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George Stewart's Storm:
|For quotes from Storm, see The Elders Speak: |
George Stewart On Weather
On this day, the "incipient little whorl come into being southeast of Japan" required a name. The Junior Meteorologist "considered a moment...and thought of Maria." So was born the heroine of the novel. In the introduction written for the 1947 reprint of Storm by The Modern Library, George Stewart noted he originally intended the name to be pronounced "in the soft old-fashioned English and American way" with the second syllable being ree: Ma-ree-a. But he later realized that "The soft Spanish pronunciation is fine for some heroines, but our Maria here is too big for any man to embrace and much too boisterous." He advised, "So put the accent on the second syllable, and pronounce it 'rye'" (as in Ma-rye-a).
The remaining chapters, one for each day of Maria's life, follow the storm from an insignificant kink in the isobar pattern to a great storm which grows in strength as it races across the Pacific to a collision with California and its mountain ranges and finally to its eventual decay over mid-America.
Among the many lives touched by the storm's fury as it spreads havoc across the state and eastward, several are singled out by the author for detailed character development: the Chief Meteorologist (patterned perhaps after the final years of forecast pioneer Cleveland Abbe?); the Junior Meteorologist; a lineman sent into the snowy reaches of the Sierras to repair a downed phone line; the Road Supervisor charged with keeping the Donner Pass on US 40 open to traffic; the Load Dispatcher of the Power Light Company; the Chief Service Officer at Bay Airport; a young couple driving west from Reno; and the Flood Control Officer on the Sacramento/American river basins. As they individually encounter the storm at its fiercest, all are tested; not all survive. Their struggles against the elements make up the focus of the novel's human component.
But throughout the novel, Stewart leaves us with no doubt as to whom the main character is. The birth, maturing and final death of Maria are woven amongst the tales of the storm's impacts. How the storm relates to the global mass of atmosphere around it is the story of Maria's lifetime. Stewart's wonderful descriptive voice melds scientific facts with the poetry of nature in describing the life and influence of Maria. His style thus places this book among my favourite works. Here are but a few examples of that style.
"As a man is conceived in the fierce onset of opposing natures, so also a storm begins in the clash of dry cold air from the north and the mild moist air of the south. Like a person, a storm is a focus of activities, continuing and varying through a longer or shorter period of time, having a birth, youth, maturity, old age and death. It moves, in a sense, it reproduces its kind, and even takes in food, exhausts it of energy and casts out the waste."
"A thunderstorm in hay-time may overthrow a ministry, and a slight average rise or fall of temperature may topple a throne; a shift in the storm-track can ruin an empire."
"Each little storm starts out hopefully, but until it's all over, you can't say whether it was better than the ones that went before it -- or as good."
"Each one is different. There are the big bluffers, and the sneaks, and the honest dependable ones. Some will sulk for days and some will stab you in the back, and some walk out on you between night and morning, and some do exactly what you expect of them."
"The storm had seemed some emperor of the air; actually it was only a puppet-king."
"Maria was dead. But on the eighth day of her life she had begun (after the strange manner of storms) to give birth to a new storm which the Junior Meteorologist had called Little Maria."
Storm's author, George Rippey Stewart, was born in Pennsylvania in 1895 but moved west to California at the age of twelve when his family acquired an orange ranch. There he developed a love for history -- human and natural -- and the landscape of America. In the 1920s, he joined the faculty at the University of California-Berkeley as a professor of English. Among his many books, he penned several that remain popular today, even though most are out of print. His science fiction novel Earth Abides, which looks at the consequences of a global plague, has been translated into 27 languages and finds a spot on many lists of influential science fiction works.
While Storm is not as widely read today as Earth Abides, it is often cited as the inspiration to US Navy meteorologists in assigning female names to Pacific tropical storms during World War II in remembrance of their loved ones back home. Following the war, the practice shifted to Atlantic hurricanes and eventually was applied to tropical storms around the world. [For more on the history of naming tropical storms, click here.]
Whether or not Storm was solely responsible for the personifying of storms, it did inspire Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to pen a song for their 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon entitled "They Call The Wind Maria." In the late 1950s and early 1960s, folk music groups such as The Kingston Trio and The Brothers Four made hit records of the song.
Stewart himself had an inspiration for having his Junior Meteorologist name storms. In the aforementioned Introduction, he wrote:
"A storm itself had most of the qualities of a living thing. A storm could be a character, even the protagonist. Deep in Sir Napier Shaw's four-volume Manual of Meteorology I read that a certain meteorologist had even felt storms to be so personal that he had given them names."
And of Maria,
"More than any human character, as much perhaps as all of them put together, she was to be the center of attention. Her birth, growth, adventures, and final death were to be the main vortex of the story, with the various little human beings and their troubles and triumphs isolated here and there around the edges."
I too received inspiration from Storm. The writing style of George Stewart in this book showed me that writing about science topics could have beauty as well as well as scientific fact. For that reason, I honour him in the dedication of The Weather Doctor website.
Away out here they've got a name for rain and wind and fire.
They Call The Wind Maria
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