To See: George R. Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision Realized

George R. Stewart was an “inventor” of the Whole Earth Vision – the recent realization that Earth, in an immense universe, is one small, blue, life-bearing place, only fully understood if it’s explored from two perspectives – that of the ecologist, who studies it from ground level, and that of the astronaut, who examines Earth from space.

Stewart used that vision for the first time in Ordeal By Hunger.  He begins the book by asking the reader to “imagine yourself poised in space” in what we would now call LEO or Low Earth Orbit, about 200 miles up.  In the book’s Foreword he describes northern Nevada precisely, as photos taken from the International Space Station reveal.  (Stewart used the techniques of fiction to make the history dramatic and engaging, and did that so well that some readers still think they’re reading a novel.  They’re not; they’re reading history.)

The book then moves into the ecologist’s point of view, ground level, as Stewart makes the case that the Donner Party’s tragedy was the result of the party’s ignorance of the ecosystems it passed through.  At the book’s end, he writes, “It should be obvious…I consider the land a character in the work.”  The land, of course, is the ecosystem.

Today, most of us can wander our ecosystems easily.  So far, the perspective of the astronaut is restricted to a lucky few.  But – would Stewart not love this? – we can watch Earth from LEO on a continuous feed, here.

NASA Strategic Planner Jesco von Puttkamer suggested we are now living in the “New Enlightenment of Spaceflight.”    That Enlightenment began with Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision.  The New Enlightenment expanded its reach exponentially with the first photos of the Whole Earth from space, most dramatically “Earthrise” from Apollo 8. von Puttkamer’s slogan for the age, borrowed by Star Trek for the series’ first movie, is

Space:  The Human Adventure is Just Beginning

Today, we know Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision from both perspectives – of the land, and from LEO.  We have joined von Puttkamer’s New Enlightenment of Spaceflight, and gained Stewart’s Whole Earth vision and have a greater understanding of and love for our home planet.

We have become enlightened.

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Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

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.

George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.

Link

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/403598191/george-r-stewart-us-route-40-rephotography

Frank Brusca’s 40 year project re-photographing George R. Stewart’s U.S. 40.  This is Smithsonian quality work, which builds on Stewart’s classic book and Tom and Geraldine Vale’s equally classic U.S. 40 Today.  Well-worth supporting.  Check out the website.

Stewart’s book inspired two German films, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and Least Heat Moon’s Roads to QuozRoads has several chapters about Stewart’s work, and Brusca’s.  Frank’s done most of the re-photography on his own ticket; this funding will allow him to complete the last 20%.