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.

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.

 

 

 

Carrying the Fire of George R. Stewart. Kaplan and Kehlmann II – The First Publisher

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Born in New York City, and speaking with a distinct accent, Alan Kaplan brought a distinctive character to his work as a Naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks.  Based in Tilden Regional Park, in the hills behind Berkeley, Alan interpreted the history and natural history of the area through guided hikes, school programs, and the preparation of exhibits for many years, until his retirement. He’s also provided leadership in organizations that provide education in interpretation for his fellow naturalists in the west, through his work in the old Western Interpreters Association.     (Note that “interpreter” in the park sense refers to what used to be called “naturalists” – those  people in distinctive uniforms who interpret the advanced concepts of a park’s cultural and natural history into common English for visitors.)

That’s where I first met him.  There,  he played a foundational role in the publication of the George R. Stewart biography.  He was the First Publisher of my writings about GRS.

In 1986, the WIA conference was held in Yosemite National Park.  I presented a talk, “George R. Stewart:  An Author for Interpreters.”  As the the title implies, Stewart’s histories and ecological novels are excellent resources for those interpreting the natural or human history of the West.

I was pleasantly surprised when Alan, then President of WIA, encouraged conference attendees to attend the GRS session.  And even more pleasantly surprised when the session was crammed full of enthusiastic naturalists and interpreters.

As the session ended, Alan, who was in the audience, rose to second my comments about Stewart’s value for interpreters.  He emphasized the power of Stewart’s writing by quoting the closing lines of FIRE.  Doing so, he even educated me – I knew FIRE well, but had never given the ecological power of its closing such careful attention. (FIRE was so well-researched and written that the U.S. Forest Service used it in their training programs for summer fire lookouts.)

Alan asked for an article for the WIA Newsletter, Bayways.  Entitled “The Man Who Named The Wind,” the article was a written summary of the GRS talk.  It was the first publication, for a large audience, of material which would eventually expand into the McFarland biography.

Alan also interpreted the work of George R. Stewart to Tilden Regional Park visitors.  For many years, on a weekend close to the day in August when Stewart died, Alan led a “George R. Stewart Memorial Hike” to the summit of one of Tilden’s peak .  The hike focused on Stewart’s work, especially his remarkable NAMES ON THE LAND.  The book is not a dictionary of American place names, but a history which explains in beautiful prose WHY we named places a certain way in a certain era.  As Wallace Stegner once wrote about NAMES (here paraphrased) “No one ever wrote a book like this before; no one has written one since.”  Visitors who joined Alan’s hike learned about Stewart, his work, and especially his unique work about place-naming.  (NAMES ON THE LAND has just been translated into Chinese for the millions of citizens of that country who are enamored of American culture.)

Once, friends and I joined Alan on the hike:  George  and Theodosia’s son Jack, Jack’s wife Joyce, and former high school student Denise L. Barney and her husband Barney hiked along; afterward we crammed into the back of the tiny Chinook microcamper with Alan to share some good wine and crackers (Alan abstained!)

As the GRS biography was written, and published, Alan joined public events which described GRS and my work.  Once, to my chagrin, he was at a talk at the Bancroft Library and I did not notice him so did not introduce him; fortunately, when he came up afterward to say hello I was able to give him a well-deserved gift – a first edition of STORM, autographed by GRS, with a rare misprint on one page.

He also shared our GRS dinner at the beautiful, historic  UC Berkeley Faculty Club, sitting next to me, and we were able to talk about shared GRS experiences.

To sum up – Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, played a major role in the work which led to the eventual publication of THE LIFE AND TRUTH OF GEORGE R. STEWART.   He also inspired me to take a second, deeper look at Stewart’s books, especially FIRE.  Stewart, and the GRS biography owe him much.  I am deeply grateful for his encouragement.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon Drops the Price

A quick note to let you know that Amazon has dropped the price of the GRS biography – The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart  – so it’s now in line with McFarland’s price.

The biography may also be at the reduced price at other bookstores.

McFarland is a pleasure to do business with, and I believe offers free shipping; so you might consider ordering directly from them.

This is just in time for Christmas or Hanukkah – what a great gift for the Stewart fans out there!

And stay tuned for some big news about another book, a beautiful coffee table book, that honors GRS.