A reading of David J. Strohmaier’s The Seasons of Fire , and reflections on the massive fires of 2018 have encouraged this post about Stewart’s Fire. Now, in the season between the fires, there’s time to share some information about George R. Stewart’s pioneering and thrilling ecological novel.
George R. Stewart’s second ecological novel was about fire. Stewart’s normal method of writing was to create something new with each work. He didn’t want to repeat himself. So he regularly created new types of literary works with each new book – between his first ecological novel, Storm, and the first-ever “autobiography” of humankind, Man, he wrote the first and only history of national place-naming, Names on the Land. (That link takes you to a fine in-depth review of NOTL by Christine Smallwood, which also includes a mini-review of Fire.)
When Stewart’s publisher and agent and the reading public begged for another novel like Storm, he resisted the call. When the Book-of-the-Month club weighed in, promising huge sales, he finally agreed to write it. But to make it creative, unique, challenging, and more interesting, he set the novel in a fictional National Forest rather than real locations like the ones he’d used for Storm. His fictional forest, the Ponderosa National Forest, located adjacent to the Tahoe NF on the north side, was as accurate as any real national forest because his son Jack (later become the USGS “Man” for Nevada) helped him create the terrain and the maps. Naming features of that imaginary landscape and giving it a history was easy – he’d just finished his book about place-naming, was already an expert on the naming of Sierra features, and knew the Ponderosa NF’s history would be very similar to the other national forests of the central Sierra.
He named features for people he knew and respected; so Jack had a creek named for him, as did Stewart’s English Department colleague Jim Hart and many others. His final stroke of genius was the creation of a topographic model of the fictional forest – painted by his colleague David Park whose works can now sell for over a million dollars. (The model is safely stored in one of the Bancroft Library’s secure storage facilities.)
Christine Smallwood’s mini-review of Fire in her larger review of Names On The Land includes a good quote showing Stewart’s prolific use of names in the novel, which I’ll borrow here to give an idea of Stewarts’ poetic style in the book:
Humbug Point saw the blow-up, and Lovers Leap. Horse Mountain reported, and signed off, quoting Joel 2:30–“and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Far to the north, Sheer Rock saw it suddenly above the high shoulder of Howell Mountain. Hamlin Point saw it build up above the round top of Cerro Gordo, like the towering smoke of a new-born volcano.
(The names are those of fire lookout towers, which GRS uses here to “name” the fire spotters in the towers.)
When all was said and done, Stewart’s careful “design” of his national forest, helped by Jack Stewart and David Park, was so real that for years travellers would hunt for the forest during trips to the Central Sierra, and were always disappointed to discover it was fictional. (Interestingly, the fictional forest and the fictional fire’s location would be close to the area of the massive Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise last fall.)
Once GRS had the setting and the characters down, he wove his story. The novel uses the same exceptional – interesting, educational, and (as Christine Smallwood puts it) thrilling mixture of action and information – used in Storm. Stewart glissades smoothly from a god-like overview of history, fire science, fire ecology, wildlife biology, myth, geography, and the like, to the dramatic experiences of several human characters in several places – including one of the fire towers – during the huge blaze.
The novel opens with that god-like view, of the High Sierra and its western foothills, as lightening suddenly flashes down onto the tinder-dry duff of the forest. It ends with a similar perspective, but this time in one one of the most beautiful statements of the cycle of fire ecology ever written, as the heat of the fire opens the serotinous cones and their seeds drop onto the newly-ash-fertilized earth of the burned areas.
Ecology is the novel’s major theme, as it is in his other ecological novels, Storm, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock. One of the most memorable scenes in Fire is between the old Ranger who loves the beauty of the forest, heartbroken when “the glen” is burned into ash, and the new, young, college-educated Forest Ranger Supervisor. The old Ranger is saddened by the burnt wreckage of his special place of re-creation. But the Forest Supervisor tells him that beauty depends on your ecological view of things. To a rabbit scrub brush would likely be far more beautiful than the glen. It’s a wonderful, gentle pioneering statement of the ecological view in which humans are only one small part of a vast ecosystem. The old Ranger isn’t convinced; he’s lost his beloved glen. But Stewart has made his point about the need to see such things through an ecological sense.
The novel has its share of sad and tragic passages, like the description of the Camp Fire of its day, Peshtigo, far deadlier in that time before good forest management. Yet GRS does not dwell on the gruesome, but simply offers it as a part of the story of fire.
As usual, GRS did extraordinary research before he even picked up one of his tray of sharpened pencils and write. His office at UC Berkeley was adjacent to the University Library and the Bancroft Library, so he could dig deep into the literature of fire. His colleagues in the natural sciences and geography were a great help in the details of the work.
But in the best GRS tradition, he did not write the book from other books and quiet conversations. He had himself appointed as a “Collaborator” for the US Forest Service, and headed out to help fight some major forest fires. Stewart was so involved in that potentially deadly research that the Forest Service lost track of him and got quite worried. But he’d simply slipped away into the depths of the fire-fighting. He did almost lose his life once. Walking down a muddy trail he spied a burning snag just beyond and above him. He decided he could outrun it and jumped across a pool of water between him and the danger. But he slipped and fell face-down in the water. Which was a good thing – the snag fell just as he jumped; it would have hit him if he’d not slipped.
The book became a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It was filmed twice – once, in a hatchet job by Paramount as Red Skies in Montana, which ignored GRS’s ecological message. And once, for television by Stewart’s great fan Walt Disney, as A Fire Called Jeremiah. The Disney film had some Disneyfication, but is much closer to the ecological view of Stewart’s novel.
Ø Ø Ø
We read about the deadly fires of our time, or watch their smoke, and mourn the loss of those killed by them. Perhaps we lift a glass of Sierra Nevada’s Resilience Ale, that great act of kindness from Sierra Nevada Brewing, who created it, and 1400 other breweries around the world, who, like Sierra Nevada Brewing, are donating all profits to the victims of the Camp Fire.
While you’re sipping that good ale, or some other result of ζύμωσις+ἔργον – zymurgy or the science of brewing beer – to quench the fires of your thirst,
Read – or re-read – Fire, by George R. Stewart.