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

Earth Abides Sheet Music Funded

The kind folks who sponsored the publication of the sheet music for Philip Aaberg’s Earth Abides sheet music have donated the full amount needed for the project.

This is a busy time for Sweetgrass Music and Philip Aaberg, but the music should be available in the near future.

Phil, in the meantime, is having a not un-typical Montana spring experience.  He was a lucky winners of the lottery to float the wild Smith River, south of Great Falls, one of the great fishing rivers in a state of great fishing rivers.  But, as Montana luck would have it, a late blizzard moved in earlier this week.  So Phil and friends ared hole up for a while.  All is well, and they should be home soon.

Life in Montana is never boring.  But it’s always conducive to creativity.

 

 

Sally van Haitsma-agented book preparing for filming

Sally van Haitsma is my agent.  She’s been of invaluable help in seeing the GRS biography through to publication; and she’s supported it even though the publisher sells few copies.

Now she’s struck gold.  The Leisure Seeker, one of the novels she represents is going to be filmed.  According to Hollywood Reporter today, the film will star Meryl Streep and Donald Sutherland.

The book is a wonderful read – and dangerous if you’re a geezer, because it’s the story of a older, ill couple, ignoring their children and heading out in their RV – the Leisure Seeker – to travel Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica…and Disneyland.

Congratulations to Sally, author Michael Zadoorian, and the filmmakers and actors wise enough to make this film.  It will probably win many awards.

Now – if someone would only buy the film rights to the story of George R. Stewart’s life…..

 

 

Steve Williams: Stewart Scholar, Artist, and creator of Stamps

The painting of George R. Stewart’s books and the Hammer of Ish that heads this weblog is the work of Steve Williams.  Steve grew up in Liverpool, went to art school there (with Lennon and McCartney), married Carol, found a good job, and raised a family.  He discovered George R. Stewart along the way, becoming quite a Stewart scholar.

I met Steve when he traveled to Berkeley to research the Stewart papers at the Bancroft Library.  Later, when I went to Britain, Steve, Carol and family hosted me on a tour of Beatles sites in Liverpool and Castles in Wales.

Steve retired several years ago.  Returning to his first love, he began teaching art and  painting.  You can see his work and watch a video of him discussing his art here:  http://community.saa.co.uk/art/stevewilliamsart

He paints a wide variety of subjects:  Lancaster bombers heading out on a raid, a ferry crossing the Mersey River, landscapes of this and other worlds.  One subject he’s focused on recently is Bletchley Park, where British intelligence successfully broke the German codes in World War II.  He’s donated several paintings to the site, which were sold to raise money to support its restoration and operation as a museum and education center. Here’s a site which showcases the Bletchley paintings.

One of Steve’s Bletchley Park paintings is of Alan Turing.  Turing played a major role in the code breaking, a role now showcased in The Imitation Game, when he refined the Polish Bombe Machine.  With the growing interest in Turing, and Bletchley Park, Steve was asked to donate several paintings to be used on stamps honoring  the role played by place and person.  The stamps were released recently:  Here’s the order form.

In a special Centennial Stamp set, Steve’s paintings of the Bombe machine, Turing’s Cottage, and a reunion of Bletchley Park workers  is paired with a painting of Turing by another artist.:

Turing set

The “Fellowship” of George R. Stewart is populated by people like Steve – creative people inspired by the remarkable ideas and books of Stewart, who express that inspiration in  personal acts of creativity:  Composer Philip Aaberg, NASA-JPL Ranger Mission Project Manager James D. Burke, Walt Disney, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen King, and many more.

“Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected…” EARTH ABIDES

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James Sallis on EARTH ABIDES:

“…Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art—Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say—affects me….

“… Art’s mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight’s done, I’ll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight’s okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.”         (Quoted with permission.)

James Sallis is a fine contemporary writer – poet, detective novelist, and the author of the recently filmed Drive.  Of all the accolades given to Stewart’s great novel – and there have been many – Sallis’s seems to me the best.  He captures the power, the magnificence, and the beauty.  He also honors the transcendent, life-changing nature of the novel.  For most, to read Earth Abides is to undergo an epiphany.    (Read Sallis’s essay here.)

Sallis is not the only one who reads and re-reads the book.  The Pilgrim, Steve Williams, who went to school in Liverpool with Lennon and McCartney, has read it so many times he’s lost count – but it’s in the hundreds.  A fellow blogger who goes by the name of teepee12 tells me she reads it every couple of years. I’ve read it many times since the summer in 1956, when it was placed in my hand by The Librarian.

She was one of the best teachers encountered during my life journey, and I don’t even know her name.  To this day, and in my biography of Stewart, that perceptive woman is only known as The Librarian – but when she handed me that book she handed me my life.

I don’t want to give the plot of Stewart’s novel away, but I’ll share enough to intrigue you – if you like adventurous, ecological, philosophical,  almost-religious works of literature. As in Storm and Fire, the ecosystem is the protagonist.  But in this case, it’s not an isolated ecological event; it’s the entire ecosystem, thanks to a small virus. The lives of the few human characters are defined by how they respond to the effects of the virus.  Ish, the male protagonist, is an intellectual who tries to find meaning in the events of the book. For him it’s a quest for a faith. His wife, Em, responds by bringing new life into the post-human world. For her, it’s a duty to carry the flame of human life and culture onward, no matter what the conditions.

The greatest adventure happens in the early part of the novel, before Ish meets Em. Returning from an ecological research project in the Sierra he finds that he has returned to a post-human world. He must deal with what has happened – even questioning whether it is worth continuing to live.   But he finds his answer in the sciences of geography and ecology.  It is a remarkable opportunity for a scientist – he can study the effect of the removal of most humans from the ecosystem. (Note that this book was written a decade before the Environmental Movement and nearly two decades before the first Earth Day.)

He decides to travel the USA to see how others have fared.  (Stewart was a great wanderer of trail and road, and took the journeys he describes in the book.)  Ish begins by heading south from Berkeley, California, on US 99.  He heads east over Tehachapi Pass on California 58; then follows Route 66 until a tree blocks his way.  Eventually he reaches Manhattan; then returns on a more northerly route on US 40 until a forest fire near Emigrant Gap forces him to turn off on California 20.   Along the way, he finds a few survivors who seem to be almost stereotypes of diverse American subcultures.  Some, Ish believes, will prosper.  Others, like the couple in Manhattan who drink martinis in an apartment with no fireplace, probably won’t survive the first winter. Here, and later in the book’s sections on the evolving culture of The Tribe, Stewart is writing a wonderfully speculative anthropological work.

After the journey Ish meets Em.  As they grow closer, and begin a family, his quest changes to a search for faith – one that will help him, and his descendents, live in the changed world?  As the work evolves, he finds himself turning to the Old Testament, since it was the work of a small tribe like Ish and Em’s Tribe that had to survive and find meaning in an often hostile world.  (Stewart taught himself Hebrew so he could translate some of the Old Testament – notably Ecclesiastes – into English without losing the rhythm of the original.)

But the book is not a dreary religious tract by any means.  Much of the time, Ish and Em are building a small community in the Berkeley Hills.   Others join them and the “Tribe” begins to grow.  The “Americans” – those who lived before the event which begins the story – work hard to keep some of their culture alive.  But the youngsters, who will truly become a tribe, must live within the new world.  To them, a good method of hunting with bow and arrow is much more important than learning to read or going to church.

The book is an anthropological work in many ways.  The old culture tries to protect its great store of knowledge.  The younger members of the Tribe work to survive, and have little time for sitting and reading or listening to prayers.  They practice shooting their bows and arrows. Yet The Tribe will develop its own faith, as Ish is seeking his.  Both faiths, ironically, revolve around a simple American object.

During his research in the American River Canyon, Ish finds an old single-jack miner’s hammer.  It gives him a sense of security, so he carries it with him throughout the novel.  By the end of the book, the Hammer of Ish has become the most revered object the tribe possesses.  They insist that Ish must pass it on when he dies.  The person who receives the Hammer will become almost god-like – as Ish does, in the latter pages of the novel.

The Hammer of Ish is one of the great symbols in literature.  And it’s a quintessentially American symbol, designed for common tasks by the Common Man  – but it can also be used to find and mine gold.   I believe the Hammer is one of the reasons for the book’s strong effect on readers.  Like Ish, readers feel very comfortable with the Hammer; but readers feel its mythological power growing throughout the tale as it becomes a spiritual object.

Like the book, the Hammer haunts readers.  A casual mention of the Hammer in conversation often starts a discussion of the novel; and that happens more often than you might think.  One wealthy reader, the late Frank Sloss, even had a sculptor create a silver version, which sat at the center of Sloss’s vast Stewart collection.   Stewart Scholar and Artist Steve Williams was inspired to do a series of fine paintings of The Hammer:

Ish's Hammer(1)The Hammer of Ish.  (Painting Courtesy Steve Williams, Artist and Scholar.)

The book was based on solid research.  The Stewart Papers in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hold many letters from colleagues and companies responding to Stewart’s questions about a post-human world.  For example – how sheep and cattle would fare, how long auto batteries would last, and when rust would collapse the Bay Bridge. One of the letters is from Carl Sauer, the greatest geographer of his age and one of the greatest minds of any age, discussing the sheep/cattle question.  It, like all the letters, reveals how intrigued Stewart’s correspondents were with his questions.

The book was published in the fall of 1949.  After a few years of good sales, Random House decided to stop publication and return the rights to Stewart.  Almost immediately, one of the book’s strongest fans, Alan Ligda, contacted Stewart and asked to publish Earth Abides at his  Archive Press and Publications.  Stewart granted permission and the book quickly went into print.   Ligda’s publication sold out quickly.  Random House asked for the return of the rights, and the book returned to print with that major trade publishing house.

Thanks to Alan Ligda the novel has never been out of print.  Readers and scholars owe him a great debt.  Although he died poor and relatively young, Ligda played a major role in the story of Earth Abides.

Does Ish find his faith?  Does the Tribe survive?  Does Earth abide?  What adventures, literary and intellectual, are found along the way?  To find out, read the book.

Earth Abides has had an extraordinary literary and intellectual life.  Never out of print in the 65 years since publication, now in an audio version as well as a print version, and in 20 languages,  the book and its ideas have swept across the Earth.

The next post will discuss how the book has affected some of the finest literary minds, and how the book has influenced art, science, and thought.

O Pioneers! II

More about the Pioneers who were the first to like the facebook post:

Philip Aaberg‘s music of place was inspired by the work of Wallace Stegner and George R. Stewart.  I met Phil thanks to Teacher Richard Brong of Galena Hi in the Reno area.   Phil composed “Earth Abides,” and Richard wondered if the title referred to Stewart’s great novel.   I tracked Phil down, called his company, Sweetgrass Music, spoke with his manager (and wife) Patty, and eventually to Phil.   And thus began a friendship.  Phil spoke and played at the CONTACT George R. Stewart Symposium, endorsed the GRS biography, and did a fine review of the book for the Great Falls Tribune.   He’s been busy recording new CD material, and is working on a classical CD at the moment.

Paul Starrs, distinguished professor of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno, was another endorser of the GRS biography.  Jack Stewart connected us, and Paul invited me to address the Geography Graduate Colloquium.  He’s published books about one of the places Stewart wrote about; and recently, about California agriculture.   The photos from the latter book are now on display in the Bancroft Library — which is also keeper of the George Rippey Stewart, Jr., Papers.

Michael Ward is an active ePublisher, a judge for the HUGO awards, and the creator of the George R. Stewart webpages (accessed through a link in the menu at the top of the page).  He has been instrumental in the production and publicizing of the book, and is thus deserving of great praise and appreciation.

I’ve known Diane Farmer Ramirez almost since she was born.  Her mother and my then-wife worked together.  Her father, Dave, is a fine photographer, a collector of Leicas, a very good friend (notably in times of need) who once sold me a good car for 50 bucks.   Diane and her husband are raising a wonderful family – which is somewhat hard to visualize since to me she’s still a kiddo herself.

One of the leading experts on U.S. 40 and the National Road, Frank Brusca was a great help with the book.  He’s quoted in the chapter about Stewart’s classic U.S. 40.   Frank has written for AMERICAN ROAD magazine.  He has a minor starring role in William Least Heat Moon’s latest book, ROADS TO QUOZ, appearing in several chapters about the National Road and George R. Stewart.  Frank is currently working on an update to Stewart’s U.S. 40.

Gus Frederick, artist, publisher and CONTACT Board of Directors member, helped with the cover art for two books related to GRS — notably a teacher’s guide entitled From GeoS to Mars.   When he’s not working on one of his projects, he has been a great supporter of the GRS work. Gus also works closely with Dr. Penny Boston, exploring caves that may hold secrets to life on Mars.

Julie Shelberg is another kind stranger who likes the GRS page.   Since she’s a reader of science fiction, I assume she found us through searches for Stewart or EARTH ABIDES.   I do know that two of her daughters have just graduated from college, and that she has some fine, stirring quotes on her facebook postings.

Frank Brusca pointed me toward Harmut Bitomsky.  Inspired by U.S. 40, and commissioned to do a TV film about America’s Westward Movement, Bitomsky decided  to focus on the highway rather than the wagon trails.  The result was Highway 40 West, a film series which has become a classic in Germany. Bitomsky was Dean of the Film/Video School at CalArts, a university appropriately founded by Walt Disney, so our email interview was pretty easy to do.  He shared a deep understanding of why he made the film, adding some comments about other books of Stewart that have become favorites of his.  Bitomsky plans to release the film in an English version soon.

A key player at the old Walking Box Ranch – see her interviewed at about 38 minutes into this excellent BBC documentary Paula Garrett field manages the place for UNLV.  She had the great good sense to hire me as Caretaker; and the even greater wisdom to include my interpretive ideas, and me, in the planning process.   She’s also bought the book, and read it, the sign of a good mind.

In the next and final list of Pioneers, I’ll introduce those who like, and follow, the weblog pages.

Philip Aaberg, Jimi Hendrix, and Earth Abides: The First Review of The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart

Here’s the link to Philip Aaberg’s review of the GRS biography, Bonds of Literature and Music Run Deep. 

One of the greatest joys from researching and writing a book comes from the remarkable encounters along the way of the work.  In the case of the Stewart biography, one of the most enriching encounters was with Grammy-nominated composer and musician Philip Aaberg and his family.

The credit for that meeting goes to Richard Brong, a fine science teacher in the Reno, Nevada, area  After I’d done a NASA presentation for his students, which included some references to Earth Abides, Richard asked if I knew the music of Philip Aaberg.  I did not, so he recommended that I look up a piece written and recorded by Aaberg, “Earth Abides.”

Later, working in Missoula, Montana, I went to the local Hastings Book and Music store (one of a fine small chain of bookstores usually found in small college towns) to look for Aaberg’s recording.  One of the bookfolks directed me to Napoleon (whose last name I have forgotten), their music & jazz expert.  Napoleon quickly found a recording which included Aaberg’s composition — but Hastings did not have a copy.  So Napoleon called Rockin Rudy’s, discovered  they had a copy, and sent me to that store.

Later that day, for the first time,  I heard Phil Aaberg’s musical response to the book.  The music was so rich and inspiring that it went on the desktop, to be played whenever there was a need for inspiration, or the calming that precedes inspiration.

After a little research, I found Philip Aaberg’s business phone number on the web.  I called.  His wife, who manages Sweetgrass Music, answered the phone.  I explained to Patty why I was calling.  She suggested that I call Phil at a pre-arranged time, and interview him.

Not long after, I talked with Phil at length about his interest in Stewart.  That first conversation would lead to visits with Phil, Patty, and Jake at their home in Chester, Montana, Phil’s participation in the first George R. Stewart Symposium at CONTACT, and wonderful stories for the Stewart Biography.

Now, Phil has written the first review of the book that’s been published.  And well-published, too, in The Great Falls Tribune, which is part of the Gannett chain.  Phil’s review of the book takes a Stewart-like approach; it’s interdisciplinary, weaving music and literature together, showing the effect each has on the other.  He includes a reference to Jimi Hendrix, another musician inspired by Earth Abides (said to be Hendrix’s favorite book), making the point that the same work of literature can influence composers with two very different styles to create their own responses to it.

George R. Stewart would be very happy with this review.  As am I, and grateful to Phil for taking the time to write it.