Of Fires and FIRE

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.

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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.

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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.

A suggestion:

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

GRS Supporter Michael Ward’s Wonderful Projects and Pages

Stewart fans owe Michael Ward a great deal.  He volunteered to create and post the George R. Stewart web pages, at his own expense.  The pages contain an excellent repository of information and links about Stewart and his work.  This blog reports the news about GRS; Mike’s pages are the best overview of basic information for Stewart.

We owe publication of the Stewart biography to Mike, as well.  Science fiction author G.D. Nordley, a fellow participant in the annual CONTACT conference,  suggested I contact Mike and his fellow organizers of the speculative fiction conference, Potlatch, to offer to participate on a panel about their Book of Honor that year, I jumped at the chance:  the book was Stewart’s Earth Abides. Mike, the panel organizer Tom Becker, and the others, graciously welcomed me to the program, and the panel.

One of the vendors there recommended submitting my book proposal to McFarland for consideration.  Agent Sally van Haitsma did so, and McFarland agreed to publish the book.

So it can be said that Mike Ward, his associates, G.D. Nordley, and Sally van Haitsma brought the GRS biography to life.

Now Mike keeps the GRS pages alive for our common interest.  Many of those who visit this weblog are directed here by Mike’s website, so he does a fine job of spreading the word about Stewart.

Mike has his own websites, and projects, and they are interesting and in at least one case wonderful research resources.

He has a site, Hidden Knowledge,  for the works of several authors, among those books the great adventure stories of Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini knew how to write a good tale.  Like C.S. Forester, Sabatini’s books are about the sea in the 18th century.  But Sabatini wrote pirate stories.  Like Forester, Sabatini’s work was filmed Captain Blood and and  The Sea-Hawk wonderful swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn, are probably the best-known.

(Please note that the links to buy the books no longer work.  So simply browse the site to learn more about Sabatini’s books, and the others Mike lists.)

Another of Mike’s sites is devoted to the art of magazine covers.  MagazineArt.org has more than 15,000 examples of cover art and magazine ads on the site – a virtual Smithsonian for the wonderful art of those printed wonders that enriched the lives of Americans and others before television or film or radio – and after, as well.

He has sites devoted to historic travels and travelers.  TravelHistory.org,  and another for the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  The many articles on the travel history page make for fascinating reading, allowing you to be an armchair traveler in the days of the web.

His pages link to other sites, about Burton Holmes, Rafael Sabatini, and George R. Stewart.

Thanks again to Mike Ward, whose GRS pages were the first major web presence for those of us who are fans of Stewart’s work.  Mike’s GRS pages bring others to this weblog.

His other pages are worth a browse.

CONTACT: a STEAM event

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Once again, the biennial CONTACT Conference is on the horizon.  Scheduled for next April 1 -3, it will be, as always, a small gathering of renown scientists, artists, authors, educators and just plain interested folks, who want to consider those meeting places of science and the arts which define and drive change.  It will be powered by the energy of STEAM, since it has presenters from and talks about  science, engineering, technology, art, and math.  There will be filmmakers, authors, NASA and SETI scientists, educators, and others.

One of the highlights will be a panel on the art and science of Star Trek; another will be a keynote speech by Rick Sternbach, legendary Star Trek artist, who designed, among other things large and small, the DS 9 Space Station.

The conference has a George R. Stewart connection.  Stewart was the writer of STEAM works, using the art of literature to interpret science and the other disciplines in the acronym.  CONTACT also offered a George R. Stewart Symposium in past years, with participation by composer Phillip Aaberg, geologist Dr. John Stewart, JPL’s Dr. James D. Burke, Stewart Scholar Robert Lyon, and others.  Perhaps most important, Earth Abides opened an intellectual door, for me, into the world of real science, and STEAM.

The conference is affordable, and the hotel rate low.  So if you want a chance to be uplifted and inspired, in a laid-back and collegial atmosphere in which all are welcome, come join us at CONTACT.

CONTACT 2016 (our 29th year!) is meeting on April 1-3 at the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale, CA. The Keynote speaker: Artist Rick Sternbach, well known for his designs and tech manuals for Star Trek, whose presence celebrates the 50th anniversary of the famed science fiction series. There will be a special symposium dealing with Star Trek’s legacy in the sciences and the arts.

CONTACT has evolved into a premier forum on the future. After a quarter century of our multi-disciplinary conferences, CONTACT includes some of the brightest of the new generation at NASA and SETI, scientists hard and soft, and as well as such exotics as anthropologists, philosophers, poets, filmmakers, historians, mathematicians and space lawyers. And the science fiction community (Larry Niven and Kim Stanley Robinson, this year) always adds a brand of innovative and responsible speculation that has made our conference and organization unique. And more fun for all.  Everyone’s a participant!

We will be offering our traditional blatantly diverse program, with a SETI panel and a session highlighting the connections between science and science fiction. The program will be continuously updated on our website. Join Penny Boston, William Clancey, Bruce Damer, Gus Frederick, Jim Funaro, Joel Hagen, Jeroen Lapré, David Morrison, Larry Niven, Gerald Nordley, Jim Pass, Doug Raybeck, Kim Stanley Robinson, Seth Shostak, Michael Sims, Rich Sternbach, Melanie Swan, Kathleen Toerpe, Zac Zimmer and others at CONTACT 2016.  Looking forward to working and playing together…

 You can register now at:  http://contact-conference.org/

COWBOY, PROFESSOR, WRITER, AND GEORGE R. STEWART SCHOLAR: PAUL F. STARRS

A few posts ago, I included a link to Dr. Paul F. Starrs’s fine essay/review of the George R. Stewart biography. (In case you missed it, here’s a pdf download link  STARRS-2015-rev essay SCOTT, bio of Geo Stewart (AAGRvBks)

A distinguished author, geographer, and scholar, he’s won every award the University of Nevada, Reno, offers for scholars and teachers, been a senior Fulbright Scholar, and won many national teaching and geography awards. Starrs just stepped down as Chair of the Department of Geography.

He can also throw the houlihan

Starrs was one of the few applicants accepted by Deep Springs College in 1975. (Around 400 apply; 13 are chosen.) Located in an isolated valley near the eastern border of central California, the College is a tiny two-year institution founded and funded by one of the pioneers of the transmission of AC electrical power, L.L. Nunn. Once enrolled, students are expected not only to achieve academic excellence; they must also govern the institution. Students also run its adjoining cattle ranch and farm to help support the college. When the ranch and farm are included, Deep Springs has the largest “campus” of higher learning on Earth. According to Wikipedia, The New Yorker describes the educational program as “a mix of Christian mysticism, imperialist elitism, Boy Scout-like abstinence, and Progressive era learning-by-doing, with an emphasis on leadership training and the formation of strong character.”

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Deep Springs Students on a Cattle Drive

With an extraordinary natural setting – hot springs, faults, desert playas, huge mountain ranges – Deep Springs sensitizes its students to the Earth. As an isolated human community, with the remains of an historic mining community nearby, Native American cultures in the area, the small towns and highway culture along US 395 to the west and the cities of Reno and Las Vegas to the east, south, and north, it is also in a region which exemplifies the principal concerns of geography – the relationships of humans to the land – in settings that range from isolated rural to large urban communities.

Starrs spent a few years cowboying after Deep Springs. He finished his education at the University of California, earning an M.A. and PhD in Geography at Berkeley.

PFS Backride-crCowboy Paul

Appointed an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1992, he quickly moved up into the highest ranks. He is now Regents and Foundation Professor of Geography, a high honor. Bilingual, he’s also held posts in Spain at the University of Salamanca and the Universidad of Córdoba.

He’s a brilliant scholar, with interests in many areas of geography. Currently he’s researching agriculture and land use change in California, the use of historic maps to reveal the exploitation of the environment, comparative frontier history, the geography of cattle ranching, and geography in popular culture, including music and film. Among other things.

Starrs is also a writer. One of his latest books, A Field Guide to California Agriculture, which he wrote in partnership with colleague Peter Goin, has been called a classic guide to the roadside agriculture of this state. Like Stewart’s books, it is a work of precision scholarship of the highest standard and a useful and readable work for a general audience.

I met Paul Starrs when Jack Stewart, distinguished Nevada geologist (and George R. Stewart’s son) called to ask if I could do a presentation about George Stewart’s life, work, and ideas, for Starrs’s Graduate Colloquium at UNR. Of course, I was honored, and agreed.

(The story of that adventure is worth telling. It was March; and to get to Reno I’d need to cross one of the legendary high mountain passes in the Sierra – and one of the snowiest – Donner Pass, made legend by George R. Stewart in Ordeal By Hunger. I decided to drive to Davis, California, stay at a friend’s house and take the train. At the last minute, though, he withdrew the invitation, so I had to book a motel instead. Nonplussed, I almost missed the talk.  On the way back to Davis, the westbound Zephyr was delayed more than 5 hours. That meant another night in a motel. Fortunately the generous honorarium covered all the unexpected costs. It was an honor to talk about George R. Stewart at the University with the second largest collection of Stewart material, in the country he loved, with a distinguished scholar and award-winning teacher who admires Stewart’s work.)

Starrs has long been interested in Stewart, which is fitting for someone educated at Berkeley in geography and holding a professorship at Reno. Berkeley was Stewart’s home – he was an English Professor there – and also the home of the best geography department in the country in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Reno is surrounded by “Stewart Country”: Donner Pass, Donner Lake, the Black Rock Desert. The California Trail and historic U.S. 40 pass through Reno. Thanks to Special Collections’ Librarian Ken Carpenter, the Knowledge Center at Reno has the second largest collection of George R. Stewart material on Earth (after the Bancroft Library in Berkeley).

Starrs teaches Stewart. He also contributes to the increasing body of work about Stewart and his writing. In 2005, for example, Starrs and colleague Peter Goin – Goin is Chair of the Reno Art Department and a distinguished photographer – published a book about the place Stewart called “Sheep Rock”: Starrs and Goin, Black Rock. It is an interdisciplinary, in-depth look at the place where Stewart set his most elaborate geographic (or ecological) novel. Starrs describes it as “a loving look at how a place can be conveyed not just through words, but also through photographs, historical maps, and newly-done cartography.”

Any fan of George R. Stewart’s work is encouraged to read the Black Rock book. And to keep the work of Paul Starrs on their radar screen. He’s completing a new book about the geography of film noir and just starting an historical novel about sheep herders in 1600s Spain. “Think Lonesome Dove meets Don Quixote in the Iberian Peninsula,” writes Starrs. “There’s a potential there for an interesting read.”

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Dr. Paul F. Starrs and his Favorite Subject, Earth

CONTACT speakers

Here’s the final list of speakers for CONTACT 2012. In addition, there’ll be the ongoing astrobiology project, Cultures of the Imagination. If you’re interested in the perspective on Earth from OutThere — a perspective pioneered by George R. Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger, Storm, and Earth Abides — this is the conference to attend. And the price is very reasonable:  book by tomorrow, 2-15, and it’s only $55 + the banquet and lodging.

SPEAKERS AND TITLES FOR CONTACT 2012

Robert McCann – “Kepler Report – Habitable Planets”

Jill Tarter – “Getting Earthlings on this World to Help with our Searches of the Kepler Worlds”

Chris Ford – “Watch the Skies: How Technology and Media are Revolutionizing Amateur Astronomy”

Gerald Nordley- “Interstellar Commerce”

Michael Shermer: “UFOs, UAPs, and CRAPs”

Donna Duerk – “Concepts for Moon Habitats”

Bruce Damer – “The EvoGrid and ChemoGrid: Genesis Engines Driving to a New Origin of Life”

Douglas Raybeck – “Sex and the Spanning Spacefarer ”

Bill Clancey: “Belief Systems and Cross-Cultural Communication”

Al Harrison – “American Cosmism”

Seth Shostak – ” Broadcasting Into Space: Recipe for Catastrophe?”

Penny Boston – “The Persistence of Microbial Life in Geological Materials: Implications for Evolutionary Biology on Earth and Astrobiology”

David Sanborn Scott – “Always Begin with the End in Mind: Hydricity”

Melanie Swan – “Human Body 2.0: Redesign, Democracy, And Next- Generation Intelligence”

Kathryn Denning – “If You Love This Solar System…”

Jim Funaro – “Some Thoughts on the Origins and Future of Love”

Reed Riner – “Turning Hindsight into Foresight: An Anthropological Approach to the Study of Futures”

Gus Frederick – “Graphics of the Gilded Age: The Original Steam Punk Art”

Roberta Goodman – “Learning Cetacean Languages”

Phil Aaberg & Don Scott – In Memoriam: Ted Everts

Frank Drake (Keynote) – “Optical SETI, Gravitational Lens Telescopes and the Current Status of Radio SETI”

Jim Pass – “Medical Astrosociology: A Combination of Space Medicine and
Social Science”

Chad Rohrbacher – “A Curriculum Guide for Using SF to Teach Science”

Dennis Etler – “China’s Vision of the Future”

Jeroen Lepre – “Arthur C. Clarke’s Maelstrom II: A Case Study for Digital Production in the Cloud”