A Day of Celebration – The National Park Service Turns 100

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

GRS Trail Guide

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

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

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

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

Here’s the whole story, from Albright:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

mather cover

Book dedication Mathers

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

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

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

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

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a National Park Service Ranger.”

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

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

“Yes, I do.”

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

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

And he went back to his breakfast.

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

“No, ma’m.”

“He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Chicago Tribune publishes its tribute to George R. Stewart

“George R. Stewart: Unrestrained by literary borders,” Patrick T. Reardon’s fine tribute to George R. Stewart, was published yesterday in The Chicago Tribune‘s literary magazine, Printers Row Journal.    Editorial Assistant Andreea Ciulac was kind enough to send the link. (The Journal is published online only.)

The essay gives a good introduction to Stewart’s vast literary output.  As Reardon says, GRS wrote in many fields – history, geography, environmentalism, civil rights, and fiction – creating several new types of literature along the way.

Reardon highlights several of Stewart’s books – Earth Abides, Names On The Land, Pickett’s Charge, Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and others.  He quotes from the books to show Stewart’s style in each type of work, thus giving readers a sense of how the books read.

The portrait Andreea Ciulac chose for the article was taken in 1938, probably for East of the Giants.  It shows Stewart as the distinguished scholar and author he was – in a time when the publication of a book by a company like Random House meant honor and a huge readership. (Thanks to Anna Evenson for permitting use of the photo.)

To see that portrait with its fine accompanying article in The Chicago Tribune is to feel immensely satisfied – this is the kind of honorable place where GRS belongs.  In the literary magazine of one of the great newspapers of the country.

The article should encourage a new readership for Stewart’s work.  As Andreea Ciulac writes,  “… I think the article makes you jump from your seat and go read something written by GRS!”  (Andreea is a pleasure to work with – cheerful, enthusiastic, efficient, a friend of literature, and now, we hope, of GRS.  Printers Row Journal is lucky to have her on the staff.)

By the way – I wrote in the last post that you can subscribe to the Printers Row Journal; but no longer.  On the other hand, you CAN subscribe online to The Chicago Tribune, and receive the Journal as part of the subscription, for a reasonable price.  I was impressed with the Journal,  and have subscribed for a few months to try The Tribune and the Journal.



What Is “The Good Life?” George R. Stewart, GOOD LIVES

As the years began to pile up, and George R. Stewart felt his age, he began to think back over his life.  Had he lived a good life?

To answer the question, he wrote another book.:

Good Lives: The Stories of Six Men and the Good Life That Each Won for Himself

By examining six men throughout western history who seemed to share the same qualities and the same sense of accomplishment, Stewart found a definition of what comprised a (not “the”) good life:  Joab of the Old Testament, William the Marshall, Heinrich Schleiman, John Bidwell of California, Architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras of Mexico, and Prince Henry the Navigator, (He apologized, with explanation, for not including any women). The men where selected from those he’d encountered in his scholarly work over the decades.  In most cases, they were not widely known.(I suspect he profiled some because he wanted to let readers know about their lives – how else would the average reader in this country learn about the brilliant Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras?) The subjects ranged from the ancient – Joab of the Old Testament – to the fairly recent – John Bidwell of Chico, California.

In their lives, he discovered six qualities of character common to all.  Each had clear goals, and stayed committed to those goals until they were accomplished.  Heinrich Schleimann, for example, continued his search for the lost city of Troy during years of suffering the humiliation of failure and criticism from professional archaeologists and finally found the city.    Each accepted responsibility for his acts.  Each had great courage, sometimes in battle, sometimes, like Schliemann, in the pursuit of a goal.  And, at the end of their lives, each man felt fulfilled in things personal and professional, and had an integration of his spirit with his physical, material life.

The book is an interesting set of biographies of remarkable men, many of whom most readers had only met before in passing.  Discovering a pattern of character that helped him, and the reader, to understand why they are worth studying, added a layer of meaning to the book.

It may lack the power of Earth Abides.  But the book is none-the-less an important part of his body of work.  In a day when reading was still the primary method of informal education, the book introduced the lives of important but largely unknown historical figures to Stewart’s large reading audience.  It also found in those lives a set of standards by which all lives can be judged – thus using them as a microcosm, in the best Stewart manner.

Perhaps most important, it teaches us about George R. Stewart – what sort of man was he?  What values did he hold highest?  How did his life measure against the six in the book?  He didn’t answer that last question in the book.  But he once told his son Jack, “That’s a book an old man writes.”  In other words, in studying those lives he was giving us a key to his, as it drew close to the end.

But he wasn’t through with life yet.  He was already hard at work on another game-changing book, which would win a major prize and help his readers understand the nuts-and-bolts of living properly in the Whole Earth ecosystem that he had first visualized and shared, in the 1930s.

George R. Stewart, Radio Character

Although George R. Stewart did not make much use of electronic communication devices or media, he did, as reported earlier, find himself involved in the creation of Disney films.  At about the same time, in the late 1940s, Stewart – or an actor playing Stewart – made an appearance on a radio mystery program.

Television was on the horizon in 1946, but Americans still listened to their favorite programs on the radio.  Comedians like Fibber McGee and Molly or Jack Benny, western stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans or Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B – and mysteries or detective programs.

Mystery programs, which used the mind of the listener to create suspense or terror, were particularly creative and effective, because we all fear the unknown that we imagine much more than the known we can see.   The rattlesnake in your mind is much more terrifying than the rattlesnake on the trail.  Even today, it can be hard to listen to one of the more dramatic mysteries, like The Shadow, especially if you’re alone and it’s a dark and stormy night.

Mystery programs usually had a key character like Lamont Cranston – the Shadow.  The main character was often an urbane, slightly eccentric city type – an antiques dealer or bon vivant or independently wealthy person,  who had a nose for solving mysteries.  Think of Poirot or Inspector Morse or the modern Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Gregory Hood was such a detective  He lived in a penthouse in San Francisco, made his money in the collectible art import and export business, and even had a Chinese house servant – the ultimate mark of cool for the radio detective.  One of Hood’s creators was local writer Anthony Boucher.  Boucher was the  pen name of William Anthony Parker White, who lived in Berkeley and knew George R. Stewart.  To make the show especially “real,” Boucher used Richard Gump, of Gump’s Department Store, which specialized in the sale of art, as a consultant.

By the time of the radio show, August of 1946, Stewart had become a well-known author.  Names on the Land had just been released; impressed with the book, Boucher decided to build an episode of the radio show around it.

Several episodes of The Casebook of Gregory Hood are available; unfortunately, “The Ghost Town Mortuary,” the episode with George R. Stewart, has not yet been found.  Fortunately, Stewart kept a copy of the script, and donated that to the Bancroft.  Here’s a portion:

…GREGORY: This place is handy for the one person who I think can help us on this case.
SANDY: And who is that person?
GREGORY: Professor George Stewart, of the University English Department.
MARY: Oh yes! He wrote “Storm”—a wonderful book.
GREGORY: True, but what is more to our immediate point is the fact that Random House recently published his new book: “Names on the Land.” It’s a classic and definitive study of American place-naming. His virtues are many. (with a chuckle) Including a fine sense of entering on cue. Here he is. (Raising his voice) Hello, George.
GEORGE R. STEWART: (clearance arranged) (straight and charming ) How are you, Gregory?
GREGORY: Fine. …

Stewart is able to identify the location where a kidnap victim is being held by one word on a note – the word is the name of a ghost town.  The town is real, and the name is discussed in Stewart’s place-naming book; but Boucher moves the town west for dramatic purposes.

You can learn more about the series here.  

You can listen to an episode here.

This was not Stewart’s only exposure on radio.  A few years after this episode, the classic radio drama series Escape broadcast a version of Earth Abides.  In order to capture its epic sweep, Escape broadcast the story in two half hour segments.  And in the days before high quality recording, it was broadcast in an East Coast and a West Coast version.  The star was the well-known character actor John Dehner.

Download here.  Listen here.

Note the use of the term “ecology” at the beginning of the broadcast.  This is one of the first uses of the term, or concept, in mass media.

POST 102 – Taking Stock, Taking a Break

This is the 102nd  post on the George R. Stewart pages.  It’s been challenging and enjoyable to summarize his work and life and to describe the work of those who have been inspired by him.The posts are read in many countries – 45 at last count.  That’s rewarding.    Some readers have posted appreciative, or helpful comments.  That, too, is rewarding.

Now, due to the approach of reconstruction, I’m leaving the historic Walking Box Ranch. This means that internet access will be infrequent, until I settle into some future assignment.  So I’ll be taking a break.

In this century of posts,  I’ve shared the life and work of George R. Stewart with you: from his early decision to write beyond the traditional English Professor’s milieu to his paradigm-shifting use of the ecosystem – “the land” – as the principle protagonist in a history (the first Whole Earth work) and in a series of ecological/geographic novels. The last book explored on these pages was EARTH ABIDES,  the summit of Stewart’s ecological fiction.  Since we’ve taken a long look at that novel and its influences, this is a good place to take a break.

But we’re not done.  There’s much more to say about Stewart and his influence.  He wrote two more novels, both with geographic/ecological themes.  (One of those has been called the first “post-modernist” novel.)  He invented other types of literature:   the odological – “road study” – book and the Civil Liberties work.  He was one of the inventors of the micro-history.  In the 1960s, as the Environmental Movement (inspired in part by his work) took hold, he wrote the first popular work about the need to deal with waste, offering therein the first popular description of “global warming.”

In fact, in 1949, the year of the birth of EARTH ABIDES,  Stewart was only half-way through his creative life. He would go on to write more than a dozen books before he hung up his pencil.  So there’s much more to write about, and to share with you, when time and conditions permit.  In the meantime, thanks for reading this and sharing your ideas with me.

May the roads be good.

Read lots of books.

The Man Who Named The Storms

The 1940’s could be considered the summit of George R. Stewart’s creative work.  He had written landmark works before the 40’s – Ordeal By Hunger in particular – and he would write landmark works after.  But it was in the 1940’s that he created a new kind of fiction – the ecological novel – and a new type of history – the national place names book. He would also be internationally recognized for his work, by people as diverse as authors Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck, radio detective show writer Anthony Boucher , and Walt Disney. But the new novel would define the man and his work.

In the Donner Party history, Ordeal By Hunger, George R. Stewart had created the Whole Earth vision, and shared it with millions of readers.  Now, in his next book, he would refine and expand that idea, creating a new kind of novel with a new – yet ancient – type of protagonist.

Stewart did not set out to create a new type of literature in this, his third novel.  On sabbatical in Mexico, he saw a number of stories in the Mexican papers about great storms in California, and decided that a novel about a California storm would thus be a good seller.   His original idea was to strand a number of humans in a hotel near Donner Pass – a story not unlike that of the Donners, but hopefully without cannibalism — and to explore how the isolation affected their interactions.

But as he wrote the book, his idea changed.  He realized that since it was the storm which affected the humans’ relationships, the storm was the key protagonist in the book.   Once he’d had that insight – or epiphany – the entire novel changed.  It moved out of the hotel, into several locations at or near Donner Pass; and it became the biography of the storm.

Much of the book is set at or near Donner Pass and U.S. 40, so if you’ve traveled that way you’ll be familiar with many of his settings.  The GeoS Pilgrim, Steve Williams, visited the area and photographed it so he could convince his British father-in-law that the snow really could be several yards deep.

GRS Peak-SW copy Steve Williams, the Pilgrim, at Donner Pass on old U.S. 40.  March 18th, 1986.

To make the point, Stewart did not name most human characters – he named the storm.  One of his unnamed human characters – the Young Meteorologist – named storms because it was easier to keep track of them that way.  The YM was especially fond of women’s names that ended in -ia, so he chose the name “Maria” for the storm.  (Pronounced the old-fashioned way, wrote Stewart:  Mar-eye-ah.)

Stewart developed some unique literary devices for his book.  He would intermix history, names, geographic features, and so on, with the various narratives of the characters affected by the storm.  Those asides would be set apart, as if presented by a Greek chorus, thus giving the effect of a God-like overview of the life of the storm, and weather in general.  His interweaving of all these different types of writing was done masterfully; his human stories were involving; and his presentation of an ecosystem event, a storm, as principal protagonist, revolutionary.

It is the first ecological novel.  Since it was a best-seller, Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and eventually filmed, millions had the experience of considering human drama and events from the book’s revolutionary new perspective – the Ecosystem view of human experience.  As with Ordeal By Hunger, the book taught emphasized a sea change in ideas.  The world was no longer the stage on which men and women played; it was the major player in any human story.   Human character was determined by how people react to ecosystem events. Readers of STORM were internalizing those ideas.

It clearly influenced other artists.  Walt Disney filmed it for tv.  Disney then hired Stewart as a consultant, to work on some film ideas about American folklore.  The folklore films don’t seem to reflect Stewart’s ideas; but Disney soon after began to make his classic True-Life Adventure nature films, the godparents of all subsequent nature films.

The great popularity of the novel, and of  similar works by Stewart that followed in the 1940s and 1950s, lead me to believe that this book and its siblings are a major reason we had an awakening of environmental consciousness in the 1960s and beyond.  It was the catalyst for the widespread acceptance of the ecological view of human drama and events.

The book has been reprinted several times, most recently as a California Legacy book.  It’s still a good read.   I highly suggest that you visit your local bookstore – a used bookstore should be fine –  buy a copy and read this, the First Book of the Environmental Movement.

Storm cover

The Western Literature Association and George R. Stewart

There were two papers about George R. Stewart at this year’s Western Literature Association conference, in Berkeley.  Sadly, GRS, who should be honored as a star by the WLA, is almost unknown there.  Very few of the attendees at my panel even knew who he was.

Cheryll Glotfelty, who encouraged my attendance, said that she thinks his lack of popularity comes from – among other reasons – his inability to create well-rounded characters.  It was a perceptive comment, which acted as a catalyst for some thinking.

I was also interested in this question:  If writers honored by the WLA – Wallace Stegner comes to mind – and others of that level, like Ivan Doig, Larry McMurtry, and William Least Heat Moon consider GRS to be an important and under-appreciated writer, and readers buy his books by the thousands, why does the WLA seemingly not appreciate him?

After some thinking, I have a tentative answer.   Stewart’s important characters were not human – they were the events of the ecosystem, like a storm, and the ecosystem itself.  He may have purposely kept the human characters flat for the same reason that he did not name most of them in STORM – because his emphasis was on those ecological characters.  And there’s no question about his ability to bring eco-event to life.   Other writers realized what an extraordinary and culturally significant accomplishment this was, both in the ability to bring those characters to life and in the development of the literary devices that GRS used to do that.  Without analyzing devices or human character development, readers understood what he was doing and embraced it.

The only group who did not seem to be impressed by what GRS did is that of the literati, of the west and elsewhere.  This is probably because there is a different standard of “great” literature in those groups, including the university teachers of literature.

None of this is intended to be critical of the WLA or other literati, although I might suggest some deeper attention to the work of GRS.  I’m certainly glad that Cheryll talked me into attending, I enjoyed the conference, and all-in-all had a worthwhile weekend there.  Most important, it was a wonderful, learning experience, listening to other papers and discussions (like the one between Kim Stanley Robinson and Molly Gloss).

A final thought is this:  It seems to be an historical truth that great creative minds are often forgotten for a time, especially if they don’t do much self-promotion.  Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote music “for the glory of God,” was unknown to all (but the musicians who studied his work) for a century after he died.  Not until Mendelssohn performed one of Bach’s oratorios in honor of the centennial of his death did Bach begin to become a household word.  I expect GRS will be rediscovered by the literati, sooner or later, and will himself become a household word in literate households.

Perhaps the publication in China of Names On the Land will make Americans take notice, and that will lead to the re-discovery of GRS.