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November 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Forbidding Planet

George R. Stewart’s novels of natural disaster
“Donner Pass,” by Laura Plageman © The artist. Courtesy De Soto Gallery, Los Angeles

“Donner Pass,” by Laura Plageman © The artist. Courtesy De Soto Gallery, Los Angeles


Forbidding Planet

George R. Stewart’s novels of natural disaster

Discussed in this essay:

Storm, by George R. Stewart. NYRB Classics. 304 pages. $17.95.

A fifty-year-old English professor was fighting a wildfire in the summer of 1945 when a falling tree almost crushed him to death. In preparation for a forthcoming novel (which would appropriately be titled Fire), the professor was conducting an ambitious program of research: he attended the Plumas Forest School, visited sites of historical fires throughout California and Oregon, and worked as a lookout at the iconic Sierra Buttes fire tower. He even disguised himself as a vagrant and joined a group of amateur wildfire fighters who had been hired off the streets. “I knew it was dangerous,” the professor, George R. Stewart, later said of the flaming snag. “I knew enough about things to keep an eye on it.”

Nevertheless, Stewart was tired after a difficult night on the fire line, and while navigating a stretch of mud he lost his footing and tumbled to the ground. The desiccated tree collapsed a moment later, crashing onto the trail some fifteen feet ahead. In all likelihood, Stewart subsequently reflected, his clumsiness had saved his life.

In some ways, Stewart was the last person one might expect to find immersed in acts of gonzo fieldwork. He was a tweedy, lifelong academic, known to many today as the author of Names on the Land, a charming, if sometimes inaccurate, encyclopedia of American toponyms. Yet the research for his work—which spanned evolutionary science, science fiction, thrillers, Civil War history, educational history, literary theory, onomastics (the study of names), and hodology (the study of roads)—tended to involve a degree of reckless abandon. For his novel Storm, he rode atop a train’s cowcatcher through Donner Pass in the snow, accompanied the highway patrol in whiteout conditions, and trekked through the Sierra Nevada on snowshoes to repair downed utility wires. (A member of his party narrowly escaped death after plummeting from a pole jostled by a falling fir.)

This high-stakes location scouting was integral to Stewart’s work, a corollary to his conviction that nature and the environment—the seemingly trifling nuances of weather, topography, flora, and fauna—were the primary drivers of human experience. It was a belief that found its fullest expression in what Stewart came to call his ecological works: Ordeal by Hunger, Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock. In these books, published between 1936 and 1951, he aimed to remind a robustly urbanized and industrialized United States how natural forces governed not just their quotidian lives, but all of human civilization. This project extended from the way in which, in the newly reissued Storm, the sight of seagulls fleeing a tempest inspires a revelation in a nameless literature professor, to the way “a slight average rise or fall of temperature may topple a throne; a shift in the storm-track can ruin an empire.”

Stewart demoted the psychologies, desires, and personalities of his human characters to a secondary role, privileging instead a scientific account of the impersonal forces—storms, fires, plagues—that, to his mind, were the primary agents of history. At its extreme, his approach became a biography of place, chronicling the life cycles of landscapes and the natural disasters that shape them. As the poet Josephine Miles said of Fire, Stewart “materializes dramatis personae out of the powers of nature.”

It is tempting to view these books as outgrowths of the earliest stirrings of the environmental movement. Most of Stewart’s ecological work was published in the 1940s, as Aldo Leopold was formulating a new, ecocentric ethics of land management and Rachel Carson—herself a professed fan of Storm—gathered material for The Sea Around Us, her best-selling work of marine science that helped launch modern ecology into popular consciousness. But for someone who wrote so passionately about nature, Stewart was not, at least for most of his career, a conventional environmentalist. He “was not a ‘tree-hugger,’ ” writes the critic Fred Waage. “He was not a wilderness advocate. He didn’t own a farm. He didn’t go to Washington to lobby for environmental causes.” Stewart may have shared with his contemporaries a belief in the explanatory power of what Leopold called an “ecological interpretation of history,” but he rejected environmentalism’s lapses into sentimentality, its insistence on establishing a “state of harmony between men and land.” Stewart’s vision was darker, his nature a magnificently awful force whose capacity for destruction could never be brought into harmony with human interests, only into temporary abeyance. Rosier visions of nature, to quote a forest supervisor from Fire, he regarded as “National Park stuff.”

According to the conventions of literary realism, his ecological books have obvious faults: leaden, interchangeable characters; shapeless plots prone to sudden dead ends; and dialogue that occasionally reads as though its author had never so much as overheard a human conversation. Yet to dwell on these elements is to miss the point—viewed through the prisms of climatological, geological, and evolutionary processes, humans are more or less interchangeable, their parochial concerns necessarily banal. This is what Stewart’s work conveys at its best: a sense of humility and an appreciation of the contingent status of our own species, endlessly threatened as it is by a relentless, hostile nature. In doing so, it unsettles our understanding of mankind’s apparent dominion over the earth. In that respect, Stewart’s body of work feels proleptically tailored to an era of catastrophic ecological decline, one in which the earth may very well abide, but our own human prospects look considerably more doubtful.

As a young boy in Pennsylvania, at the start of the twentieth century, Stewart discovered Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. He had been an avid reader of adventure novels—Kipling and London were favorites—but to Stewart, Stevenson seemed to be onto something new. The story’s action transpired across a fictional land that Stevenson had himself mapped, and that map, Stewart learned, had predated the invention of Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins, and the rest of the cast. It had predated the black spot, the pirates’ mutiny, and every other plot point. The setting—the environment—was in that sense anterior to, even determinative of, the novel’s human elements. It was a revelation that would forever inform his thinking.

A few years later, in 1908, Stewart’s father, an engineer, moved his family west to California’s San Gabriel Valley, where Stewart spent his youth drawing amateur maps and backpacking in the mountains. This idyll came to an end in 1913, when, against his wishes, Stewart’s mother sent him to Princeton. Plagued by outsider status, he nevertheless graduated third in his class with a degree in English (he also ran track with F. Scott Fitzgerald). Following a brief stint in the army, he eventually earned his PhD at Columbia, took an appointment at the University of Michigan, and fell in love with Theodosia “Ted” Burton, the worldly, extroverted daughter of the university’s president. (An illustrative early photo of the couple features Ted sitting astride an emu while George stands calmly beside her, hands clasped behind his back.) He received a job offer at Berkeley, asked Ted to marry him, and returned to the West Coast.

Within a few years, the English department began to fall into disarray. During what Stewart called the bad years, a “tyrant” named Guy Montgomery took over as chair; Stewart’s prospects of tenure plummeted; and one of the department’s brightest lights, a professor (and frequent Harper’s Magazine contributor) named Robert Utter, was killed by, of all things, a falling tree. Deeply frustrated with the academy, Stewart decided to try writing for the general public. As his inaugural subject, he chose something that would marry his long-standing interest in geography with the intoxicating Californian landscapes of his youth—the saga of the doomed Donner Party. In characteristic fashion, Stewart both consumed the extant primary literature and took to the land itself, walking the trails on which the pioneers had journeyed and eaten one another. His research uncovered the location of one of the party’s campfires, as well as a collection of tree trunks cut down by the desperate migrants, which were subsequently preserved by Donner Memorial State Park.

The product of all this reading and trekking was Ordeal by Hunger. Stewart’s account treats the Donner Party as a “microcosm of humanity, to be tested with a severity to which few groups of human beings in recorded history have been subjected.” The language here is deliberately that of scientific experiment: What happens, Stewart asks, when human beings are wrenched from their native civilizational niche and thrown into the foreign climate and geography of a winter in the Sierra? As they lack fitness for their new environment, the Donner Party’s gradual descent into cannibalism is less a function of moral character than an inevitable fact of biogeography, the consequence of a population’s removal from its civilized habitat. Despite these scientific pretenses, Stewart isn’t above indulging in the Grand Guignol spectacle of the Donner Party’s most gruesome travails. In one memorable episode, a woman observes her twelve-year-old brother’s heart roasting in the campfire. But the book remains at its core a clinical exploration of what Stevenson’s map had once kindled inside of him: the workings of the landscape upon the fortunes of humankind.

“Probably the best way to feel the actuality of the story is to travel through its setting,” wrote Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger. “For this reason, I have in the telling often stressed the scene until the reader has, I hope, come to feel the land itself as one of the chief characters of the tale.” Similar formulations appear in the author’s introductions to both Storm and Fire. There is, as Nathaniel Rich notes in his new introduction to Storm, something hackneyed in the idea of a book’s setting becoming “a character of its own.” But even so, Stewart’s method—the extent to which he commits to centering natural phenomena at the expense of humans, who are reduced to what Stewart’s friend Wallace Stegner called “functions”—remains unsettling and strange.

This first becomes apparent in Storm, a novel that tells the story of a twelve-day winter storm. The human characters (virtually all men) operate, with little exception, as agents of the vast systems of infrastructure tasked with managing the flow of Californian commerce during a natural disaster. They maintain the roadways, the electric grid, and the water system, and are referred to more often than not by their job titles: the General, the Road Superintendent, the Junior Meteorologist, the Load-Dispatcher, the Chief Service Officer. Their collective antagonist is Maria, a vicious cyclone that forms over the Pacific and rages toward and around the Sierra for the twelve days that correspond to the novel’s twelve chapters.

With no central human concern to pivot around, the book alternates between a wide-angle account of the storm—Maria’s formation, evolution, and decline—and a tremendously byzantine tangle of narrative threads involving the aforementioned representatives of civilization. The Road Superintendent frantically deploys plows to clear a critical pass through the mountains, the Load-Dispatcher struggles to keep the power grid online, and the General weighs the economic costs of opening floodgates and inundating nearby farms and ranches. Elsewhere we understand the human response to Maria’s fury only through disembodied voices: newspaper headlines, the reactions of unnamed civilians. Storm is decidedly uninterested in the humans that populate its pages, treating their lives superficially, or with a lack of empathetic identification that sometimes approaches cruelty. Early in the novel, Stewart introduces a desperate wheat farmer named Oscar Carlson. At the end of the paragraph, he kills himself.

Stranger, less human subplots also appear, told in episodic vignettes. A brief and incomplete selection: An owl alights on a transmission line and is electrocuted, damaging the wire, which later breaks under a weight of snow, prompting the Load-Dispatcher to send out a team of men to fix it, one of whom almost falls from the pole and dies, but doesn’t. A boar and a coyote roam around, to no end in particular. A long-dead cedar, toppled in a windstorm in 1789, its current perch weakened by a chipmunk’s burrowing, tumbles down a mountainside and snaps a major telephone line, shutting off innumerable conversations in an instant:

Except for two hikers who had sat upon the bole for a few minutes in 1923, no human being had ever known anything about it. During the half hour following its fall down the mountain-side, nobody knew that it had fallen. But the fall affected the lives of many people over a hemisphere.

If this all sounds wildly complicated and bizarre, it is. Storm is a dense web of accidents, a vast orchestral work in which each moving part bespeaks an organic relationship to the whole. It seems to violate every sense of what a novel ought to be, where its interest ought to lie. It doesn’t read as though written by a misanthrope, per se, but by someone to whom humans, animals, and the elements of inanimate nature were so many microscopic organisms colliding in a petri dish.

Storm makes explicit what Stewart had more gently suggested in Ordeal by Hunger: that the world is fundamentally mankind’s antagonist, and that the best we can manage in this struggle is a fragile truce. This détente, however, carries with it its own dangers—namely, that this state of affairs might grow too comfortable, that we risk growing “soft with civilization.” When disaster strikes (as it inevitably does, particularly in novels called Storm) and nature gains the upper hand, how do we respond, being so enfeebled? What, if anything, is to prevent us from devolving into the Donner Party?

Storm was a bestseller. The novel made the Book of the Month Club, whose newsletter hyped it, confusingly, as a “detective story of the weather” and an “adventure.” The New York Times praised the depth of Stewart’s research and his rich account of “science practically applied” (though it ventured, presciently, that the book was unlikely to “set a new fiction vogue”). For Storm’s most enthusiastic readers, the novel seems to have been received as a thriller, a survival drama that happened to be informed by meteorological know-how. It was eventually adapted into a radio drama by the BBC and a TV special by Disney. It also served as the inspiration behind “They Call the Wind Maria,” a showstopper from Paint Your Wagon. And while Stewart can’t claim exclusive credit, Storm’s popularity helped bring about the meteorological practice of endowing storms with proper names.

Stewart enjoyed another success with Names on the Land, but his fan mail nevertheless urged him to return to natural disasters and human misery: according to Scott, Earthquake was suggested, as well as Volcano. In 1948, he indulged their wishes with Fire. Following Stevenson’s lead, Stewart had, while writing Storm, mapped out the story’s landscape (these maps, printed in the first edition, are sadly omitted from NYRB’s reissue). He took things a step further for Fire, constructing a three-dimensional plaster model of the national forest that he would go on to fictionally incinerate. A two-dimensional map was printed inside the novel as well, ingeniously drawn to chart the wildfire’s progression.

Like Storm, Fire tracks its titular calamity day by day, interstitially zooming out into a godlike perspective so as to contextualize, and in a sense diminish, the novelistic action by appealing to a cosmic frame of reference. The novel again includes lengthy nonhuman interludes—the destruction of an ant colony is rendered in meticulous detail; thousands of words are dedicated to the experience of a single squirrel—and dilates on the ways in which the small and arbitrary can lead to events that feel large and inevitable. The Spitcat blaze itself begins with a single smoldering pine cone, and is exacerbated by, among other factors, a burning hare, scrambling for safety, and wind, itself the symptom of a storm system that originated thousands of miles away. “For a baby in the cradle, the temperature of the room, the judgment of the mother, or a chance-borne microbe far outweighs all wars, droughts, and revolutions,” writes Stewart.

While he lies in the cradle, his future may already be linked with an unusual melting of the distant polar ice, with the erosion of a near-by hillside, with the slow rotting of a beam in some distant house.

The next year, Stewart’s Earth Abides took his disaster fixation to its inevitable conclusion: the end of the world. This tale of a small band of Californian survivors struggling to preserve some semblance of civilization on an earth ravaged by a deadly virus has been cited as an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Stand, the blockbuster video game The Last of Us, and countless other postapocalyptic entertainments. Much about the novel now feels familiar—the shell-shocked protagonist wandering through abandoned streets, the desperate search for other survivors (and, especially now, the prospect of “an escape, possibly even a vindictive release, from some laboratory of bacteriological warfare”). And yet much of the book still manages to feel distinctive, thanks to Stewart’s characteristic emphasis on the nonhuman implications of, well, the near-extirpation of humans.

Earth Abides is animated by neo-Malthusian concerns about the “biological law of flux and reflux”—the ways in which the elimination or proliferation of one species sets into motion countless changes in countless others. There are disquisitions on the fates of house pets (cats are doomed; dogs, less so); cultivated plant species (these “pampered nurslings of man” are also doomed); and lice, which have been abruptly deprived of their human hosts (and are perforce doomed). Several pages are spent speculating about rats, which more or less overrun the cities before suffering total collapse amid widespread disease and the exhaustion of their human-dependent food supplies. Bison and wild boar, Stewart suggests, should be fine.

“The whole affair,” writes Stewart “came to be a most interesting study inecology, almost a laboratory problem.” In the vein of Ordeal by Hunger, Earth Abides is a kind of experiment as novel, if not quite a novelistic experiment. Rather than the psychological trials forced upon the last survivors of a ravaged planet, the book’s chief preoccupation is “the careful observation of what was happening to the world after the removal of man’s controls.”

In the years before and during World War II, Stewart began taking long drives across the mountains into the dry lake beds of the Nevadan desert. On one such trip, Stewart, accompanied by the Berkeley paleontologist Charles Camp, came upon a towering black massif looming over a bubbling alkaline spring. Stewart later said the idea for his final ecological novel, Sheep Rock, came to his mind “almost immediately.” (The site, Black Rock, is now known principally as a proving ground for daredevils seeking to set land speed records, and as the location of the Burning Man festival.)

Sheep Rock is an attempt to tell the story of the rock and the spring, a landscape into which humans only every so often happen to intrude. The novel is sprawling and fragmented, providing accounts of Sheep Rock’s geological formation, the lives and deaths of the few trees and shrubs that cling to its sides, the slow evaporation of the prehistoric sea that once covered the flats, the comings and goings of ancient peoples, and the origins of the more modern human relics found embedded in the landscape—a bullet, a broken pitcher. Such digressions spin out from a central story of a poet who has come to the rock to write his masterpiece—an epic poem with the same concerns as Sheep Rock itself—and ultimately finds himself at a loss.

Unsurprisingly, readers and critics who had been carried along by the more thrilling elements of Storm, Fire, or Earth Abides were left somewhat cold by Sheep Rock. It is both the apotheosis and the end point of Stewart’s ecological writing, concluding with the recognition that the interconnected threads and causal sequences he diligently traces are ultimately endless, the project impossible. “I cannot write of everything,” says the poet. The land, no matter what names we might assign to it, has a way of exceeding the limits of expression.

“It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale; yet it is always important,” wrote Stevenson. “The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.” As lococentric novels like Sheep Rock make apparent, Stewart knew his country almost to a fault—his work has sometimes been dismissed as mere regionalism. It seems unlikely, though, that Stewart would have minded. For him, mastery of one’s terrain was almost a precondition for writing, and many of his later works continued probing the histories of the highways and trails of the West with which he had grown so intimate, and continued excavating the ways in which names mark that paramount and elemental relationship between humankind and the land.

Given this lifelong attachment to Western landscapes, it’s no surprise that Stewart was prone to lyrical odes to the majesty of the Sierra, of the Basin and Range. But it was an impulse always counterbalanced by the antiromantic instincts that led Stewart to regard nature as plainly indifferent and destructive. To dwell on whatever beauty is to be found in the natural world is to risk being lulled into false comfort, and an insensitivity to the flimsiness of the “margin of safety which man’s ingenuity had established.”

Toward the end of his life, Stewart sensed that this margin had diminished—not because the threat posed by the natural world was growing more acute, but because civilization’s careless treatment of that world was growing increasingly suicidal. His 1968 essay collection Not so Rich as You Think, as close as he would ever come to mainstream environmentalism, sounded the alarm about the catastrophic ecological cost of modernity’s byproducts: sewage, industrial effluvia, garbage, smog, even atmospheric carbon dioxide. “The American world,” he wrote, “gives some indication of ending in a bad smell.” Even so, he maintained a certain faith in the margin, in our technological capacity for averting, or at least deferring, disaster. If civilization could buttress itself against the storms and fires that threatened its extinction from outside, surely it could guard against its own worst impulses. Fifty years on, his optimism feels naïve, to say the least. Far more prescient seems to have been the sad verdict of his earlier work. As the narrator of Storm opines about the plight of mankind: “In the main, swayed by immediate need and convenience, he remains through the long course of time careless of the struggle, planless.”

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