These are not George Orwell’s roses. They’re mine, cut in early June, some of the petals shaken off to make rose petal jelly (delicious on warm croissants). Most of the roses I’ve planted over the past 40 years are old-fashioned cultivars, the kind that Orwell might have planted in his garden in Wallington, in Herfordshire, in 1936. I know from having just begun Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses that one rose he planted was “Albertine”, a salmon-pink rambler that I don’t have but now of course I’m going to look for.
Does this happen to you, that you settle into your bed (or wherever you like best to read) with a new book, and you are instantly taken wholly into its text, its premise, its intelligent creative world? Last night I’d just arranged three pillows behind me, the sheets were freshly laundered, the butter-yellow cotton ones I love, the curtains were drawn against the dark, and I opened the book.
In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses. I had known this for more than three decades and never thought enough about what that meant until a November day a few years ago, when I was under doctor’s orders to recuperate at home in San Francisco and was also on a train from London to Cambridge to talk with another writer about a book I’d written.
I don’t know about you but this confiding voice, the roses, and the disconnection between what was expected of her and what she was doing—I knew it was the book for me at this point in the year, in history, in, oh, a scattering of other moments. I haven’t read all Rebecca Solnit’s books but I have read enough of them to count her among my very cherished writers.
She is on her way to Wallington, where Orwell lived for 4 years. She has been talking about trees and plants with her friend, documentary film-maker Sam Green, and mentioned an essay by Orwell, “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”, in which the writer mentions the trees and roses he’d planted ten years earlier, in Wallington, and how he’d visited them and discovered that most of them had thrived in his absence. He wrote,
The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.
I read 42 pages last night and I began to do something I haven’t done in years: I made marks in the margins with a pencil, little lines and a few words here and there, so I can easily find the passages that stopped me, made me think, made me lean back on my pillows, often with tears in my eyes, grateful for this book, at this time, as an excavator clears an area across the highway from us for a huge telecommunications tower (we’ve tried to keep this from happening but it seems to be going ahead, with a security guard patrolling because he’s been told to expect trouble, which I guess is us), as the news cycle is filled with plague and violence and ugly rhetoric. Orwell was certainly a man of action. One remembers his books about socialism, poverty, capitalism…I read Down and Out in Paris and London in 1976 when I found a copy on the shelves of the institution where I worked in Wimbledon and I remember walking by the homeless sleeping rough on the Embankment on the evenings I went into the City for a poetry reading or concert, thinking that not much had changed. Rebecca Solnit writes that it was Orwell’s essays that were “a foundational influence on my own meander towards becoming an essayist” and in a way I can relate to that. I remember reading “Why I Write”, “Shooting an Elephant”, and “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” when I was perhaps 18, drawn to the plain language and the sense that we shared some common beliefs about nature and humanity and what we do as writers.
I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. (from “Why I Write)
It’s just after 10 a.m. as I write this and already I am looking forward to bedtime, arranging the pillows, and sinking into this extraordinary book. Solnit’s prose, so bright and vivid and joyous, and her meander into Orwell’s world, rich with roses, with good advice we could all do well to heed:
I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one’s obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.
While the excavator down below echoes with the acoustics of destruction (oiled by capitalist greed, small and large), while the trucks maintain their barricades in Ottawa and Alberta, I’m making a note, for all of us, with my little hoard of acorns.