George R. Stewart’s Prophetic Whole Earth Vision, and a Canadian Coin

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In a recent issue of the excellent CBC New website,  journalist Bob MacDonald describes a new Canadian coin that honors the 25th anniversary of the first spaceflight by a female Canadian Scientist-Astronaut, Dr. Roberta Bondar.  The coin, beautifully-designed, has two remarkable features. Concave on one side and convex on the other, it carries a sense of the roundness of Earth.  And its colorful rendering of the image-map of Canada from space glows in the dark to reveal patterns of man-made lights in that northern country.  (The Canadians were also kind enough to include a good part of their neighboring nation to the south on the coin.)

Since this is a silver coin, durably made, it will be a long-lasting — “a deep time” — reminder of North American geography as it appeared the early 21st century.

In his article, MacDonald emphasizes what he seems to consider a new idea – that space and conservation are two sides of the same coin.  The article is well-written, and will open up that idea for the first time to many readers.  But the idea is NOT new – NASA is tasked, to do ecological research.  And that, in part, is certainly because George R.Stewart, nearly a quarter of a century before the NASA organic act was written, and 33 years before the first Earth Day,  in Ordeal By Hunger and his ecological novels, presented the concept to a massive audience of literate, general readers.

Ordeal By Hunger, written in 1936,  opens with a view of Nevada from orbit so accurately described that when  International Space Station Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu  photographed Nevada from space his images matched Stewart’s words almost exactly.  Stewart’s history of the Donner Party then comes down to Earth, to focus on the role of the ecosystem in the fate of the emigrants.  Thus, he completes what has become known as The Whole Earth vision – understanding Earth from within its ecosystem, and  from without,  as one small, beautiful, place in the universe.

Stewart follows that same approach in his first ecological novel, Storm.  The novel begins with a view of Earth from Earth orbit; moves into the ecosystem to tell its story; then ends by  taking the reader to an imaginary platform on Venus, describing the tiny bright light called Earth from millions of miles away.

Once again George R. Stewart proved to be a prophet, and trailblazer for our time.  His books helped lay the foundation for the view of Earth found on the new Canadian coin, and for our sense of the Whole Earth.

Another Honor For GRS: George R. Stewart in “Stewart Heritage”

Two distinguished British authors, Henry Fothringham, OBE, and Charles Kinder Bradbury,  have just released their beautiful coffee table book, Stewart Heritage.  The book devotes a page to each of several dozen famous and influential Stewarts.  One of the Stewarts they profile is our focus in these pages:  George R. Stewart.

This is the third recent work honoring Stewart and his work.  There was an essay in the literary magazine of the Chicago Tribune, “George R. Stewart: Unrestrained by literary borders,” the several pages devoted to Stewart’s Storm in  Snowbound,  Mark McLaughlin’s just-released book about the largest storms recorded in the Sierra Nevada, the fine interpretive sign at Donner Summit so ably designed and place by Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society (followed by several articles in the Society’s magazine), the Berkeley ePlaque edited and published by Robert Kehlmann and his stalwart colleagues; and now this fine one-page essay which succinctly summarizes Stewart’s life and work.

Although I can’t reproduce the entire GRS page from Stewart Heritage for reasons of copyright, I can post a portion here to give readers the chance to see the quality of the book and the George R. Stewart entry.

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There is clearly a continuing interest in George R. Stewart and his work.   The new, reduced price on the GRS biography and the planned mini-series of Earth Abides will increase that interest.

This weblog is not designed as a marketing tool.  But when something  exceptional  related to George R. Stewart comes along, I’ll always share it with you.  If you are a Stewart, or know a Stewart, or a passionate fan of George R. Stewart and his work, you might consider Stewart Heritage (which I understand was printed in a limited edition).

Post Script.  Having had the chance to review the book in more depth, I find it rich in history across disciplines, across borders, even across racial lines.  There are entries which sweep the Earth from Panamint City near Trona, California – founded by stage robbers who discovered silver there – to Brittany (“Little Britain”) and a tussle there between Satan and Saint George over Mont St. Michel – to Hollywood and James Stewart – and on and on.  Disciplines include science and engineering – the authors have expertise in chemistry and metallurgy – painting, music, film, sport, military accomplishments, academia, politics, law – think Justice Potter Stewart – and, of course, writing.  It is a fascinating read.

BIG NEWS – GRS BIO PRICE DROPS TO $35

Cover of the McFarland Book

Those of you who are loyal followers of this weblog are among the first to know this – The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart: A Literary Biography of the Author of Earth Abides has just had a major price reduction.  Originally $55.00, McFarland has reduced the price to $35.00.  The  new price puts the book well within the budget of most GRS fans.

(Like Amazon, McFarland ships free.  Click on the book cover to go to the book’s page.)

As the authorized biography of GRS, the book contains previously unpublished photographs and other materials about Stewart, and also his mid-twentieth century community of American writers and scientists, and others .   There are photos of Wallace Stegner, C. S. Forester, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and others.  Manuscript materials include quotations from letters from Walt Disney and others, a radio mystery script “starring” Stewart, and a previously unpublished Civil War Journal from the Battle of the Peninsula.

The book is meticulously, thoroughly researched.  Written for a general audience,  Feedback indicates it’s well-written, easy to read, and interesting.

It will take a week or two for the price drop to be reflected at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Then, for the price of a few lattes, you can have your own copy of this well-reviewed biography of one of the great writers and thinkers of the last 100 years.

P.S. If you want to save even more money, you can buy it as an ebook, here, in several formats, for less than $13.  Of course, you’ll lose the wonderful texture and of the printed book.

 

 

 

 

George R. Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger — First Whole Earth work

(PLEASE NOTE:  For some reason, WordPress is not inserting paragraph breaks in part of this post.  Please read it with that understanding.  Thanks, DMS.)

 

I believe George R. Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger was the most important book of the twentieth century.

The book is the history of one of the great calamities of the Westward movement, the stuff of nightmares:  The story of the Donner Party.

The Donner Party, from an eastern ecosystem, made the mistake of listening to trail salesman Lansford W. Hastings.  Hastings’ “shortcut”  delayed the Party and the worst winter in many years pinned them down at what is now called Donner Lake, just below what is now known as Donner Pass.    Rescue parties tried to bring food in and survivors out, but the harsh winter meant that they would have limited success.  Members of the Donner Party tried to escape by climbing through the deep snow over the 7000+ foot pass, but most were forced back by weather and deep snow.  Eventually, their food gone, those at the camps by the lake, and some of those stranded by snow on their way to Sutter’s Fort were forced to eat human flesh.  Those acts of necessary cannibalism insured that the story of the Donner Party would become a major part of the story of the Westward Movement, and the settlement of California, even though it was actually a small blip on the historic record.

One of the survivors, Virginia Reed, summed it up in a letter to a relative written a year later:

I have not wrote to you half the trouble we have had but I have wrote enough to let you know that you don’t know what trouble is. But thank God we have all got through and the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything but I don’t care for that. We have got through with our lives but Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.

“Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can” is one of the great lessons of the Westward Movement.
But that’s not the reason I believe this history is critical to understanding our time.  It’s the two epiphanies Stewart had while working on the book, which he wrote into it.
Books  write themselves, even though authors do the hard slogging of getting things down on paper.  Stewart had a dickens of a time trying to put the book together.   There was the long trek across the plains, through the Rockies and the Wasatch, and over the deserts; there was the barrier of the Sierra Nevada (the name means “Snowy Mountains, which should have been a warning); there were the two winter camps; there were the various parties of emigrants braving the Sierra Nevada, seeking safety; there were the several parties of rescuers braving those same storms as they headed into the Sierra Nevada — the story was all over the map of eastern central California.
That gave Stewart an idea — he’d map the story.  Stewart loved maps, and he loved to make maps.  So they were the perfect tool to help him put the story together.  As he mapped out the various events, he realized that he could use a technique of English to make the story compelling:  He would follow one group until there was a critical moment, and then move to another group, similarly following them to a  crisis, and then return to the first group to reveal how things had worked out.  So readers would turn the pages quickly, eager to see what would happen next to each of the groups.
But mapping showed Stewart something much more important:  The importance of the geography of the story in its eventual outcome.  As Stewart put it, in the book, “It should be obvious to the reader that I consider the land to be a character in the work.”  That simple statement, and the understanding it contains, reveal one of the great moments in western thought.  Shakespeare told readers that the world is simply a stage for humans to act on.  Stewart is telling his readers – us – that Shakespeare is wrong.  The world – Earth, and its ecosystems – “The land” – is the principal player in any human drama.  It is a remarkable vision, and it prepared readers for the great paradigm shift of the twentieth century, the idea that an ecological view of the world is the correct one.
What defeated the Donners, and defined the character of the human players in this tale, was their ignorance of ecosystems.  They were easterners, and had no sense of the ecological reality of deserts or high  “Snowy Mountains.”
Once he’d come to understand the ecological viewpoint, the idea that the land is a character, Stewart seems to have decided to emphasize that in the beginning of the book.   Most histories of this type would begin with the party starting their ill-fated journey west, or with an overview of the Westward Movement up to that.  But Stewart begins with an unprecedented look at northern Nevada and eastern California from the perspective of space.
To observe the scene of this story, the reader must for a moment imagine himself …raised in space some hundreds of miles above a spot near the center of the state of Nevada.  …Far to his left, westward, the onlooker from the sky just catches the glint of the Pacific Ocean; far to his right, on the eastern horizon, high peaks of the Rockies forming the Continental Divide cut off his view.  Between horizons lie thirteen degrees of longitude, a thousand miles from east to west…
He continues, describing the Earth from space so accurately that features in Astronaut photos of the area can easily be identified.
Stewart did this, mind you, 24 years before anyone actually saw that view.  But in writing the Astronaut’s perspective into the opening of the work, he was making the point that all human experience took place in small ecological microcosms in that huge macrocosm of Earth.   Now, of course, we have moved away from Earth, and the idea is not unusual.  But he was the first to define our stories as Earth stories, and Earth ecosystem stories.  A quarter of a century before humans actually saw the view, and began to speak of “Earth,” he was preparing us.
In writing the book, Stewart developed two remarkable ideas.

The Whole Earth concept – the idea that Earth  from afar is small and beautiful; and from the surface a complex ecological and geographic system; and which defines the actions of all life, including human life – can be said to be the defining idea of the twentieth century So that century should be known as the first Whole Earth century.  It was the time when we began to see ourselves as a raft of life on a very special place in the universe, and it was the first time humans  did so.   Ordeal By Hunger, the first Whole Earth book, prepared us for this great change in our understanding.

For the first time in human experience, a book was written which educated its readers to the understanding that Earth and its ecosystems are the principle protagonists in any human drama.

Once he’d experienced the Whole Earth epiphany, and shared it with readers, Stewart would continue writing books around that truth.  Over the next decade or so, he would invent a “literature of the land.”  He would invent the Whole Earth novel, and the ecological novel, and would refine them until he created his masterwork, Earth Abides.  In doing this work, he would build upon this most important of twentieth century books, the first book to see and share the Whole Earth idea.  Thus, George R. Stewart would shape the twentieth century.