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.

fire first cover

George R. Stewart’s second ecological novel was about fire.  Stewart’s normal method of writing was to create something new with each work.  He didn’t want to repeat himself.  So he regularly created new types of literary works with each new book – between his first ecological novel, Storm, and the first-ever “autobiography” of  humankind, Man, he wrote the first and only history of national place-naming, Names on the Land.  (That link takes you to a fine in-depth review of NOTL by Christine Smallwood, which also includes a mini-review of Fire.)

When Stewart’s publisher and agent and the reading public begged for another novel like Storm, he resisted the call.   When the Book-of-the-Month club weighed in, promising huge sales, he finally agreed to write it.  But to make it creative, unique, challenging, and more interesting, he set the novel in a fictional National Forest rather than real locations like the ones he’d used for Storm.  His fictional forest, the Ponderosa National Forest, located adjacent to the Tahoe NF on the north side, was as accurate as any real national forest because his son Jack (later become the USGS “Man” for Nevada) helped him create the terrain and the maps.  Naming features of that imaginary landscape and giving it a history was easy – he’d just finished his book about place-naming, was already an expert on the naming of Sierra features, and knew the Ponderosa NF’s history would be very similar to the other national forests of the central Sierra.

He named features for people he knew and respected; so Jack had a creek named for him, as did Stewart’s English Department colleague Jim Hart and many others.   His final stroke of genius was the creation of a topographic model of the fictional forest – painted by his colleague David Park whose works can now sell for over a million dollars.   (The model is safely stored in one of the Bancroft Library’s secure storage facilities.)

Christine Smallwood’s mini-review of Fire in her larger review of Names On The Land includes a good quote showing Stewart’s prolific use of names in the novel, which I’ll borrow here to give an idea of Stewarts’ poetic style in the book:

Humbug Point saw the blow-up, and Lovers Leap. Horse Mountain reported, and signed off, quoting Joel 2:30–“and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.” Far to the north, Sheer Rock saw it suddenly above the high shoulder of Howell Mountain. Hamlin Point saw it build up above the round top of Cerro Gordo, like the towering smoke of a new-born volcano.

(The names are those of fire lookout towers,  which GRS uses here to “name” the fire spotters in the towers.)

When all was said and done, Stewart’s careful “design” of his national forest, helped by Jack Stewart and David Park, was so real that for years travellers would hunt for the forest during trips to the Central Sierra, and were always disappointed to discover it was fictional.   (Interestingly,  the fictional forest and the fictional fire’s location would be close to the area of the massive Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise last fall.)

Once GRS had the setting and the characters down, he wove his story.  The novel uses the same exceptional – interesting, educational, and (as Christine Smallwood puts it) thrilling mixture of action and information –   used in Storm.  Stewart glissades smoothly from a god-like overview of history, fire science, fire ecology, wildlife biology, myth, geography, and the like, to the dramatic experiences of several human characters in several places – including one of the fire towers – during the huge blaze.

The novel opens with that god-like view, of the High Sierra and its western foothills, as lightening suddenly flashes down onto the tinder-dry duff of the forest.  It ends with a similar perspective, but this time in one one of the most beautiful statements of the cycle of fire ecology ever written, as the heat of the fire opens the serotinous cones and their seeds drop onto the newly-ash-fertilized earth of the burned areas.

Ecology is the novel’s major theme, as it is in his other ecological novels, Storm, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock.  One of the most memorable scenes  in Fire is between the old Ranger who loves the beauty of the forest, heartbroken when “the glen” is burned into ash,  and the new, young, college-educated Forest Ranger Supervisor.  The old Ranger is saddened by the burnt wreckage of his special place of re-creation.  But the Forest Supervisor tells him that beauty depends on your ecological view of things.  To a  rabbit scrub brush would likely be far more beautiful than the glen.   It’s a wonderful, gentle pioneering statement of the ecological view in which humans are only one small part of a vast ecosystem.  The old Ranger isn’t convinced; he’s lost his beloved glen.  But Stewart has made his point about the need to see such things through an ecological sense.

The novel has its share of sad and tragic passages, like the description of the Camp Fire of its day, Peshtigo, far deadlier in that time before good forest management.  Yet GRS does not dwell on the gruesome, but simply offers it as a part of the story of fire.

As usual, GRS did extraordinary research before he even picked up one of his tray of sharpened pencils and write.  His office at UC Berkeley was adjacent to the University Library and the Bancroft Library, so he could dig deep into the literature of fire.  His colleagues in the natural sciences and geography were a great help in the details of the work.

But in the best GRS tradition, he did not write the book from other books and quiet conversations.  He had himself appointed as a “Collaborator” for the US Forest Service, and headed out to help fight some major forest fires.  Stewart was so involved in that potentially deadly research that the Forest Service lost track of him and got quite worried.  But he’d simply slipped away into the depths of the fire-fighting.   He did almost lose his life once.  Walking down a muddy trail he spied a burning snag just beyond and above him.  He decided he could outrun it and jumped across a pool of water between him and the danger.  But he slipped and fell face-down in the water.  Which was a good thing – the snag fell just as he jumped; it would have hit him if he’d not slipped.

The book became a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  It was filmed twice – once, in a hatchet job by Paramount as Red Skies in Montana, which ignored GRS’s ecological message. And once, for television by Stewart’s great fan Walt Disney, as A Fire Called Jeremiah.  The Disney film had some Disneyfication, but is much closer to the ecological view of Stewart’s novel.

Ø Ø Ø

We read about the deadly fires of our time, or watch their smoke, and mourn the loss of those killed by them.  Perhaps we lift a glass of Sierra Nevada’s Resilience Ale, that great act of kindness from Sierra Nevada Brewing, who created it, and 1400 other breweries around the world, who, like Sierra Nevada Brewing, are donating all profits to the victims of the Camp Fire.

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.

 

resiliencebuttecountyproudipa-2

 

 

 

Waiting with Bated Breath: Will We Hear George R. Stewart reading his manuscript of Earth Abides?

UCB_Doe_7The Bancroft Library, nestled between the Campanile and the Doe Library,

University of California, Berkeley

Photo copyright: MikkiPiperImaging.com   Used with permission.

 

The Bancroft Library will digitize recordings of several manuscripts recorded by George R. Stewart.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, GRS decided to record his drafts.  (Before this, his drafts were written with sharp pencils, so he always kept a wad of sharpened pencils near his desk).  Since tape recorders were not available,  we believe he used the Dictaphone or a similar system.

Over the years of researching and writing about Stewart and his works, the idea of finding those recordings and digitizing them never went away.  But the big question was whether or not the Bancroft Library had the ability to digitize fragile recordings from an “ancient” format – if they existed and could be found.

Then, this week, a message came from the Bancroft Library:

I am happy to let you know that we are finally moving forward with digitizing the SoundScriber discs created (we believe) by George.  The process has taken quite awhile as we switched from our original plan of having them digitized by our normal vendor to having them digitized by a somewhat new and much less invasive process.
Our normal audio vendor is set up to digitize physical audio formats, like the SoundScriber discs, by playing the disc on a machine with a stylus, much like you would listen to a record a home.  The player is connected to some fancy equipment that records a digital file of the audio.  The SoundScriber discs are extremely fragile and their inherent fragility means that playing them once might completely erase the audio.  We were very nervous about the fragility and spent some time researching other methods of digitization that could mitigate the harm to the physical media.  Luckily for us UC Berkeley is the home to Project IRENE, which is a project team that works on digitizing obsolete media using optics.  
 
They have spent the last few years working on wax cylinders from the Phoebe Hearst Museum and the Library of Congress.  We brought the possibility of the SoundScriber process to them and they were excited for a new challenge.  They have now purchased new equipment to allow for their existing equipment to “play” SoundScriber discs and we plan to start digitizing the George Rippey Stewart discs soon.
 
As you can see from the Project IRENE website, they make as much of the material they digitize available as possible.  We would like to know if you would be amenable to us making the material available to researchers in the following ways:
 
1. in the Reading Room at The Bancroft Library
2. on the internet at one of our collection sites and/or through the Project IRENE site (without downloading capabilities for researchers)
 
The material has not yet been digitized so we still do not know what is actually on the recordings.  Please let me know what questions, comments, concerns you may have about making this material available to researchers.
MML,
Permission and Access Officer

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
lange@berkeley.edu

 

The answer to the letter was a resounding “YES!” — from the GRS family and those of us sharing George R. Stewart with scholars, artists, and the general literate world.

And so it begins.

Ø Ø Ø

The backstory of events that brought us to this point is full of twists and turns.  It depended on the hard work of GRS Helpers, including Michael Ward, Keeper of the George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.

I had contacted the Bancroft as a somewhat-anonymous scholar wondering about digitizing the recordings. But Stewart left strict instructions with the Bancroft:  No one was to listen to those recordings without his specific written permission.  When GRS passed away in 1980, permission would need to come from the family’s holder of copyright.

The Bancroft Librarians began searching for the family keeper of permissions.   Discovering Mike’s excellent GRS website they contacted him, asking if he could direct them to the person who could authorize the digitization and sharing of the recordings.Mike directed the Bancroft to me.

I connected them with Ed Stewart, GRS’s grandson, who manages permissions since his father Jack Stewart’s death.  Ed quickly gave his ok.

The Librarians began the process of finding the best and safest way to transfer those fragile old recordings to modern digitized form.   The letter explains the next steps they’ll take to preserve those treasures of literature.

bancroft-reading

Heller Reading Room, The Bancroft Library

The Bancroft Library is one of the great literary repositories on Earth.  Their collections include ancient papyrus texts, 49er diaries and journals (including those of the Donner Party), the Papers of the founders of the National Park Service and the Wilderness Society, and Mark Twain.  (Clemens’ family insisted on the Bancroft.)  And  the Bancroft holds the Papers of George R. Stewart, soon, we hope, to include his recordings of several of his manuscripts.*

Of course, as the Bancroft Librarian says, we don’t yet know exactly what’s on those recordings.  But there is good evidence that some of them contain GRS’s reading and verbal notes on his great epic, Earth Abides.  That novel, never out of print, influenced writers like James Sallis and Stephen King (who based The Stand on Earth Abides), and composer-musicians including Phillip Aaberg and Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix was inspired to write Third Stone from the Sun by Stewart’s book). Stewart’s novel is one of the great inheritances from our time, to all time.

GRS Composer/Scholar Philip Aaberg’s new video from Montana’s HiLine, honoring the Montana Farmers’ Union.

The hope we may soon be able to hear GRS reading parts of the novel in draft form is, well,  stunning.  The idea that the Bancroft will share that with the world’s scholars is a credit to them and the tools of this age.

It has been a long journey, indeed full of twists and turns, aided along the way by critical helpers, as our small band of scholars seeks the holy grail:  To teach the literate world and the STEAM-thinking world about George R. Stewart’s books and his ideas.  Now, at a summit on the Stewart Trail, we appear to be close to receiving a boon.  That boon – hearing Stewart read his manuscripts –  will be shared with the world.

Whatever is on those recordings, I am infinitely grateful for the hard work of all who have brought GRS and his works to this point.

As digitizing progresses, I’ll send updates. Stay tuned.

Bancroft Ranger          National Park Service Ranger ready to do NPS research at the Bancroft Library

 

*The Bancroft uses donations to fund such special projects, and also accepts donations of exceptional items that are within the purview of their collections.  You might consider sending them a donation .

The Ranger, The Astronaut, and George R. Stewart: To the Third Millennium, and Beyond!

A recent post on this weblog calls Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger the first ecologically-based history.  But it’s more than an ecological work.

It is also the first work to combine the ecological perspective – “The Ranger’s Perspective” – with the view from space –  “The Astronaut’s Perspective.”  By using  those two perspectives to give an ecological understanding of human events, Ordeal By Hunger can be called the first “Whole Earth” book.

Ordeal By Hunger opens with the suggestion that a reader should:  “Imagine himself…raised in space some hundreds of miles above a spot near the center of the state of Nevada, ” then describes the scene so accurately that photographs from space precisely match Stewart’s  text.  It is the first precise, accurate description of Earth from low Earth orbit in popular literature.  And the first description of the Astronaut’s view, here used for geographic understanding.

Near the end of the history, Stewart writes, “I have in the telling often stressed the scene until the reader has, I hope, come to feel the land itself as one of the chief characters of the tale.”Stewart has realized – and educated his readers about – the influence of the ecosystem on human affairs.

The world is not merely a stage; it is a chief character in any human drama.

To understand Earth and its human inhabitants, Stewart suggests, we need to observe this world from space, and from within the ecosystem.

An important part of such research is education.  The public is interested in both the ecosystem and space exploration, they fund much of the research, and so it is to the advantage of the research agencies to share their goals, methods and results.  It is also, of course, to the advantage of the citizens of nation and world, as is all true education.

50 years after the publication of Ordeal By Hunger  and 30 years after a young boy discovered Stewart’s books, an idea took shape.  The seed planted by Stewart began to sprout.  The boy, now a man, had worked with both ecologically-oriented public lands agencies, and space exploration groups.  When he discovered that NASA was tasked to do ecological research from space, Stewart’s vision blossomed out in a new proposal: That the National Park Service – the Rangers – should join with NASA – the Astronauts – to do joint earth system research and education.

The proposal became a program.  Today, NASA and selected national park sites are working together on related research ideas.  NASA uses the sites for “analogue” research – that is, to do research here on Earth in settings analogous to other worlds.  The National Park Service does related and concurrent research in the same units, using the results for better resource management.

In some stellar cases, the two groups work together – for example, during and after the 1988 Yellowstone fire, where NASA used its space and flying laboratory resources to help the park find its fire spots, and then followed up with ground truth research in the park to see how accurately remote sensing data matched ground data.

A real payoff for this partnership is in the gift of knowledge it brings the public.  Education of the public – or, as the Park Service calls it, “interpretation” – can be done much more effectively in the national parks, due to their access, their size, and their huge visitations than NASA can do it in their ten, small centers.  And visitors to the parks come ready to learn.  People who would never take a course in wildlife biology or the geology of glaciers will willingly line up behind a Ranger and walk through wilderness with enthusiasm – and what they learn they, they respect and they retain.  And since most of the nature hike groups are family-based, the members of the family can reinforce each other’s learning after the hike.

Most important, national parks welcome three hundred million visitors each year.  Not all of those, of course, will be visiting parks where NASA does research; but since Yellowstone and Death Valley are NASA-research parks, and since Yellowstone has about four million visitors each year, education about the research can be spread wide among Americans and foreign visitors. (By comparison, all NASA visitor centers combined have fewer annual visitors than Yellowstone.)

Combining NASA and the National Park Service in joint research and education just made sense. The young man presented the idea to appropriate parties, and it was adopted.   Now, several national park sites are involved in the partnership.

One of the leading sites is a national monument in Idaho:  Craters of the Moon.  The site has a long connection with NASA, stretching back to the Apollo program when Apollo moonwalkers trained with geologists in the lunar-like geography of Craters of the Moon.  Geologist (now retired) Doug Owen and Chief Naturalist Ted Stout have nurtured the relationship during the past decade.  More recently, NASA has established a base in the Monument, where it conducts extensive research.  Craters of the Moon National Monument is now the only national park site to be a Space Grant member.

During the total Eclipse of 2017, the two agencies held major public events both within and beyond the Monument – setting several visitation records along the way.   Several of the “campfire” talks were given by NASA scientists:  “Astronauts” working as “Rangers.”  Thousands of people had the flesh-and-blood chance to interact with those scientists, which brought the research to life.  (One young visitor I had the chance to talk with, for example, was inspired to consider a career in astrobiology.)

 

 

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NASA and the NPS:  Principal Investigator and Researcher for NASA Eclipse balloon experiment at the Craters of the Moon Event.  Craters of the Moon Chief Naturalist Ted Stout and a Craters Volunteer are in the left background.

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Waiting For Totality

Eclipse 2017

Totality near Craters of the Moon 

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An interesting short video has been posted about the NASA-NPS  partnership at Craters of the Moon, here.

 

 

 

For those interested in a wider focus on the program in several national parks a longer video featuring famed NASA Astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay is here. Video quality isn’t ideal, but the good Dr. McKay presents the information with wit and clarity.

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George R. Stewart had a vision far ahead of his time.  The view from space was used in several of his books, in Storm and Earth Abides as well as Ordeal By Hunger.  His ecological perspective became so ingrained in his work and thinking that by 1948 he wrote “ I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.   This, decades before “ecologist” became a household word.

His vision, and the masterful way he shares it with readers – so subtly they don’t  realize they’re learning one of the great paradigm shifts in human thinking – planted seeds that influenced many better-known leaders of thought, like Walt Disney, and huge numbers  of the citizenry of Earth.

His work was a foundation for the Environmental Movement; he was John the Baptist to the later work of many artists and scientists.  That work which includes the The Astronaut and The Ranger, a model for exploration and science.

It is another gift of Stewart.

 

Page Stegner Has Passed Away

Page - outposts

 

Page Stegner, who knew the Stewarts, was a distinguished and award-winning author with literary interests similar to those of George R. Stewart.  Page wrote about the environment and the West,  books which have become classics, like  American Places, which also included the work of legendary photographer Elliot Porter and Page’s father Wallace Stegner.  He passed away just before Christmas of 2017, in the quintessenial Western town, Reno, about 30 miles away from where this is being written, in Carson City, in the middle of a “March Miracle” of a heavy snowstorm.

Page Stegner wrote fiction and non-fiction, reviewed books for leading magazines, edited some of his father’s work.  He also helped run the Peace Corps in Latin America for a time, took his students on river-runs in the west, and played bluegrass.   Like Stewart, he was a true polymath.

He was also a great help in the writing of the George R. Stewart biography.  When his father was fired at Stanford, the two families often visited each other.  Jack Stewart remembered driving from Berkeley to Palo Alto down the rural two-lane highways of the day (the 1940s and 1950s), to the Stegner hamburger barbeques.  Jack attended Stanford, sometimes visiting the Stegners while he was there.  I wrote his memories into the biography.

Page Stegner was kind enough to answer emailed questions about family visits to the Stewarts in Berkeley.  He gave a good sense of those more formal days, when children of academics did not necessarily eat at the same table with parents and thus did not feel themselves a part of the adult world.

During the research for the George R. Stewart biography, we were able to arrange a reunion between Jack Stewart and Page Stegner.  The original photograph was included in the biography.

Jack and Page

Dr. John H. (Jack) Stewart  and  Page Stegner reunion at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park

Jack and Page suffered from the same fate – children in the long shadows cast by famous fathers.  Yet, Jack and Page were as accomplished as their fathers – Page through his writing, teaching, and other creative work;  Jack through his brilliant work as the USGS geologist for Nevada, and as the creative geologist assistant to his father on the writing of some of GRS’s novels.

Here’s an Amazon link to the books which Page Stegner wrote, co-wrote, wrote the introductions for, or edited:

It was an honor to know Page Stegner.  I  recommend his books; American Places is one of the best books about this land.

Wolf Willow, for which Page wrote the “Introduction,” has a special meaning to me.  The book, by Wallace Stegner, is about his boyhood in the town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, which he calls “Whitemud” in the book.   Page and other members of the Stegner family were instrumental in helping the town of Eastend, the Province of Saskatchewan, and the nation of Canada, preserve the Stegner House as a Canadian Heritage Site.  The Eastend Arts Council manages the house as both a Memorial and a residence for writers and artists.  I was fortunate to be one of those selected to work there, I researching and writing the Stegner chapters in the book.  Including the climactic chapter, where, during a major prairie thunderstorm, I found the truth of George R. Stewart’s life and work.

Grateful for Page’s help with the book, I am as grateful for his work on the Stegner House program.

 

 

 

 

 

A Suggestion: “First Stewartians”

Paul F. Starrs is a distinguished, award-winning geographer and beloved teacher  at the University of Nevada, Reno.  He is one of the few who’ve attended legendary Deep Springs College.  He has also been a GRS follower and supporter for decades.

In a recent email, Paul referred to those who GRS has influenced so deeply as “First Stewartians,” meaning, I suppose, that we who have discovered and preached about GRS for decades will be the Wise Old Men and Women when Stewart is widely-discovered and lavished with praise, even by the NY literary establishment.

At this writing, there is no formal GRS study or appreciation group.  There have been two:  The George R. Stewart Fan Club and The Friends of George R. Stewart.

Vic Moitoret survived the World War II sinking of TWO aircraft carriers.  Inspired by Stewart’s Storm,  he went on to become Chief Meteorologist of the U.S. Navy.  (A small black book listing books which most influenced him – Storm being at the top of the list – survived both sinkings with him, because he wouldn’t leave it behind.)  After retirement he founded The Friends of George R. Stewart and began setting up correspondence with others who felt the same passion for GRS.

When Vic left the scene, Bob Lyon stepped in.  I had not been involved in the Fan Club; but Ted – Theodosia –  Stewart connected me with Bob.  He introduced me to other GRS followers, like distinguished San Francisco Attorney Frank Sloss, Historian Ferol Egan, and The Pilgrim – Stewart Scholar Steve Williams of England.  Bob put together some important and wonderful events, including a special GRS Symposium at the Western Literature Association Conference which resulted in a fine collection of papers.  But chili called. He bacame a master participant in chili cookoffs, and the Friends faded away.

With the publication of the George R. Stewart biography (two biographies, in fact; the other, by Dr. Fred Waage, is reportedly more academic but gets the nod for being the first), the possible production of a film or mini-series based on Earth Abides,  and the simple accrual that happens when individuals snowball into a group, there seems to be an increasing number of people who might be interested in a few, informal meetings or events related to George R. Stewart, his life, his family, his work, his places.

So here’s to the possible “First Stewartians.”   If you have any interest, even in informal gatherings or an online community of some type, feel free to send a comment.

News About U.S. 40 and Earth Abides

Christmas and New Years are over, so there’s time to bring everyone up to date about recent George R. Stewart-related events.  The Donner Summit Historical Society reports some major work on US 40, a Route 66 leader has connected with this site through his interest in U.S. 40,  and there’s a new French translation of Earth Abides.

In the January issue of the Donner Summit Historical Society’s excellent online magazine, Donner Summit Heritage, Editor Bill Oudegeest includes articles on U.S. 40; one carries news about plans to upgrade the Historic Route over Donner Summit.   On page 14, there’s a review of a book about early travel over the road; on page 18, various items about U.S. 40, which begins with the notice of the road upgrade.    The current issue isn’t yet posted on the main DSHS pages; but will be soon.  However, if you become a paid member – and you should! – you’ll get the Heirloom every month.

U.S. 40 was, if any road was, the George R. Stewart Highway.  He hitchiked the eastern section in 1919, when it was still the National Old Trails Road, often drove it across the country, and finally wrote a classic book, the first popular “odology” (road geography) book, U.S. 40.  Stewart’s book led to another classic, Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today:  Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America; the authors followed old U.S. 40 in 1983, re-photographing as many of his original locations as they could, describing landscape change in the thirty years since Stewart’s book was published.  A few years later Frank Brusca posted his wonderful U.S. 40 pages, with even more information about the historic highway and its current character.  Recently, in Roads To Quoz, William Least Heat Moon includes an entire section on Stewart and U.S. 40, opening the section with a quote from Stewart.

Finally, earlier this month, Fred Cain contacted me via Michael Ward’s wonderful George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.  Fred is working on a plan to re-authorize U.S. 66 as a marked highway, not simply a series of older sections of the now-deauthorized highway.   As it turns out, Fred is also a great fan of Stewart’s U.S. 40 and Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today.  We’ve been in an email conversation which includes Bill Oudegeest about getting better signage for the historic U.S. 40 Route.

Here’s a bonus for U.S. 40 historians and fans – a test photo for the book, never published. It’s from the Anna Evenson/George R. Stewart Family Collection, published here with permission.  (Please don’t republish it without Anna Evenson’s permission.  I can forward a request to her if you wish to use the photo.)

us 40 trials 187

 

GRS used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex to take his photos.  The Rolleiflex is one of the great cameras of a great era in photography, when Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were creating their best works.  Stewart knew Adams, and there’s a letter in the GRS papers from Ansel Adams to Stewart.

The Rollei’s format is square, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch, so the photos in the book are in that square format.  (35 mm and most digital cameras have a format that is longer than it is high.)

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Here’s the cover page of the new French translation of Stewart’s great novel, courtesy of Philippe Grand.

La-terre-demeure

Earth Abides, abides.

The End of the World, Past and Future

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others)  one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels.  Its long history of popularity —  never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work.  Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization.  One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer.  The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.

When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical.  There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers.  The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially.  They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance.  But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids.   The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families.  Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.

The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later.  It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving.   While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like  psalms,  the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.

Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting.  But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction.  It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras.  But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist,  who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning.  Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting  through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.

Then,  in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle,  the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned.  Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion.  Yet, like When the English Fall,  it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.

In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.

Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere.   I highly recommend them  to anyone influenced by  George R. Stewart’s  Earth Abides.  And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.