Election Section

How Stewart Shaped a Reporter’s Life By RICHARD BRENNEMANN

Tuesday September 27, 2005

George Stewart changed my life. 

It was 1958 and I was a precocious 8th-grader at Lincoln Junior High in Fort Collins, Colo., when a great teacher lent me a book she said she was certain I would like. 

Pat Scheffer taught social studies while she was hel ping her husband earn a graduate degree at Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University). She was the epitome of the Good Teacher, gifted at reading and playing to the approaches that could inspire a passion for learning. Quickly determining that I was a 1 2-year-old best motivated by a challenge, she immediately provided them—earning my instant and enduring gratitude. 

So the day came when she handed me a paperback. “Here, read this. It offers a lot to think about, and I think you’ll like it.” 

It was a re print of George Stewart’s 1949 book, Earth Abides, an account of the collapse of modern civilization in the wake of a plague that claims the lives of all but a widely scattered handful of humans. 

The basic concept was all too familiar in the late Eisenho wer years, when horrifying images of nuclear annihilation were regular offerings on the nightly news, the front pages, movie screens and both the fiction and non-fiction racks at local libraries and booksellers. 

Younger readers won’t be able to fully gra sp the undercurrents of fear that played through the mind of children who had grown up with the graphic images of nuclear test fireballs and sky-rupturing mushroom clouds broadcast on small black-and-white TV screens and printed in the daily press. 

The U nited States and the Soviet Union seemed destined to meet in a war of nuclear Armageddon, and the instant annihilation of the vast majority of Homo Sapiens was considered a daily reality. 

Unlike the fire-and-radiation blasted landscape of thermonuclear w ar, Stewart’s holocaust was aimed solely at people, leaving all the physical structures of mid-20th Century life in place. Electricity and the water kept flowing for months, kept in operation by mechanical governors in those pre-computerized days. 

The pr otagonist is a socially isolated graduate student named Isherwood Williams, known in his post-apocalyptic life only by his nickname, Ish. 

Ish survives the apocalypse because he is bitten by a rattlesnake while exploring in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and forced to seek shelter in an abandoned cabin, laying in the grips of feverish delirium while the rest of the human race succumbs to a far grimmer fate. 

He returns to a abandoned world, and days pass before he finally encounters another survivor, and then, very slowly, another. 

Ish evolves through the book, shaped by his character and circumstances to become the head of a prototypical tribe of whose progeny gradually transform his stories, sayings and acts into an oral mythology as literacy vanishes and the writings of the ages are reduced to dust and fire fuel. 

As I devoured Stewart’s book, I immediately grasped the implications of the tale he spun. 

Stewart’s cataclysmic context is ecological, describing the collapse of industrial civilization in tandem with the rapid cycling of organismic explosions and natural forces that followed when humans lost their place atop the pyramid of life. 

Confronted by a vivid account of the consequences of social collapse, Earth Abides left me with an enduring se nse of the fragility of everyday life in a universe where the unexpected is the rule. 

I had seen another world, and it struck me to the quick. My world was never the same after that, and I was driven to ask questions I’m still asking today. I will be for ever grateful to Stewart, who led a young future journalist to search for a deeper understanding of the world around him. 


My Berkeley connection 

Though I didn’t quite realize it then—mainly because I was 12 and the city’s name was never invoked—the story was set in Berkeley. 

I only later learned the hidden meaning of the protagonist’s tribal name years later when I read Ishi in Two Worlds, Theodora Kroeber’s account of the last survivor of a Northern California Native American tribe known as the Yahis, a group that had once numbered about 15,000. 

Brought from isolation in the wilds into contact with a population that exposed him to new organisms, Ishi died of tuberculosis three years layer. He ended his days in the museum of UC Berkeley’s anthropology department where the author’s future spouse, Alfred Kroeber, would become one of the school’s better-known academic luminaries. 

Like Ishi, Ish ended Earth Abides book as the last representative of his people—those who had known the pre-tribal era that h ad been the Industrial Age. 

One future irony for me was his depiction of the demise by fire, termites, weather and time of the structures I would later encounter as a reporter covering land use and landmarks for the Berkeley Daily Planet. 

I was prompted to revisit Earth Abides after seeing it mentioned by Mike Davis, California’s most provocative journalist/writer, in his 2003 book Dead Cities: A Natural History. I recently managed to locate a 1983 paperback reprint at Shakespeare Books on Telegraph Avenue and a fresh reading reaffirmed of the vital power of the images conveyed by Stewart’s prose.t