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

MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING – George R. Stewart in the Donner Summit Historical Society Newsletter

October’s issue of The Donner Summit Heirloom has a series of articles about George R. Stewart, or topics that relate to Stewart’s subjects.  There’s a good article about the search for the California Trail route over Donner Pass, which includes some information about the Lincoln Highway route – think Stewart’s U.S. 40 and The California Trail – a review of Stewart’s landmark work, Ordeal By Hunger, a description of the new George R. Stewart interpretive sign.

There’s also my article about Stewart, with an emphasis on his connections to the Donner Summit area.  It gives a good overview of the man and his work.  If you’d like a quick introduction to GRS, you’ll find the article – and the other articles – useful.

Here’s the October 2015 Heirloom:

By the way, if you have an interest in GRS, or Donner Summit, or Lake Tahoe, you might want to join the Society.  It costs little, but supports the historic preservation and interpretation of the area.

The Donner Summit George R. Stewart Interpretive Sign

Thanks to several sponsors and the hard work of Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, the George R. Stewart interpretive sign, which will be part of the Twenty-Mile Museum, has gone to the manufacturer.  The base will be installed soon; the sign, late next spring when the Pass opens.  Here’s the final (or nearly final) sign:

  The almost final sign

Bill chose the location with care, and it’s perfect:  A parking area which overlooks Donner Lake, Donner Peak, the historic “Rainbow Bridge” on U.S. 40, and the Summit of Donner Pass – which would have been the route of the first covered wagons over the Pass.

Here’s a photo from Bill, showing where the sign will be placed:

photo of GRS sign location

Stand by the sign, face northwest across old U.S. 40 to look directly at George R. Stewart Peak.  Here’s a photo from a kind soul who posted it to Google Maps:

parking area - grs peak

The parking area is close to the Pacific Crest Trail, too,  The PCT crosses U.S. 40 not far beyond the left (west) side of this photo.  Here’s a map from Bill which shows the PCT crossing – yellow arrow – in relation to the sign location at the parking lot – black arrow.

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It’s a short walk – always face traffic! – to the Trail Crossing; from there, it’s a short hike and scramble to the summit of George R. Stewart Peak.  The directions are on the new sign.

Let’s all hope to meet there some day in the summery future, and do the hike.  Afterward, we can have a picnic – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart loved picnics – and read from Stewart’s books.

Thanks to Bill Oudegeest, and the sponsors who made this possible:

  • Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, Founder of the National Association for Interpretation, Stewart Scholar;
  • Paul F. Starrs, distinguished geographer, University of Nevada, Reno, Professor, author of books about California agriculture, the Black Rock Desert, and other topics;
  • Willie Stewart, George R. Stewart’s grandson, who accompanied GRS on trips;
  • Joyce Colbath-Stewart, wife of GRS’s son Jack Stewart, inveterate hiker, and caretaker of Stewart family history;
  • Steve and Carol Williams.  Steve – who went to school with Lennon and McCartney –  is a Stewart scholar, artist, teacher; Carol is his partner in all things;
  • Denise and Milton Barney, campers extraordinaire, who have walked the GRS journey with me for many years.  Denise is a poet, Barney a scouter encouraging young folks to explore the outdoors like Stewart;
  • Beth Lapachet and Brian Byrne, also campers and colleagues for many years.
  • John and Angela Lucia, former Rangers, who have also walked the GRS journey for decades, and helped support it;
  • Bob Lyon, Founder of The Friends of George R. Stewart, Stewart Scholar, and Encourager of all things Stewart, who first introduced Steve Williams to the Friends of GRS.

The TWENTY MILE MUSEUM: A “Linear Museum” at Donner Summit

There’s a legendary story about museum design that comes from Grand Canyon National Park.  The designer apparently did a wonderful job putting together a state-of-the-art museum design.  But when he showed it to the park’s superintendent, he got a rebuff. The superintendent said something like this:  “The Grand Canyon is out there.  Your museum keeps visitors inside and away from it. Open the museum up and let it lead them out into the Canyon.”

That’s also the philosophy of the Donner Summit Historical Society.  The Society operates a small visitor center near the summit and publishes a fine newsletter.  But the bulk of its energy seems to be site-focused.  It sponsors a series of hikes into the area which help interested people learn about the place in the best way, perspiring as they are inspired. But it is the Society’s unique linear museum, placed along the historic route of U.S. 40 (and the Lincoln Highway) which educates the bulk of visitors about Donner Summit and the surrounding country.

The Twenty-Mile Museum is a fine collection of interpretive signs placed along old US 40. Visitors to the country made famous by George R. Stewart in Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and other books can thus learn about its history on site.  The panels interpret human connections with the area from ancient petroglyph-making eras through the Overland Migration period, the work done by Chinese Americans on the transcontinental railroad,  and early highway eras.   Here’s an example:

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If you’re planning a trip over Donner Pass to Lake Tahoe or Reno, allow time to stop by some of those interpretive signs.  They encourage exploration; so plan enough time for a short hike or two as well.  You can prepare for the adventure by downloading the text version of the Twenty-Mile Museum Brochure here.

George R. Stewart educated the world about Donner Summit country, in the more than 20 languages in which his books were published.  The Twenty Mile Museum adds the critical field experience to that GRS education.  It’s a great concept and a highly recommended experience.

Frank Brusca’s U.S. 40 Rephotography Project

Frank Brusca is a George R. Stewart Scholar with a special interest:  U. S. 40.  He discovered the book when he was a boy, and it has shaped his life since.  Frank’s goal is to re-photograph as many of the places Stewart photographed in 1949 and 1950 as he can, to record the changes over time.  Geographers Tom and Geraldine Vale did that for their 1983 classic U.S. 40 Today, which tracked changes over the 30 years since GRS published his book.  Brusca has more elaborate plans – he’s including color and virtual panoramas of some sites.

His love affair with U. S. 40, highway and book, helped Brusca connect with author William Least Heat Moon, who wrote the classic Blue Highways. Eventually  Least Heat Moon and Brusca traveled the old highway together.  Those journies are the meat of four chapters about Brusca and GRS and his road book in Least Heat Moon’s Roads to Quoz. (Least Heat Moon is also a fan of GRS’s other work, and so there’s more GRS influence in  Blue Highways.)

Last Sunday, Frank held a web meeting for a small group of road scholars, describing his project in detail and showing his photos of the GRS sites on the old highway.  It was impressive to see how much he’s done so far.  His work, like that of the Vales, expands Stewart’s ground-breaking book.

Brusca has a deep understanding of Stewart’s book.  During the web session, Brusca revealed how to identify a first first printing of U.S. 40 – one photo is a mistake, so the book was pulled and corrected.  (The photo, from a Hogback ridge west of Denver, was supposed to show the town and valley to the west of the ridge, but a photo from the ridge showing the eastern view was printed.)  If you have a copy with the wrong photo, you have an early first printing.

His knowledge of the book and the highway helped my GRS biography.  Brusca directed me to German Filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky, whose U.S. 40 West was inspired by Stewart’s book. Bitomsky agreed to a long interview about the film and Stewart’s influence on the work; much of that interview is in my book.

Frank is off on a road photographing trip this summer.  He drives from Massachusetts to San Francisco, and then zips back, photographing as he goes.  (I hope to join him for one or two days in Calfornia.)  He will also copy some of the original negatives for U.S. 40, in the Bancroft Library.

All of this is expensive. Just copying the Stewart photographs in the Bancroft would cost more than $5,000.   So far, it’s been self-funded.  But now Brusca has a Kickstarter proposal to help fund the effort.  If you’d like to help, you can do so here.  A small 30 dollar pledge gets you an ebook with all of the 120 photos he’s planning to put in the book.  More important, you become a patron of continuing the U.S. 40 work of GRS, the Vales, William Least Heat Moon, and Frank Brusca.

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.

“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.