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.

 

 

 

Philip Aaberg’s sheet music for “Earth Abides” is published

For nearly a decade, I was a traveling Educator for NASA.  Most school work, in those long-ago days on the NASA Education highway, was with 4-6 grades. Sometimes, though, we’d work with High school students.  That age group can be a challenge.  A former high school teacher myself,   I had a few appropriate activities to use.  One was to work them through The Drake Equation.  (See also this BBC Interactive Page.)  Another,  a head-down bedrest exercise that let the chosen briefly experience and document the fluid shift caused by microgravity.  The third was to read from George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.

 

 

At Galena High School in Reno to work with Science Teacher Richard Brong’s students, I included the Earth Abides reading with other activities.  After the session ended, Richard asked, “Do you know Philip Aaberg’s music?”

 

 

“Aaberg’s written and recorded a composition called ‘Earth Abides.'”

 

It was the beginning of a quest:  To find a copy of the music; then, if possible, to find Philip Aaberg.

 

Fortunately, Missoula’s legendary Rockin Rudy’s had a copy of the Windham Hill CD, Harvest, with Aaberg’s composition.

 

 

Then, with some detective work  on the web, I found the phone number for Sweetgrass Music, Phil and Patty Aaberg’s music (etc) business.   Calling the number connected me with Patty Aaberg; Patty connected me with Phil.

 

Phil is an exceptional musician.  In high school he regularly traveled 600 miles by train from Chester, Montana, to Spokane, Washington, (and 600 miles back)  to study with a Julliard teacher who’d moved west to find students like Phil.  He received a full scholarship to Harvard.   When he found himself depressed by the Vietnam war, unable to create music, his brother sent him a copy of Stewart’s Earth Abides.  The book, and others by Stewart, encouraged and inspired him, and he could once again create.   The composition was his honoring of Stewart and Stewart’s great novel.

 

The friendship with Phil eventually led to his participation in a George R. Stewart Symposium at the annual CONTACT conference.  There, Phil spoke of Stewart’s profound influence; then played several compositions, including Earth Abides.

Now – thanks to sponsors Bob Lyon,  Junlin Pan, Ross and Charleen Bogert, Alan Kaplan, Joyce Stewart, and Doug Raybeck – the sheet music for Aaberg’s Earth Abides  has been published.  It’s for sale at a reasonable price, here:

If you play the piano or know someone who does, this is worth buying.

 

Even if you don’t play, buy it – the cover is worth framing.

 

If Stewart’s iconic novel becomes a successful mini-series, this will be a collector’s item.

 

Highly recommended.

 

Here’s more about Philip Aaberg, from an excellent website about simplification:

 

 

Amazon Drops the Price

A quick note to let you know that Amazon has dropped the price of the GRS biography – The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart  – so it’s now in line with McFarland’s price.

The biography may also be at the reduced price at other bookstores.

McFarland is a pleasure to do business with, and I believe offers free shipping; so you might consider ordering directly from them.

This is just in time for Christmas or Hanukkah – what a great gift for the Stewart fans out there!

And stay tuned for some big news about another book, a beautiful coffee table book, that honors GRS.

George R. Stewart’s Friends, I – C.S. Forester

Stewart once wrote that although his life as a scholar had been necessarily a lonely one, he’d had some remarkable encounters along the way.  Many of those encounters were with other writers of his time, some of whom became household names, and in a few cases those people became close and life-long friends.

Over the next few months, as time and the move permit, this web log will share some of those friends with its readers.   Since I’ve just finished re-reading C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, and am currently watching “Horatio Hornblower” on YouTube, Forester seems a good subject.

C.S. Forester is best known for his Horatio Hornblower series, 12 novels set in the Napoleonic Wars with track the adventures and the growth of a young Englishman in the Royal Navy.  The character lives on, long after the death of Forester – Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is modeled in part on Hornblower.

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to see the first episode on YouTube, click here

Forester also wrote The African Queen, which was made into an excellent, award-winning film by John Huston.   The film, still excellent, and not dated, stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – he, the hard-drinking grizzled skipper of a small steam-powered boat (think Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise boats), she, a prim, religious woman, both trying to escape from the German military in Africa during World War I.  After many adventures, they’re captured by the Germans and sentenced to hang.  But…… but you’ll have to see the movie or read the book to find out what happens.

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to see the trailer, click here

Forester was born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith.  Raised by his mother in England after early childhood in Cairo, and studying medicine, he decided he wanted to be a writer. He began writing in 1921.

By 1940, he’d convinced the British government to let him move to the United States as a writer of propaganda encouraging Americans to enter the war on England’s side.  He soon found himself living in North Berkeley, where he would stay until his passing in the middle 1960s.

He was a well-known author by the time he arrived in Berkeley – The African Queen was published in 1935, and the first Hornblower novel in 1937 – and he’d published many other works as well.  His Berkeley circle quickly grew to include others who were successful academics and writers.  One of those was George R. Stewart.

By 1940, Stewart was also a well-known writer.  He’d published landmark biographies of Bret Harte and humorist George Horatio Derby.  His 1936 book on the Donner Party was a best-seller, and first “Whole Earth” book.  He’d written two novels, one scheduled to be filmed until the war interceded.  And he was working on the first ecological novel, Storm.

Stewart and Forester were innovators, who often broke the literary conventions of their day to produce works that stood head-and-shoulders above that time.  In Storm Stewart integrated history, science, and story into an unprecedented novel that looked at an ecological event and its influence on human affairs from a smooth, interdisciplinary perspective.

In The Good Shepherd, Forester also breaks convention.  The novel tells of a terrifying 48 hours in which the Commander of ships protecting an Atlantic  convoy from a German wolf pack  of U-boats must shepherd his small but important fleet through foul weather and deadly attacks.  He’s never been a commander under fire, and often worries about his ability.  But he doesn’t worry much – he does what he must, even as exhaustion and hunger and the need to go to the head creep upon him, to the point that he must against all his beliefs break protocol to remove his shoes so his feet can begin to function again.

A conventional novel like this one would be broken into several chapters, probably one for each watch on each day or for each major encounter with the enemy.  But Forester wants his readers to FEEL the all-encompassing Commander’s experience of the battle.  So he only has 3 chapters.  The first chapter is a 6 page introduction to the setting and the mission.  The third chapter is also 6 pages, as the Commander has won the battle but – now able to rest – loses the battle to stay awake.

The second chapter is a 295 page immersion in the battle, in such detail that the reader begins to gain new respect for military procedure and trigonometry and a good, hot cup of coffee.  It is almost impossible to put down.  And by the end of it, the reader feels as exhausted, and joyful, as our commander.

That unusual approach alone sets the novel apart.  The reader is, or at least this reader was, exhilarated by the out-of-the-box structure and how right it is.  But Forester does more.  He inserts small bits of personal history which take us into the Commander’s past, and his heart and his soul, and we understand why a successful mission is so important to him – he’s sacrificed the chance for a happy personal life so he can do his duty to protect his convoy, and his world.

Stewart does something similar in his second novel, Doctor’s Oral.  It is the story of a day in the life of a graduate student facing a committee who will decide whether or not he gets his Ph.D.    One member of the committee, a woman professor, is quiet and somewhat mysterious.  Then Stewart, in one brief section, opens her soul to us, and thus opens our heart and our understanding to her.

In both cases Stewart and Forester manage to put, within a larger story, unforgettable revelations of character showing us real people rather than cardboard cutouts.  They enlighten us, to the truth of human experience.  It is the quality of great, rather than conventional, art.

Stewart and Smith/Forester became good friends, often working and relaxing together or with their families.  We can imagine them talking about their various projects in a local club, inspiring each other’s work, or one of Ted (Theodosia) Stewart’s many picnics.  They were also members of The Armchair Strategists, a group of scholars who examined the events of the week during World War II, and suggested strategies based on their work.  LIFE Magazine carried a story and photograph about the Armchair Strategists, with both men in the picture.

They went on picnics together.  Ted Stewart loved picnics, and George loved to drive.  They’d head north over the new Golden Gate Bridge, then west into Marin County.  In those days, picnickers could park in a pull out and spread the lunch on the grass next to the road.  Not much traffic, and not many restrictions.   It would have been a time of relaxation, laughter, and light talk.

Here’s a photo of one such roadside picnic.  The photo, from Anna Evenson’s Stewart Family Photo Collection, looks like the photographer – almost certainly Stewart – set the camera on the ground and used a self-timer to take the picture.  It is probably taken in the early-to-mid 40s, to judge by the clothing and the apparent age of the subjects.

cs forester, grs, tbs, mrs  from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

Ted Stewart is on the right.  GRS, seated in the back next to Mrs. Forester, is wearing sunglasses.  C.S. Forester is laying on his back in the middle foreground, apparently wearing jodphur riding pants and large hiking boots.  They’re all smiling for the camera; but those smiles are certainly honest ones.  It looks like a good time – and no picnic of Ted’s was ever anything but wonderful.  (I speak from  personal observations of a few at Thornton State Beach, and a sharing in one with the classic Ted Stewart lunch of cold chicken, good sourdough bread, and a nice white wine.)

Since GRS and Ted lived on into the 1980s, their friendship would likely have continued  until Forester’s death in 1966.  After GRS retired in 1964, there would have been more time for picnics.  I hope there were many, and many cheerful conversations about books and writing.

Read Forester, if you’re a Stewart fan.  The Good Shepherd is a fine place to start.  So is The African Queen, or any of the Hornblower novels.  As you read, think about the friendship between these two fine writers, and their families, and the influence it may have had on their work.

 

 

 

And So We Come To A Milestone

Ish's Hammer(1)

After five years and 171 posts, reviewing George R. Stewart’s work, reporting on projects being developed to honor him, and describing his influence on human societythis web log about George R. Stewart has come to a milestone.  The weblog’s author is moving.

It’s been a luxury to have a comfortable place to research and write about him, and hopefully that’s been reflected in posts that are longer and more readable than ones written on the fly.  Now, the author  is leaving his comfortable office, and heading out to seek new adventures.  This means that there may be gaps in the posts, and posts may be less developed.

Fortunately, this is a milestone in other ways.

For one thing, all of his major work has been described here on this site.   So without reading all of Stewart’s books, the fans of some of them can see the intellectual and artistic context in which they are placed. His masterwork Earth Abides, for example, can be seen as the pinnacle of his ecological novels – the books in which the ecosystem, not humans, is the protagonist.  And readers of this web log will now also know that Stewart’s ecological best sellers, published long before Earth Day or the rise of the Environmental Consciousness, certainly helped bring that Consciousness about.

It is a milestone, too, in sharing those honors which he is increasingly gathering.   The interpretive sign at Donner Summit is in place during the summer when the old highway he immortalized, U.S. 40, is open to traffic.  The GRS ePlaque is now online at the Berkeley Historical Plaque site.  (Someday, if funding is found and permission gathered, a physical plaque could be placed at the site of Stewart’s San Luis Road home.)   Junlin Pan, Chinese scholar, is well along in her difficult translation of Names on the Land for an immense Chinese audience eager to learn about America.  The sheet music for Philip Aaberg’s Earth Abides is soon to be published, thanks (like the US 40 sign) to the contributions of friends of Stewart.  And, just perhaps, there’s an Earth Abides mini-series on the horizon.  It’s been a pleasure and an honor to have been part of these things.

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New GRS Interpretive Sign, Donner Summit, Historic U.S. 40, just above the Rainbow Bridge and Donner lake, and just below George R. Stewart Peak.

Along the way of the weblog, we’ve been reminded of how Stewart’s work still directs us, and encourages us.  One of the great Stewart interpreters, for example, recently refused to sign an illegal loyalty oath in his unenlightened college system – a college system in a state whose voters salivate over the chance to pack weapons into diners, but apparently have little use for freedom of thought.  Surely, that Stewart interpreter, that hero of thought, (a famous poet and author), was inspired by Stewart’s Year of the Oath.  And as the ecosystem gets our attention through climate change, we can all be reassured by the ecological novels that humans can survive and transcend any such changes.

Stewart once wrote that although his scholarly life had often been a lonely
one, he had enjoyed some fine meetings along the way. That is true for this web log, as well.  It’s brought us into conversations with a professor at Temple University, well-known author Christopher Priest, and several dedicated Stewart fans, who’ve all shared their experiences with Stewart’s books.  It brought into the light a remarkable 1929 silent film of George R. Stewart and his parents, visiting his wife’s Wilson relatives in Pasadena – a film now copied, thanks to Ross Wilson Bogert and his son, and placed in the Bancroft, other Stewart collections, and the collections of the Stewart family.

So we’ve done a lot. And if this weblog needs to take a break, it’s earned the right to do it.

But the site will return, because there’s much yet to discuss.  Stewart’s friends, for example, like C.S. Forester and Wallace Stegner and Bruce Catton and Frost and Sandburg and all the rest.  And there will be news, of that you can be sure, about George R. Stewart and his continuing influence on us all.

Thanks to you, readers, for enriching and expanding this weblog with your comments, your encouragement, your suggestions, your support, and your continuing interest in things Stewartian.

 

Author George R. Stewart in one of his favorite places, Nevada

from the anna evenson stewart family photo collection

NAMES ON THE GLOBE

NOTG cover

George R. Stewart’s last great book was Names On The Globe.  He wrote another names book, American Given Names, before he died, (see earlier post about  that book) but it was a dictionary and history of selected American names.  Names On The Globe, like his classic and never-duplicated Names On The Land, was a history of place-naming – in this case, on a global scale. Here, in the last post about one of Stewart’s major publications, is a short essay about the book.

As in Names On The Land, Stewart has created a rich, complex, and deep – but easily understood – history of the process of place naming and of eras of place naming.  Although it is supposedly about global naming, for many obvious and practical reasons GRS focuses on names in the areas we then called “western civilization.”  He was not a Chinese or Japanese scholar, nor an African one, nor one who knew much of Aboriginal languages and culture.  So he stuck with what he did know, with some brief chapters and comments about other regions of the world – assuming, probably, that others who came after him might add deeper histories of the naming in those places.  Another reason for emphasizing “Western Civilization” is that he spoke or read many Indo-European languages, and had studied the history of most Indo-European countries (save India), so he could do the scholarship necessary to tease out the story of those names.

He takes a different approach to understanding place naming in this book, beginning with an examination of Man as a Namer.  No recorded human society is without names.  Some have evolved, GRS says, and others were bestowed.  That is, in finding a previously unknown river its name “new river” evolved from the name of the original river.  But Tamsen’s Town was a name that would have been bestowed on a place by settlers of travelers.

GRS continues by considering the mind of Man the Namer, as he explains the types of place names given, and the reasons for giving them.  Some places, for example, were important to the namers because of incidents that happened there (Colt Killed Creek), others show possession  (Wassa’s Town, Washington),  others commemorate great (or small) events (Washington’s Crossing), and so forth.

In Part III, the longest section, GRS describes the names and naming in various places around the globe.  In discussing Celtic names, in modern Europe, he points out that they were so well-connected with the land that they outlasted the names later given by the Romans, even if in altered form.  But, as he points out, some of the “Celtic” names were probably originally given by earlier settlers.

Part IV is especially interesting, as Stewart considers important uses for ancient names – as tools for archaeologist, historians, and other scholars.  Fittingly, since Stewart was, after all, a poet who wrote prose, he ends with a chapter about place names as useful tools for poets. “…The romantic appeal springs from sonorous syllables, and from a sense of the strange, bizarre, and wonderful. …” Stewart writes, noting that the poet or author needs not to know the meaning of the name to use it in his work.  He quotes several famous poets who are known for the excellent use of such names, mentions Stephen Vincent Benet’s American Names.  And he quotes, appropriately, the beautiful opening of his own Names on the Land, where he lists the wonderful names found here – Gunsight Pass, Lone Pine, Broken Bow, Roaring Run, and the others.

He finishes the book, as he sometimes finished his works, with a reflection on even the most prosaic seeming of names, Cowbridge.  Did a cow fall from the bridge?  Or refuse to cross?  “….even the simple Cowbridge stirs the imagination,” George R. Stewart writes, as he finishes his great work.

The Author’s Note brings that work to a close.  He will finish and publish his book on American given names, but this, he knows, is his last great work.  So he honors his greatest friend, his wife, Theodosia, “who,” he writes, “might well be given the title Encourager of Books.”

And, thus, Opus Perfeci.  For this study of the books of George R. Stewart, and his life, and related topics.  Depending on what may come, I plan to add more as things of interest show up.  And since Stewart wrote of Earth from the view of space, ground, ecosystem, language, history, literature, and so on, I still have a broad canvas to draw on.

In the meantime, many thanks to all of you – from nearly 60 countries, in every continent save Antarctica at last count – who have visited this site, read the posts, commented on them, and encouraged the work.  You have been an inspiration.

 

 

 

A New George R. Stewart e-Plaque at the Berkeley Plaque Project

 

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The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project is dedicated to placing plaques at, or about, historic sites in Berkeley.  Many of the plaques are physical, beautifully designed and placed at the locations interpreted.  Others are posted at the Plaque Project’s website, as e-Plaques.  The e-plaques allow people not in Berkeley to see the plaques, and learn about those being interpreted – a world wide version of the physical plaques, available to all.  The e-Plaques also allow an honoring of sites and people for far less than the $1000 cost of the physical plaques.

George R. Stewart has now been honored with an ePlaque.  With the permission of GRS Family Photo Collection Keeper Anna Evenson, the writing talents of Steven Finacom and company, and the leadership of Robert Kehlman, the plaque is now online at the link above. The Plaque gives a good overview of Stewart, his family, his life, and his work. It links to other honorings like the brilliant James Sallis essay on Earth Abides.  (Sallis is a poet and author, the writer of the novella DRIVE which was made into an excellent movie.)

The Plaque also links to a radio script, written by Stewart’s colleague, Berkeley author “Anthony Boucher.” “Boucher,”  nom de plume of William Anthony Parker White, created a series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which ran in the late 1940s.  One episode, The Ghost Town Mortuary, “starred” George R. Stewart. Follow the link at the bottom of the plaque to read part of that script.   (Some of the Gregory Hood episodes are online; unfortunately, The Ghost Town Mortuary is not.)

Eventually, it may be possible to put a physical plaque on what might be called “Ish’s House,”  the house on “San Lupo Drive” which was the Stewart home when Earth Abides was written, and Ish’s home in the novel. But that will need to wait until the time when there is funding available for it.  Until then – and after – this is a fine piece of work, to be enjoyed by people in many places around the globe – and beyond, if someone on the International Space Station is a Stewart fan.