Of FIRE and Flu

George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character.   Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.

This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease.  There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come.  Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none.   The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee.   Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders.   And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.

Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE.  The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels.  STORM ends with a reference to California history.  FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.

FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest.  Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest.  In the same way, his story is developed.  It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017.  By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science.  And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.

Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.”  It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.

The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today.  When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy,  he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault.  And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.”  Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life.  There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here.  (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)

Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels.  In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho.  In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work.  And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.

EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans.  In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.

Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.  AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims.  But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide.  Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps.  But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape.  GRS got the flu.  He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena.  But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.

Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus.  So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine,  CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus.  Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu.  Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it.  Here’s the link

As Murphy writes,  Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans.  Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.

 

 

 

Maria Returns

For those not familiar with the novels of George R. Stewart, Storm is the well-researched story of a California storm that slams into and across the central transect of the state in one dynamic week.  It was a ground-breaking work, the first fictional work to make the ecosystem a protagonist in human affairs.  Still in print, Storm continues to get good reviews from its readers.

13647699

Cover of the Modern Library Edition

Stewart, who taught English at UC Berkeley, was always deeply interested in geography and its related sciences.  So he used the input from his colleagues in those fields to bring accuracy to the book.

Stewart also did field research – sometimes dangerous research – to get the feeling of a storm.  He traveled with the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans), worked with those who maintained the P.G.&E. dams in the Sierra, and even rode with the California Highway Patrol over the central Sierra Nevada highways.

His wife, Ted,  remembered that on one trip he rode over 7000 foot + Donner Pass, during a major snowstorm, on the cowcatcher at the front of a steam locomotive.  When she picked him up on the other side he was nearly frozen.

Stewart, in writing the book, slowly realized it was a novel about the role of the ecosystem in human affairs.  To make the point, he named few of the human characters.  But he named his storm.

Wildly popular, the novel was distributed to soldiers in World War II.  Those who returned to become meteorologists were so taken with the book, and the idea of naming storms, that they adopted the naming practice, now widespread.  One of the readers, Vic Moitoret, went on to become Chief Areologist (Meteorologist) for the U. S. Navy — later founding the George R. Stewart fan club, and becoming a fine amateur fine quality printer.  (Moitoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, never losing a small book which included a list of his favorite books – first listed was Storm.)

The novel was filmed by Walt Disney for Television in the 1950s.*  So its ecological approach, and the name Stewart gave his storm, became part of the common culture of the time.  Disney even used the name of Stewart’s storm as the title of his film.

And the name?  Maria.  Pronounced, Stewart was careful to point out, “in the old-fashioned way” with a long i:  Mar eye ah.   That, by the way is why the wind is called Maria.

The book is now considered a California Legacy Book.  It’s still a good read, as the reviews reveal.

Stewart’s name has endured, too.  It was used for a 2005 storm, a 2011 storm.  Now it’s the name of a storm heading toward Florida:  This storm is not in the Central Sierra Nevada – although we’re getting a big solstice storm here, which includes tornado warnings.   But in the Caribbean, it’s as powerful as Stewart’s Maria, with Category Five winds.

This would be a good time to give Storm a read; and give a nod of thanks to George R. Stewart, “The Man Who Named The Storms.”

And, as Stewart’s “Young Meteorologist” says, in Storm, “Good luck, Maria!”

*It may be possible soon to view Disney’s “A Storm Called Maria” on Amazon.  That’s assuming this Amazon link goes live.

The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse

Although George R. Stewart was not a fan of the audio visual media of his day, after World War II he would find himself deeply involved in radio and film.  He became a character on a radio mystery show (more about that in a later post); and he spent a week in the Kingdom of the Mouse – the Walt Disney Studios – helping Disney develop new ideas for films.  Years later, that would lead to the production of two Disney movies based on two of Stewart’s best-selling novels.

Disney was a Stewart fan – that’s clear from the letters Disney wrote to Stewart.  The two men thought along similar lines, at least in terms of the relationship between humans and nature, and in the types of art that communicate those ideas.

Disney was working on Bambi while Stewart was writing StormBambi, which views the world from the perspective of non-human nature and  portrays Man as dangerous to non-human nature, has many parallels with Storm. It is likely that Stewart did not see Bambi, since he was not a film-goer. But it is likely that Disney read and enjoyed Storm since he was a voracious reader and the book was a well-publicized best-seller.

Stewart’s next best-seller was Names On The Land.  With its history of American ways of naming things over time, the success of the book indicated that readers were interested in Americana.    Disney was also interested in Americana, and in presenting it in Disney cartoons.

World War II was hard on the Disney studios.   Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money due to the loss of the European market.  Disney also turned over most of the studio’s facilities to the production of training films for the military, who did not pay the studio very well.  And after a bitter strike, the studio became a union shop with increased salaries for the animators.

After the war, Disney scrambled to find new types of films that would bring in the kinds of money returned by Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons.  He thought there would be a huge market for civilian educational films, modeled on his war training films.  Disney also believed that movies based on Americana themes would be popular, since the country was tired of war and would be looking for reassuringly sentimental films.

Impressed by Stewart, he invited him to the studio for a short time.  He asked Stewart to prepare suggestions for educational films.  He also wanted to hear Stewart’s recommendations for films based on Americana.

Stewart went to the studio, talked with animators and producers, and wrote up his ideas for Disney Producer Ben Sharpsteen. Although there’s no record (outside of Disney Archives) for Stewart’s recommendations about educational films, there is a record of his Americana thinking.  He suggested  a series of animated movies about American folklore; and that it begin on the East Coast with early tales, moving west and forward in time as the series progressed.

Before he left, Stewart had a fine lunch with Walt Disney.  After he returned home, Disney sent him a personal letter:  “The type of work you are doing is of much interest to us,” he wrote, “and I hope when you do have the time you will visit us again.”  Stewart never returned to the Studio.  But Disney did make a series of cartoons and films based on American folklore or fiction that is folkloric in nature – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Carl Carmer is credited as the main consultant for the films, so Stewart’s influence was probably minor.

Yet, if Stewart was not the primary influence on Disney’s Americana films, he had influence.  The True-Life Adventure Series and the Americana films at least show that the two men  had  similar ways of thinking. But Disney’s greatest compliment to Stewart and his work came a decade later.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Disney produced film versions of Storm and Fire for The Wonderful World of Color.  A Storm Called Maria was a good made-for-tv version of Storm.  Its use of documentary footage and real people playing their own roles gave the movie believability.  A Fire Called Jeremiah was also realistic – except for a few Disney “cute” touches – and it closely followed the ecological sense of Stewart’s novel.  (A version made by another studio strayed exponentially from Stewart’s Fire, mentioning nothing about ecology.)

So the short visit between George R. Stewart and Walt Disney, spent in the Kingdom of the Mouse at the Disney Studio, led to film versions of Stewart’s work with would teach his ideas to millions of Disney TV viewers.  It was another example of the far-reaching influence of George R. Stewart, scholar and author, who did so much to change our way of thinking about our Earth, and its culture.