I am going to try something new. In my free time I often read books. So in order to praise the authors, talk about interesting books, and share one of my passions, I want to start “El Lunes Son Para Libros”. Maybe it will be a book review, maybe my favorite quotes, or maybe just some photos. I don’t know yet, but it’s my damn blog and I do what I want. So here is the first edition:
Earth Abides is a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel written by George R. Stewart in 1949. On the back cover it reads, “A novel about tomorrow that could happen today.” I’ve always liked this idea. That an author, equipped with their imagination, could project into the future and write about something, or parts of something, that very well might occur will always be an infinitely interesting idea. The story of how I chose to read this book, and how the storyline of the main character would begin to intertwine with my own personal journey quickly had me captivated.
“Between the plan and the fulfillment stands always the frail barrier of the Human Life”
As I sat in a coffee shop in Huaraz, Peru I became bored with my computer. Not equipped with my own book, I looked to the bookshelves of the coffee shop for something to read. With my head at a 90-degree angle in order to read the spines of the books, I was drawn to a blue and ancient looking text with yellow pages. The book’s cover art interested me and the description on the back drew me in (touché Stewart). The smell wafting from the pages as I quickly flipped through them was the icing on the cake. I had my book. I sat down to read and an hour later, when I had to leave, I nonchalantly placed the book in my backpack. It felt like stealing, but I knew I would be back to return it. For the following 6 days, I read Earth Abides during every moment of my free time. It’s resonance with my own life, had me captivated, and at times, in tears.
The first similarities arose between myself and the main character, Isherwood Williams. Besides sharing the name William, we both are white, socio-economically privileged and graduate students. Ish studies anthropology and I sociology. The similarities between the two disciplines are many. I’ve always been drawn to anthropology as a second specialty of study. In addition, Isherwood loves camping, as do I, and describes himself as “moderately practical, but not mechanical”. On top of that, we both are alone. After recovering from a feverish delirium induced by a rattle snake bite that occurred while he was camping in the woods, Ish finds the world around him to be empty. While he was sick in bed, isolated in a mountain cabin, a disease had swept the United States, killing majority of the population. He wakes up alone and in a panic. I too am alone. Yes, I am surrounded by people and interact with them on a daily basis, but a certain degree of isolation and loneliness comes with being a Peace Corps trainee/volunteer. Physical isolation is potent in this experience. Loneliness however, is a social and often cultural production; a state of mind that can be altered.
So to begin, Ish must rebuilt, reconnect and find meaning in a post-apocalyptic world. One of the first things he decides to do is road trip east in search of survivors and possibly a new home. His journey, like mine, begins in California. He travels from the north, down through Bakersfield and eventually to Mojave. Ever since I can remember my family as being camping and riding dirt bikes in the Mojave Desert. Every trip we use Mojave as a pit stop for food and gas. As Isherwood arrives in Mojave, he too has a motorcycle. He travels with it as a backup just in case his car fails. However, in Mojave, he decides to deserts his motorcycle. He does so as a commitment to being fearless, and not letting the worst case scenario control his decisions. The desert, and the high adrenaline experience of riding dirt bikes is mixed. It contains moments of fearless invincibility and bliss as well as debilitating pain and terror.
After Mojave he drives through Needles, CA, Kingman and Flagstaff, AZ. I’ve been on that road. I’ve spent time in those cities. Yes, many people have. But the reality that a random book, on a random shelf, in a random coffee shop would begin to have so many similarities with my life was beginning to resonate deeply. The serendipitous of the situation was profound. Eventually, Ish continues east and finds himself on the famous Route 66 headed towards Chicago. The most recent place I lived before coming to Peru was in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. A portion of Route 66 ran through my town. I rode my bicycle on Route 66 towards Chicago. I continued to be shocked by how Stewart, completely unknowing about my life and my journey, had somehow inserted himself within in.
At some point during his road trip it begins to rain. As the rain fell against the windshield of Ish’s car, I too began to hear the slight patter of rain droplets on my roof and window. In the exact moment that it started to rain in the book, it also started to rain on me in Peru. As the stormed strengthened outside my house, as well as in the book, I couldn’t help but be brought to tears. Not knowing exactly why I was crying, I welcomed the tears. The synchronicity of my reading experience, with my living experience resonated deeply within me. In that moment I felt that I was exactly where I needed to be, and had arrived at precisely the perfect moment. I felt gratitude for this omen. For showing me that where I was, in my own journey, was where I needed to be.
After traveling to New York city, and realizing that he can no longer find clear roads to the east, Isherwood turns around and begins to travel home. He travels back through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. Once again, using a road that I too have traveled. Eventually he ends up in Estes Park, CO. I love Estes Park. I’ve spent a lot of time there. During my freshman year of college, as part of my orientation, I went on a camping trip with other freshman in the Rocky Mountain National Park. We stopped off in Estes Park for groceries. It was this trip that helped solidify my love for Colorado. It was also in Estes Park where I attended my first fraternity formal. Besides that, a few other camping trips brought me to that area. Here again, Isherwood’s journey seemed to align with mine.
Finally, Ish makes it back to his childhood home in Northern California. He settles down there and recreates his life. He falls in love with a woman named Em and starts a family, which eventually they call their Tribe. One morning, Ish and Em wake up to red skies and a glowing, orange sun. In the distance black smoke bellows into the clouds and wild fires rage. From his vantage point, he sees that most of the land around him is on fire. At this point in the novel, all plant life and vegetation is thoroughly overgrown. Without firefighters, or running water, the fires burn out on control. Once again, Stewart writes a scene that strikes deep. As this very moment one of the worst wild fires in California history is burning out of control in Northern California. None of it is contained. 3,000 some odd homes have been burnt to the grown, 31 people are dead and even more are missing. My grandparents, who live close by to the fires are patiently waiting to see if they will need to be evacuated. A simple shift in the wind and their home and belongings could potentially all be destroyed. Now not only was my story in alignment with the text, but also the story of my beloved grandparents and the other victims of the wildfire.
After some time, Isherwood decides to head south in search of supplies. After driving through the city, he finds himself on the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating his life. He stands in awe, gazing down to where the water crashes into the pillars of the bridge; a symbol of the resiliency of the technology of humanity. Eventually he makes his way through the breadbasket of California. Finally, in southern CA, Ish passes first through Burbank and eventually Pasadena. The exact city I call home. The city where I grew up and where my family and friends still live. While reading Isherwood to be in my home, I was swept with jealousy. He was so far from his home, yet so close to mine. I was immediately taken there, with my family and friends, spending time. Nostalgia. Once again Earth Abides inserted itself into my personal journey. I was confused. “Why did I choose this book?”; “Did something inside of me, or outside of me for that matter, purposely choose this book?”. Groundless, I found footing once again in my gratefulness of the moment. My reading experience, intertwined with my living experience reassured me once again that everything was exactly as it should be. Things are as they are and I am apart of them.
Isherwood eventually makes it home again. He grows to be an old, old age. At this point, generations have come and gone. The First Ones have passed on, making Ish “the last American.” He spends his days sitting in the sunlight, being fed and cared for by the younger generations. He has vocabulary, knowledge, and experiences originating from the time before The Great Disaster. Because of that Isherwood is a god. His hammer the symbol of the Tribe. They look up to him, and ask him for guidance and advice. Eventually, like all things in this world, [*SPOILER ALERT*] Isherwood’s life comes to end. In an escape from more wild fires, Isherwood finds himself sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge. He has collapsed and a slow process of death has begun to take over. He is there with two men, one named Jack, the name of his most beloved son who died at an early age. He becomes cold, the men trying to keep him warm, and begins to lose feeling in his limbs. Confused, he sees the men trying to communicate to him, but only by moving their lips, and not actually speaking. He realizes he has also lost his ability to hear. He understands that they want him to choose one of them as his successor, to be the one to wield the hammer. He picks Jack, handing him the hammer and freeing himself of its weight. As the shadows close in around him, he begins to lose his sight. He gazes off into the distance and is drawn to the shape of the rolling hills surrounding the bay. He sees them and is reminded of the breasts of his long lost love Em, and even farther, of his mother. “The earth and Em and the mother all mingled in his dying mind, and he felt glad to return.” His last vision fell upon the men in front of him. “They will commit me to the earth,” he thought. “Yet I also commit them to the earth. There is nothing else by which men live. Men go and come, but the earth abides.”
Overall, Stewart’s novel was captivating, moving and chillingly in line with my current reality. How I came to find this book, and read it at this moment in my life is something that continues to hold my attention. I return to Huaraz tonight. Tomorrow I will return Earth Abides to its place on the book shelf. I can only hope someone after me is drawn to its story just like I was. And that the novel, although it was written 68 years ago, can still have powerful meaning for an individual living in not so different times.