border to Circle, Alaska

(Odology, by the way, probably derives from Hodology, the study of paths.)

Thus, Stewart’s fans come to his work through the many doors of his different books.   Authors Christopher Priest and James Sallis from Earth Abides, Ivan Doig from Names on the Land, William Least Heat Moon from the same book and U. S. 40.  Composer Philip Aaberg from Earth Abides.  And, for today’s post, Fred Cain. 

Fred Cain is interested in historic highways, especially Route 66, so it is likely that he “met” Stewart through U.S. 40.  Here’s is a message from Fred which, like the posts by John Lucia about the Caldor  Fire, show how reading the work of GRS gives a new dimension to understanding what we do.

Dear Mr. Scott,

I have to confess that I have never read Earth Abides. However, during Christmas vacation, I reread your biography or GRS again and decided to obtain a copy of the book. So, when I returned to work, I ordered a copy on Amazon.

As a lifelong Stewart fan, I’m sure I’ll like it.

As a kid, I had my own “Earth Abides” moment. Allow me to explain.

In 1962, when I was just 10 years old, my family and I undertook a coast-to-coast trip on U.S. 40. Then three years later, we went back over the Route in the opposite direction but only as far as St. Louis.

It was an experience that I never forgot. I became a young U.S. 40 fan. I couldn’t stop talking about Route 40 in school and my classmates began to grow weary of hearing me talk about it.
Well, one fine day I happened to be in the library and just for kicks, decided to look up “U.S. 40” in the subject card catalog. (I really show my age with that statement. That was back when there were still card catalogs).

My eyes just about popped out of my head. There it was! “U.S. 40; A Cross Section of the United States of America.”

I was absolutely ecstatic! I checked the book out and took it home to show Mom. Mother was an English major who had graduated from Berkeley. She was just as astounded at my find as I was but for different reasons. Stewart, you see, had been one of Mom’s professors. So, there you have it. I feel like I have at least an indirect connection to GRS through my mother.

I always wished that I could’ve been fortunate enough to have met the man. Although I am not a writer, I have always felt as though Stewart and I had similar interests, nature, wilderness, forestry, weather and transportation and communication systems. So, I feel like there is an invisible connection there.

Later, I also read Fire and Storm. (I’ve read Storm three times). So now I, too, will finally get to Earth Abides. Better late than never. I’m sure it’ll be a good read.

Fred M. Cain,

Here’s another post from Fred, longer, inspired by John Lucia’s posts on the Caldor Fire.  It is a good example of how reading Stewart can put something like a huge forest fire – or climate change – into a new perspective.


I’d like to share some thoughts about the Caldor fire and these big, mega fires in general. I’ve been thinking about this now for some time.

We have been told over and over that these terrible fires are the direct result of climate change. That is a very logical conclusion to draw, however that scenario has never actually been proven. The droughts in the West might be caused by climate change or perhaps something else or perhaps even climate change combined with other factors.

It’s possible that the West goes through some kind of long-range, wet-dry cycle with or without anthropogenic-induced climate change. George R. Stewart alluded to this in “Fire”. He suggested that much of California’s forests had evolved in an era where California was wetter.

“Indeed, some said pessimistically that the forests of California had established themselves in some wetter cycle of centuries and that brush, once rooted, would remain until some wetter cycle returned”. – George R. Stewart from “Fire”.

However, another contributing factor to these big fires has to do with the total exclusion of fire from the natural environment. Before European settlers arrived on the scene, lightning-induced ground fires would go through the forests every few years, reduce the fuel loads and expose mineral soil that’s beneficial to new seedlings.

Pine trees, especially ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, are very fire tolerant and fire adapted. The lingering residue from turpentine and other related volatile hydrocarbons in dead pine needles and twigs allows them to burn when they are damp. The result is what we might call a “cool” fire that spreads across the forest floor doing little or no damage to the established pines but kills young hardwood saplings that would otherwise compete with the pines.

GRS was well aware of this. In the novel “Fire”, The Supervisor felt sorry for Bart because he took the Spitcat Fire so hard and told him, “…where there are pine trees, there’s fire, because if there’s no dry season, you’ll have a hardwood forest. You might say if there weren’t fire, there wouldn’t be pines”. – GRS from “Fire”

The human-caused, unnatural exclusion of fire during the 20th Century allowed the forests to grow very thick. So thick, in fact, that in a dry year there is simply insufficient moisture to support that kind of dense growth.

If you can, try and look at this Google Earth “Street View” near Grizzly Flats before the fire:

Some of that stuff is so dense that it’s what’s called in some circles a “dog hair thicket”. I read online somewhere where much of the forest in the Caldor Fire had not burned since the 1930s – nor had any thinning taken place.

Complicating the issue still further is the fact that in the past, bad logging practices and general forest mismanagement have also come into play.

“The western forests were no longer primeval woodlands of big trees through which a fire could sweep and do little damage. On the contrary, because of logging and man-caused fires, the forest consisted mostly of thick and highly inflammable second-growth, made all the worse by slash piles and brush fields”. – GRS from “Earth Abides”.

But there is yet another factor in these large fires. Congress has for years kept the U.S. Forest Service on a very tight, nearly starvation budget. There is simply insufficient staff to jump on and stamp out a small fire when a “red flag day” is in the forecast.

For example, crews were stretched so thin fighting the massive Dixie Fire that they allowed the Tamarack Fire to go since it was burning in a highly inaccessible area anyways. Well, it exploded and burned 68,637 acres before it was finally contained.

I don’t know, but that might also be the case with the Caldor Fire. Perhaps they could’ve jumped on it and contained it the first day *IF* they’d had the personnel.

Although the situation appears both bleak and depressing, there is hope and cause for some GRS-style optimism. I can share a personal experience I had.

When we moved to our seven-acre lot in Indiana back in 1990, there were NO trees nearby. I mean none! The wind whipping our house was so bad that one day it just about ripped my screen door off. I resolved to do something about this.

So, I planted evergreens around our house. White pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, white fir and spruce. Some of the seedlings I planted were no more than two inches tall. My father looked at them in amazement and remarked, “Oh my! Those ARE tiny! You must be quite an optimist!”
Well, at 20 years, they were as high as our two-story house! Now at 30 years they are much higher than the house. Indeed, I unfortunately had to have some removed because I was afraid they might fall ON the house.

My point is, that these trees, once they get a good start, actually grow faster than a lot of people assume. You hear remarks like, “After the The Fire, things will NEVER look the same again.” Or, “It’ll take centuries”, etc.

Well, 30 years after the fire it might not look exactly like it did before the fire, but once those seedlings get started and begin reaching for the sky, it will look somewhat like a forest again. In 50-60 years, perhaps, only a trained forester will recognize that there had been an old fire there.
In 2002 the 468,638-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire destroyed much of the ponderosa pine forest along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Now today, much of that forest is regenerating nicely. Does it look like it did before the fire? No. But much of area is starting to look rather nice again.

Google Earth “Street View” showing pinus ponderosa regenerating near Arizona’s Mogollon Rim:

Mother Nature has a powerful ability to heal herself and to heal her forests quite possibly even in spite of climate change. “Moist and clean, the northwest wind from the ocean blew steadily across the long ridges, and from high-swinging cones, opened by the fiery heat, the winged seeds drifted downward to the earth”. – GRS concluding sentence from “Fire”.

Thank you, Professor Stewart, for writing “Fire”, “Storm” and “Earth Abides”.

Times will change and new problems and crises will come to pass, “but Earth Abides”.

Best Regards,
Fred M. Cain,


George R. Stewart’s most powerful literary symbol is the Hammer of Ish – Ish’s hammer in Earth Abides.  It symbolizes all of human technology and the civilization it produces.  Stewart in fact used that hammer – which, like Ish, he found in the American River Canyon – in building projects around his home. 

Stewart’s real hammers were his books – the tools he, great teacher that he was, used to teach Fred Cain; and James Sallis, Walt Disney, Theodore Steinway, Ivan Doig, NASA’s Dr. James D. Burke, and innumerable others about history, ecology, place names, highways, and so on.  Clearly George R. Stewart’s tools influenced Fred Cain – as they have influenced many others – including me.

Ranger Bob Valen on George R. Stewart’s Ecological Novels Storm and Fire

A few years ago I published a post here about one of San Francisco’s fine old used bookstores,  Holmes Books .  Last week, Bob Valen sent me a copy of his latest weather column and it brought back many memories of the days he and I spent browsing Holmes Books.

Bob and I met at Thornton State Beach near San Francisco in the early 1970’s. He was majoring in Geography at San Francisco State and working the Striped Bass tag survey during summers.  I’d graduated from State, taught for a while, and then found myself working several months each year as a “SPRINT” – a State Park Ranger Permanent Intermittent.

Bob and I were later able to say that we’d worked in the then-planned Golden Gate National Recreation Area before it opened.  After the GGNRA opened and Bob graduated, he went to work for the National Park Service as a Ranger/Naturalist.  He married another Ranger when they both worked at Cabrillo National Monument; they had shared careers all over the west.  He retired a few years ago, his wife Janet just retired.

While Bob and I worked together, I made the startling discovery that George R. Stewart, who had pointed me down the trail toward Rangering years earlier, was (with his wife Theodosia and often his family) a regular Thornton visitor.  So we got to know the Stewarts well.

On days off, Bob and I would search used book stores for first editions of Storm and Fire, and Stewart’s other works – a leisure activity that led to (in my case at least) a large Stewart collection.

Eventually, Bob and I went on to our different life paths.  But we always kept those Thornton State Beach days – our George R. Stewart Days  – in warm spots of our hearts.  And when our paths crossed again, we’d often chew over the memories of that extraordinary place and those days. stewart.1-2021 STORM cover When you read the just-released New York Review of Books Press edition of Storm that Bob mentions in his column, note how beautifully Nathaniel Rich brings his Introduction to a close at Thornton State Beach.

Here’s Bob’s column.

Storm and Fire

 By Bob Valen

 Together we have experienced another meteorological threshold and we are now in autumn. Temperatures are falling and many of us are breathing a slight sigh of relief. Wildfire smoke as dissipated yet, we are still in drought. Nationally, our region is in the sixth percentile of Exceptional Drought, also known as “D4”. Areas to our south are still burning. The largest wildfire still active is the Dixie Fire in Northern California at well over 900,000 acres. Here in Washington state, the Schneider Springs Fire near Yakama is 106,000 acres.


The El Nino–Southern Oscillation (ENSO),  the varying temperature phenomena of the Tropical Pacific Ocean, the El Nino/La Nina system, is emerging into La Nina again. This system affects much of our global climate. Climatologists watch this system carefully. Up-to-date measurements are pointing at a La Nina event this fall-winter. For the Inland Northwest, our diminutive region of Planet, may see cooler temperatures and more precipitation. Precipitation in the form of winter snow storms – we shall see.  


Considering wildfires and storms, I’m reminded of two books written by the author George R. Stewart. Stewart was born in 1895. He was educated at some of nation’s finest universities. He became a professor of English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He was much more than professor – he was a historian, novelist, toponymist and a founding member of the American Name Society. It was in his later years that I met him and his wife through a good friend – twice in fact. By this time, the early ‘70’s, he had nearly completed his writing. His earliest book in 1930 and the final in 1979. I believe a total of [28] titles.


Storm was first published in 1941 – the year the United States entered World War 2 – a type of global storm created by madmen. Fire came out in 1948 – I was just an infant. Later, as an adult, I would spend 15 years of my career on seasonal duty with western wildfire Incident Command Teams. Storm was recently republished by New York Review Books (New York Review of Books Press) with a forward by Nathaniel Rich.


As you begin this book, consider this, the protagonist isn’t a person. The protagonist is a storm – a thing of immense air and water vapor affected and sculpted by atmospheric pressure, topography and the jet stream. The people in (the) book are like us. When we find ourselves in an event that is utterly and absolutely out of our control, we hunker down. We tolerate what occurs all around us; we cannot change it. Part of our lives is shaped in those hours. All the while we hope to pull through without harm to us or others.   


In Storm, a name appears, Maria. It is the storm’s name. Stewart and his novel Storm are credited as (providing) the motivation for naming storms. The United States officially started the practice in 1953.


Stewart’s Fire captures early fall conditions of a Sierra Nevada forest and the ultimate aftermath of a lightning storm. Our protagonist, once again, is a thing, a thing of heat, fuel and air. Yes, the fire has a name – Spitcat. The people in the story, rangers, smoke jumpers, fire lookouts – reflect the era this novel was written. It’s post World War 2. Stewart captures the essence of a California forest. Though the name of the forest is fictional, the nature of a living forest is real. The trees, the animals, living separately from each other yet, all are truly interconnected and are part of a larger, organic, functioning ecological system. In his research for Fire, Stewart actually spent time with the Forest Service fighting fire.


I encourage our local Friends of the Library to add the above titles that Stewart wrote as well. …….