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Natural Affinities

Reading George Stewart in Antarctica.

June 23, 2010
by Kenneth Brower
an artist's depiction of reading George Stewart in Antartica

In my mid-teens, when I first showed an interest in writing, my mother would occasionally recommend two novels by George R. Stewart, an old English professor of hers at Cal. One was called Fire and the other Storm. These were books, she said, in which elemental nature was the protagonist and human beings were secondary. She thought I might be capable of producing books like that. It was her somewhat jaundiced view that my priorities were already skewed in that direction: that I was starting out, like my father before me, as an imperfectly socialized young man in retreat to the natural world. She worried, I think, that the conventional novel, which typically involves a lot of human interaction, would be outside my range. Her particular concern was female characters. She frankly, even brutally, stated her doubts that I would ever be able to draw a realistic heroine, given my understanding of the female psyche.

Had I heeded her advice, I would have discovered one of the finest semi-forgotten writers of the American West. I did not heed, and for 40 years her recommendation went ignored. Then this January, as I packed cold-weather gear for a National Geographic assignment in Antarctica, California suggested a piece on Stewart. “Fire!” I remembered. “Storm!” Antarctica, where elemental nature still rules, seemed just the continent on which to finally read the man’s work, so I stuffed several of his books in my duffle. I would be a good boy, finally, and do what Mamma said.

Fire opens with ten pages of preamble. Stewart introduces his first character, a young woman who has fled a broken romance for the solitude of a fire lookout. Judith Godoy is a bit mannish—tall, broad shouldered, a cool killer of rattlesnakes—yet pretty and likable. The evidence suggests she is a Cal student, an English major. The opening pages pass agreeably enough in her company, but the story has not really begun. It is not until page 11 that we have ignition.

On that page, Stewart describes a thundercloud traveling northward across the summits of the Sierra Nevada, above a forest of Jeffrey pines ten miles from Judith’s lookout. One of the pines is conspicuous for its vigor and health: “Although the tallest tree in its immediate vicinity, it was much farther from the cloud than the trees on the ridgecrest. Nevertheless, as an individual man and woman will choose each other, and none other, from a whole city of men and women, so the cloud and the tree drew together from the forces within them.”

Reading this passage, at sea off the Antarctic Peninsula, I came to attention. I saw what was coming. Stewart’s metaphor was, I thought, a potent and surprising way of conveying what was about to happen between the cloud and the tree.

The vigor of this particular Jeffrey pine has a secret source: Its roots touch a vein of underground moisture. “This moisture also produced a channel for the electricity,” Stewart writes, “and the charge moved easily through the sappy trunk clear to the top, where a sharp growing-tip offered an excellent point for discharge. Within a few seconds the tree became tense with electrical pressure.

“Then suddenly, in a blue-white flash, for a period of some few millionths of a second, there poured through the tree between cloud and earth, a force equal to that of many powerhouses.”

Now I was wide awake. I had seen the lightning bolt coming, yet I was shocked all the same. Atop her lookout, Judith Godoy notes the time of the strike and its azimuth reading. As the dark thundercloud diminishes and moves off, she finds her pack of cigarettes. “The girl lit a cigarette. Suddenly she realized that for an hour she had been in a state of excitement. Now with the storm over, she felt herself slump suddenly. ‘All passion spent,’ she said aloud.” It’s a sex scene— probably the most explicit and powerful in all Stewart’s oeuvre. The electric affair between sky and earth has resulted in conception. At the base of the lightning-riven Jeffrey pine, a few dry needles combust and a tiny column of smoke curls into the air.

Many human characters come and go in Fire: rangers, dispatchers, lookouts, smokejumpers, pilots, tractor drivers, crew bosses, winos recruited for the fire lines in Sacramento’s skid row, all of them adequately drawn, and a few memorable, yet none quite so real as the title character. For the first six days, the big fire of Fire just smolders, a “sleeper” in the Forest Service language that Stewart teaches us. He digresses to describe people, but what really interests him is the infant fire, and he returns to it repeatedly. He meticulously describes the little runs it makes, its small acetylene flare-ups as pinecones ignite, its dyings out, its reanimations as the breeze picks up. It is riveting narrative. We know perfectly well that these embers will become a conflagration, yet Stewart keeps us in suspense. It will be six days and 99 pages before Judith sees a smudge of smoke rising to the east.

And, strangely, it’s here, just as the flames build, that the book loses heat. The fire quickly grows too big and complex for the reader to grasp; it loses personality, and human firefighters fill the void, crowding the foreground. Stewart himself seems to lose interest, as if the prolific author had already begun thinking of his next project.

After finishing Fire, I moved on to Storm, which was published seven years earlier in 1941. Both books are accounts of unfolding catastrophe as witnessed by a group of characters that the catastrophe brings together. The catastrophe—in this case a Pacific storm—is in fact the protagonist. Stewart even names the storm “Maria.” (After World War II, the National Weather Service, inspired by the book, began giving women’s names to tropical storms and hurricanes.) For my part, I liked Storm less than Fire, but this may have been a matter of circumstance: I began the novel in Drake Passage, as we neared the Antarctic island of South Georgia, in hurricane-force winds. What I would have preferred right then was a book called Doldrums.

Earth Abides, Stewart’s most famous work, is just the sort of novel my mother thought I could manage: a book in which humanity is not simply reduced to secondary importance, but almost entirely obliterated in a global pandemic. (Social skills unnecessary—no society anymore.) Published in 1949 and set for the most part in Berkeley, Earth Abides is one of the first post-apocalyptic novels, a genre that blossomed in the era of bomb shelters and duck-and-cover drills. The book opens with a rattlesnake strike in the Sierra Nevada. The victim, a graduate student named Isherwood Williams (“Ish” for short), passes a few feverish days in his cabin, then emerges to find himself the last man alive. He learns the news from the final edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, a single folded page bearing the headline “CRISIS ACUTE.”

On reaching Berkeley, Ish wanders the empty rooms of his parents’ house. He begins drifting into despair, when suddenly he has an epiphany. He realizes that he has trained, in a way, for this moment. “Even though the curtain had been rung down on man, here was the opening of the greatest of all dramas for a student such as he.…What would happen to the world and its creatures without man? That he was left to see!” Ish shelves his little thesis, “The Ecology of the Black Creek Area,” in favor of a vastly grander work, a magnum opus no one is around to read, written entirely inside his head.

Stewart was clearly a student of ecology, and an informed imagination guides his creation of the new post-human world. Pigs do well, and soon big feral boars wander the land. Sheep disappear (too stupid), as do human head lice (no more habitat). Cattle survive and run with bison. Dogs manage well enough, and cats thrive. Pigeon numbers plunge but remnant populations survive. Wildfires rage, fed by the fuel build-up of a half-century of fire suppression.

Berkeleyans will find the post-apocalypse particularly grim (or particularly cheering, maybe) in that our town is Stewart’s exemplar for the decline and fall of cities everywhere. Wisteria and camellias go extinct in Berkeley, replaced by the vines of wild cucumber. Clover and bluegrass give way to dandelions. Existing deodars survive, but are unable to reproduce. Climbing roses clamber everywhere. A plague of ants is mitigated suddenly, when some unknown constraint brings them back into balance. Rattlesnakes, wolves, and mountain lions move back into town and hunt the Cal campus. Doe Library becomes sacred to Ish, a reliquary for the wisdom of the ages, and he rodent proofs that Greek-columned temple. (The enemy of the written word is not fire, as in Alexandria or Nazi Germany or Fahrenheit 451—the enemy is rats scrounging paper for their nests.)

Halfway through the novel, people begin showing up. Ish, it turns out, is not the only human survivor. As the story progresses, he joins with others, starts a family, and eventually gathers a tribe. This marginal resurgence of Homo sapiens does not ruin the novel, but it does muddy it a bit. The narrative stream, which had flowed clear and strong up at its headwaters, suddenly gets caught in eddies, and Stewart does not seem to notice the same landmarks on the bank coming around and around again. As for Ish, he never abandons his study of post-apocalyptic ecology, but he is distracted now by social obligations.

Earth Abides is a seminal work. Stephen King credits it as an inspiration for his 1978 novel The Stand, and its continued influence can be seen most recently in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, through a number of parallels: the sketchily explained cataclysm, the road journey, the literate father who is a repository of Western tradition, the simpler son who is more trusting of others, the ad hoc “families” of survivors.

George Stewart had his own influences, of course. Daniel Defoe, surely, in both Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year. Adam and Eve from Genesis, no doubt, and the Gospel of Mark’s story of Jesus in the wilderness. The writer Ernest Callenbach (who himself owes a debt to Stewart for his California-of-the-future novel Ecotopia) supposes that Stewart’s sensibilities must have been shaped at Faculty Club lunches with brilliant Berkeley scholars like the paleontologist Charles Camp, the geographer Carl Sauer, the wildlife biologist Starker Leopold, and the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. (The Kroeber connection seems especially likely. “Ish” is doubtless a nod to Dr. Kroeber’s friend and subject, Ishi, the California Yahi, last of his tribe and the final “wild” Indian in North America.) I wonder myself about the influence of the crowd that came home to Berkeley from Los Alamos and Bikini—Lawrence, Seaborg, Teller, and the others—physicists who must have helped sharpen Stewart’s sense of apocalypse. And I suspect an Albert Camus influence as well. The pandemic of Earth Abides is anticipated in The Plague, and Stewart’s Ish, like Camus’s protagonist Meursault in The Stranger, is in many ways a cipher—a man strangely unmoved by the deaths of his parents and oddly unperturbed, almost happy, to find himself alone on Earth.

More than anything it is this tone and emotion, a kind of antisocial rapture, verging almost on misanthropy, that animates Earth Abides.

Off South Georgia Island, I fell asleep one night reading Stewart’s bittersweet thought experiment. The next morning, we took a Zodiac ashore at St. Andrew’s Bay. The bay was framed by icefields, hanging glaciers, and the peaks of the Allardyce Range. Just 30 years ago, Cook Glacier terminated on this beach in a 90-foot wall of ice, but today the ice is in rapid retreat. The white wall greeting visitors now is composed of the refulgent shirtfronts of king penguins—the most seaward phalanx of a rookery of 150,000 pairs. Mixed in among the penguins are many hundreds of Antarctic fur-seal pups, dozing and sparring in small gangs as they wait for their mothers to return from the sea. The pups continually make bluff charges: Stand your ground and all their ferocity dissolves 3 feet from your boots.

In the 1800s, hunters came to South Georgia for the dense pelts of these seals, and by the time they finished skinning the species only a few hundred remained. In the 1900s, from whaling stations on South Georgia, hunters nearly extinguished the blue whale. In the past century, the Antarctic fur seal has made a spectacular recovery (today the population is estimated at 4.5 million), but now our greenhouse gases threaten it all, the entire web of life at the South Pole.

“Stop!” I barked at a charging fur-seal pup. He lost courage instantly and shambled away, embarrassed. His attack had been reasonable, though. My species had nearly wiped out his own, and now we were at it again. I thought about George Stewart. Reading Earth Abides the night before, I had drawn up a charge of misanthropy against him. Today it seemed that man’s sorry history in these waters absolved him. In annihilating 99 percent of humanity in Earth Abides, the professor was just giving us a dose of our own medicine. No jury of fur seals would ever convict him—clear case of justifiable homicide.

Kenneth Brower ’67 is the author of several books and a regular contributor to this magazine. His articles have also appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Smithsonian.
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