A Lonely, New World

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides 

Isherwood “Ish” Williams is a young man who defines himself as an “observer.” He believes himself free of the desire for company, so when he is one of a handful of people spared from a worldwide epidemic, he sees it less a tragedy than an opportunity for experiment and discovery.

“To think of [the destruction] as something bad was merely to think in terms of what had once been and no longer existed,” he reasons. All species thrive and multiply until the Earth can no longer sustain their numbers and influence. What happens must be a new beginning. What we learn over the course of George R. Stewart’s post-apocalyptic classic is that nature’s delineation of time is rarely so sudden.

A new world overtakes the old despite the few lonely survivors

A new world overtakes the old despite the few lonely survivors

Lonely in a Crowded World

Ish discovers other people and they found a colony they call “The Tribe.” Though he knows other such colonies must surely exist elsewhere, Ish is fueled by narcissism. As the new children of the tribe are born, he tries to teach them to read, hoping that ultimately they will be able to reconstruct the former world that is crumbling all around them. They live off remains, eating out of cans, using guns to hunt and living in empty houses. To Ish’s dismay, the new generation shows no curiosity about the past or the world beyond their tiny enclave. Reality for them, is an endless supply of mass-produced goods. He fears they will become helpless, unable to satisfy their basic needs once the cans of food run out and infrastructure deteriorates.

Early on Ish considers himself and the world around him as two distinct entities. “[He was] a strange mingling of realities and fantasies and pressures and reactions…between the two, himself and everything outside him, there lay some kind of strange bond; as one changed, the other changed also.”

A hammer, an old friend for a lonely man

A hammer, an old friend for a lonely man

Return to the Lonely Soil

The modern world inflates the human ego, maybe that’s what makes us believe the falsity that we are separate from the Earth and not a product of it. The Earth does not work by simply wiping itself clean and starting over. Similarly, mankind cannot suddenly go from modern civilization back to a life of living off the land, rather there must be a gradual transition. It would be unreasonable to think that man would become adept at hunting and gathering or agriculture when there is prepackaged food readily available. Such skills are learned out of necessity and perfected over time. We live reacting to what the world around us provides, and the earth in turn responds to our actions. There is no true separation, we are part of Earth itself.

Lonely Relic of the Past

Ish outlives the other charter members of the tribe and lives his twilight years in solitude, treated as a sage-like figure. He must constantly remind himself he is not a god. Ish once taught the children archery, but only now that the guns are old and unreliable has it become essential to their lives. They still rely on old world knives for carving the shafts and coins to make arrowheads.

Their language shows signs of a new dialect, their understanding of the past articulated by mythology. Ish dies as he and a group of young men flee wildfires. They cannot fathom that Ish once saw disaster transform his entire world. Now the young men face the destruction of everything they know. Change will come on quickly and they will be forced to adapt in order to survive. Once again, the Earth dictates the evolution of man.

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