Maria Returns

For those not familiar with the novels of George R. Stewart, Storm is the well-researched story of a California storm that slams into and across the central transect of the state in one dynamic week.  It was a ground-breaking work, the first fictional work to make the ecosystem a protagonist in human affairs.  Still in print, Storm continues to get good reviews from its readers.

13647699

Cover of the Modern Library Edition

Stewart, who taught English at UC Berkeley, was always deeply interested in geography and its related sciences.  So he used the input from his colleagues in those fields to bring accuracy to the book.

Stewart also did field research – sometimes dangerous research – to get the feeling of a storm.  He traveled with the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans), worked with those who maintained the P.G.&E. dams in the Sierra, and even rode with the California Highway Patrol over the central Sierra Nevada highways.

His wife, Ted,  remembered that on one trip he rode over 7000 foot + Donner Pass, during a major snowstorm, on the cowcatcher at the front of a steam locomotive.  When she picked him up on the other side he was nearly frozen.

Stewart, in writing the book, slowly realized it was a novel about the role of the ecosystem in human affairs.  To make the point, he named few of the human characters.  But he named his storm.

Wildly popular, the novel was distributed to soldiers in World War II.  Those who returned to become meteorologists were so taken with the book, and the idea of naming storms, that they adopted the naming practice, now widespread.  One of the readers, Vic Moitoret, went on to become Chief Areologist (Meteorologist) for the U. S. Navy — later founding the George R. Stewart fan club, and becoming a fine amateur fine quality printer.  (Moitoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, never losing a small book which included a list of his favorite books – first listed was Storm.)

The novel was filmed by Walt Disney for Television in the 1950s.*  So its ecological approach, and the name Stewart gave his storm, became part of the common culture of the time.  Disney even used the name of Stewart’s storm as the title of his film.

And the name?  Maria.  Pronounced, Stewart was careful to point out, “in the old-fashioned way” with a long i:  Mar eye ah.   That, by the way is why the wind is called Maria.

The book is now considered a California Legacy Book.  It’s still a good read, as the reviews reveal.

Stewart’s name has endured, too.  It was used for a 2005 storm, a 2011 storm.  Now it’s the name of a storm heading toward Florida:  This storm is not in the Central Sierra Nevada – although we’re getting a big solstice storm here, which includes tornado warnings.   But in the Caribbean, it’s as powerful as Stewart’s Maria, with Category Five winds.

This would be a good time to give Storm a read; and give a nod of thanks to George R. Stewart, “The Man Who Named The Storms.”

And, as Stewart’s “Young Meteorologist” says, in Storm, “Good luck, Maria!”

*It may be possible soon to view Disney’s “A Storm Called Maria” on Amazon.  That’s assuming this Amazon link goes live.

The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse

Although George R. Stewart was not a fan of the audio visual media of his day, after World War II he would find himself deeply involved in radio and film.  He became a character on a radio mystery show (more about that in a later post); and he spent a week in the Kingdom of the Mouse – the Walt Disney Studios – helping Disney develop new ideas for films.  Years later, that would lead to the production of two Disney movies based on two of Stewart’s best-selling novels.

Disney was a Stewart fan – that’s clear from the letters Disney wrote to Stewart.  The two men thought along similar lines, at least in terms of the relationship between humans and nature, and in the types of art that communicate those ideas.

Disney was working on Bambi while Stewart was writing StormBambi, which views the world from the perspective of non-human nature and  portrays Man as dangerous to non-human nature, has many parallels with Storm. It is likely that Stewart did not see Bambi, since he was not a film-goer. But it is likely that Disney read and enjoyed Storm since he was a voracious reader and the book was a well-publicized best-seller.

Stewart’s next best-seller was Names On The Land.  With its history of American ways of naming things over time, the success of the book indicated that readers were interested in Americana.    Disney was also interested in Americana, and in presenting it in Disney cartoons.

World War II was hard on the Disney studios.   Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money due to the loss of the European market.  Disney also turned over most of the studio’s facilities to the production of training films for the military, who did not pay the studio very well.  And after a bitter strike, the studio became a union shop with increased salaries for the animators.

After the war, Disney scrambled to find new types of films that would bring in the kinds of money returned by Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons.  He thought there would be a huge market for civilian educational films, modeled on his war training films.  Disney also believed that movies based on Americana themes would be popular, since the country was tired of war and would be looking for reassuringly sentimental films.

Impressed by Stewart, he invited him to the studio for a short time.  He asked Stewart to prepare suggestions for educational films.  He also wanted to hear Stewart’s recommendations for films based on Americana.

Stewart went to the studio, talked with animators and producers, and wrote up his ideas for Disney Producer Ben Sharpsteen. Although there’s no record (outside of Disney Archives) for Stewart’s recommendations about educational films, there is a record of his Americana thinking.  He suggested  a series of animated movies about American folklore; and that it begin on the East Coast with early tales, moving west and forward in time as the series progressed.

Before he left, Stewart had a fine lunch with Walt Disney.  After he returned home, Disney sent him a personal letter:  “The type of work you are doing is of much interest to us,” he wrote, “and I hope when you do have the time you will visit us again.”  Stewart never returned to the Studio.  But Disney did make a series of cartoons and films based on American folklore or fiction that is folkloric in nature – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Carl Carmer is credited as the main consultant for the films, so Stewart’s influence was probably minor.

Yet, if Stewart was not the primary influence on Disney’s Americana films, he had influence.  The True-Life Adventure Series and the Americana films at least show that the two men  had  similar ways of thinking. But Disney’s greatest compliment to Stewart and his work came a decade later.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Disney produced film versions of Storm and Fire for The Wonderful World of Color.  A Storm Called Maria was a good made-for-tv version of Storm.  Its use of documentary footage and real people playing their own roles gave the movie believability.  A Fire Called Jeremiah was also realistic – except for a few Disney “cute” touches – and it closely followed the ecological sense of Stewart’s novel.  (A version made by another studio strayed exponentially from Stewart’s Fire, mentioning nothing about ecology.)

So the short visit between George R. Stewart and Walt Disney, spent in the Kingdom of the Mouse at the Disney Studio, led to film versions of Stewart’s work with would teach his ideas to millions of Disney TV viewers.  It was another example of the far-reaching influence of George R. Stewart, scholar and author, who did so much to change our way of thinking about our Earth, and its culture.

 

 

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.

George R. Stewart, 1948: Taking Stock

By 1949, George R. Stewart was successful beyond any possible imaginings he might have had in the early 1930s.  In those days, early in his writing and professorial career, he seemed stuck in a low-level academic position, held there by a particularly unpleasant English Department Head who had taken a dislike to him.  His only books were the sort of composition books expected of English professors – one on the Technique of English Verse, another on English composition.  His marriage was a great success – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart supported him as his best friend, and encouraged him to keep at the writing.  Although he would not have won any awards as parent of the year, his children were doing acceptably.

The situation with the English Department Head turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Since he was apparently not going anywhere in the Department, he turned to writing instead – the writing of books that appealed to both scholars and the general literate audience – books that would sell, and sell well.  Since he enjoyed wilderness and history and the strange beauty of American names, he decided to write about those things.  Since many of his favorite colleagues were in the geography, history, or science departments, he decided to write about those areas of knowledge.

His first best-selling book, Ordeal By Hunger, introduced the Whole Earth Perspective – the understanding of Earth as one place, and as a system of ecological systems.  His first novel, East of the Giants, was about California history and told from the viewpoint of an independent California woman.    Storm was the first ecological (or geographic) novel.  Names on the Land – a remarkable and never-equaled book – was the first in the history of the Earth to tell the tale of national place-naming.   And Fire carried the ecological, geographic, cross-discipline methods used in Storm to new heights.

His influence was beginning to be felt, and honored.  He became a character in a radio play.  Disney invited him to the studio to help develop new types of films (and later made Storm and Fire into Disney movies.)  Stewart’s influence on his friend Wallace Stegner encouraged Stegner to begin writing the environmental/history works that would define much of Stegner’s later creative life.  Stewart won awards – both the silver and gold medals of the California Commonwealth Club.

During his service in World War II, writing up the Submarine Sailing Directions for the Navy, he had an encounter which showed him the influence of his work.  During a flight to Hawaii, he met Vic Moitoret, a young Navy meteorologist who enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hand and then told him a war story.  Moitoret kept a small diary of the books he’d read which he felt most influenced his life and career.  One of those was Storm.   Moritoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, once in shark-infested waters.  But he never lost that diary, which he showed  Stewart.  It was, in a way, a talisman or charm.  Later, Moitoret, who had gone to UC Berkeley and then on to the Naval Academy, would become the Chief Hydrographer of the US Navy.

Moitoret’s story was a great honoring of Stewart’s work.  Stewart received a high professional honor as well – he was invited to join the faculty of Columbia University – a high honor indeed.

Stewart did not go to Columbia.  His nemesis was no longer the Department Head, and the University admired him.  Besides, he loved the wild nature of the West.  And at any rate, he didn’t have the time for a major career move.

He had begun work on a third ecological novel.  This one would expand the ideas and the literary devices developed in Fire and Storm. This time, the protagonist would not be an event of the ecosystem, nor human character revealed by how someone reacted to a fire or a storm.  This time, the protagonist would be the ecosystem itself.  And the characters of its primary human characters would be revealed over the span of lifetimes.

By 1948, Stewart had achieved great things.  Now, he would achieve a pinnacle of human thought and literature of the late third millennium.

FIRE – Stewart’s Second Ecological/Geographical Novel

Time for a slight change in focus.

Although I consider Stewart  an ecological author – that is, one who defines human character by how individuals relate to the ecosystem – a good friend who is a distinguished geographer reminds me that Stewart can also be considered a geographic author – one who writes about the land as a character in the work.  Stewart probably considered himself more geographer than ecologist or environmentalist until the Environmental Movement came to have such an influence on the world, even though he was one of those who laid the thought-foundation for that Movement.  But whether we consider him a geographic or ecological novelist, his second novel about “the land” fits well under both definitions.

Fire is the story of another ecosystem event.  This tim. it’s a huge fire in the Sierra Nevada, north of the Donner Pass region.  As in Storm, the fire becomes the protagonist, and human character is defined by how his characters respond to the great fire.  Again, he names the fire – Spitcat – although this time he also names most of the humans as well.

The book focuses a little on ecology than Storm does, opening and closing with events that reveal the interrelationships in the ecosystem.   It opens with a lightning strike, and closes with the fire-opened serotinous cones dropping their seeds to the ash-enriched, now-sunlit earth.   In one of the strongest passages, the old Ranger and the young Chief Ranger talk about the effect of the fire on one of the most beautiful parts of the forest – a glen, frequented by deer.  The old ranger is broken-hearted to see the glen burned over, and the deer killed.  It has been his wilderness temple.   But the young Chief Ranger tells him that seeing something as beautiful depends on our place in the ecosystem.  To a rabbit the brushy landscape that will replace the glen for a while is a place of great beauty.  The old Ranger, who grew up in the forest  is a Man of the Forest – he only knows that he has lost what he loves the most.  The Chief Ranger, college-educated, is the spokesman for the ecological view of Earth.  In their conversation, the reader, for the first time, feels the drama of the dawning of the ecological view of the world.

Fire is the only novel in which he repeated himself.  That is, he used similar techniques to tell a similar eco/geographic story, and set the story in what appears to be the same landscape, the central Sierra Nevada, where Storm is set. But Stewart challenged himself in writing the book. Although the novel is set in a national forest just north of Tahoe,  that forest does not exist. To make it seem real, he asked his son Jack to create a map of the forest, sprinkled with names on creeks and mountains and ridges and lakes; then had famous impressionist painter David Park sculpt and paint a model of the forest.  Working from the excellent map and model, he could easily visual the terrain of the fictional Ponderosa National Forest, and thus the events on that terrain.

People still look for the Ponderosa National Forest, but it is only to be found – like Middle Earth – between the pages of a book.

The book, like Storm before it, was both a best-seller and a Book-of-the Month Club selection.  And, like Storm, it would be filmed.  There are two versions of Fire – one, so corrupted by the Hollywood studio which bought the rights that it is unrecognizable, became Red Skies In Montana.  The other version was a TV movie done by Walt Disney.  While somewhat lightweight, A Fire Called Jeremiah kept the ecological focus of the book.

Disney was quite a fan of Stewart’s work.  Before Fire was written, Disney invited him to the studio to work as a consultant.  Stewart spent a few days there, working up ideas for educational films and a series of proposed series of films about American folklore.  Although never credited, I believe his influence can be seen in the folklore films – Song of the South, Johnny Appleseed, and the others – and the True-Life Adventure films.  Stewart and Disney had lunch together during Stewart’s studio time; and Disney sent a warm letter to Stewart after his visit.

With the publication and massive readership of Storm and Fire, Stewart had begun laying an intellectual foundation for the paradigm shift which led to the Environmental Movement, and the acceptance of environmental thinking by most people today.   But it was his next book which would cement that paradigm shift into the consciousness of humankind.  That third ecological novel, now considered one of the great American novel, and never out of print, is one of the great intellectual and literary accomplishments of the 20th century – and perhaps of the second millennium.

Atwater Village

As the George R. Stewart biography heads toward publication, I’m considering another book.   The overall book, at this stage, is about the national parks.  But in order to give a grand overview of parks and rangering, I need to tell the Scott family story.  The first Scotts were rangers, the recently-deceased head of the clan was a ranger, and I’m a ranger.  Writing up nearly a millennium of family, including immigration to Ireland and Boston, service in the Civil War, probable involvement in building the Union Pacific, life in San Francisco from about 1870 through today, family connections to film, oil, and manufacturing,  and my work with the national parks and NASA is going to be a big task.  It should keep me out of trouble for a decade, and by then I’ll be too old to get into trouble.

And what has this to do with Atwater?  One section of the book, or opus, as currently conceived, may focus on Atwater in the early 1940’s.  My parents lived there when I entered life, so it was the first neighborhood I knew.  Dad’s good friend, Bob Broughton and his family lived there as well, and my mother’s sisters in nearby Glendale and Eagle Rock.  So we had many good family memories — and in my case, the first good memories of a place.  For example,  Bob and Dad used to take cousin Larry and I to the old Glendale station to watch the steam trains; afterwards we went to Van De Kamps for hot chocolate and donuts.

But it’s much more than nostalgia.  That nearly mythical time — the golden age of California, of movies, oranges, oil, and autos which has captured the culture of humankind — was also the time when California was inventing the national park, and establishing large, wild city preserves like Griffith Park.  Atwater seems to be one of those places where many new trends meet and interact and give birth to a new age.

The fact that Disney’s California Adventure is going to honor Atwater is quite proper, because the neighborhood is truly an archetype of that golden mythical age.  (And especially proper since Bob Broughton worked for Disney and eventually became a Disney Legend.)

There’s also a George R. Stewart connection.  When the family lived in Pasadena, Stewart’s father bought a house in Hollywood.  He decided to move the house’s furniture to the family home.  Young George and a hired man went to Hollywood, loaded up the furniture, and took it back to Pasadena — in a horse-drawn wagon, on Los Feliz Boulevard, in 1910.  Stewart remembers thinking it must have been one of the last horse-drawn wagons to use that busy road.

When the furniture movers went through early Atwater, they  passed about a block from the place that would become the first home I knew.

It’s a small, circular world.