“but the earth is still going round the sun” (George Orwell)

american pillar

It seems somehow fitting that I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Orwell’s Roses, last night. I began it on February 2 (see this entry) just as some of my family were arriving for a winter visit and then I put it aside until they’d returned home to Ottawa and Victoria. Seeing it on my bedside table was a cause for quiet joy, though, because it feels like exactly the book that should have come my way at this point in public and private history. It is a book of the moment, the long moment, that considers what it is to be a person trying to find the best way to live and to write about that. For Orwell, nothing was simple. His was a passionate voice against totalitarianism, yes, and he was a firm believer in social democracy (or democratic socialism, depending….), but he also knew that politics was a complicated thing.

What I love about this book is how widely Solnit ranges in and around the strands of Orwell’s life, his thinking, his writing, and his gardens. Roses? Yes, he planted some, purchased at Woolworth’s in 1936, at the cottage he was leasing in Wallington, Hertfordshire, with his wife Eileen. They kept a kind of shop in a room off the kitchen, slicing bacon for customers, and it was from this house that Orwell departed for Spain to fight against fascism. He famously said that if anyone had asked what he was fighting for, “I should have answered: ‘Common decency'”.

Roses are the leitmotif of the book and they take Solnit to the suffrage movement (“Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.”), to Tina Modotti’s photograph, “Roses, Mexico”, to Columbia to learn something about factory rose production, and to the genetic work done by Charles Chamberlain Hurst on roses after she walked through Cambridge’s botanical gardens and noticed the sign indicating the plants were inspired by Hurst’s hybridization programme.

In a way this is a biography. We certainly learn a lot about Orwell’s life. But more importantly we learn about the interconnections of a life with the currents of history and movements. That an individual can apprehend the horrors of political systems, the damage done to humans, but can also find room for hope and optimism. For Orwell, this is evident in his essays most of all. I remember reading some of them years ago and finding a voice I was drawn to for its intelligence and its common decency, if I may borrow his own phrase. Whether planting trees for the opportunity to ameliorate harm done in your lifetime or writing in defence of English cooking (“First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets…”), he yokes beauty and attention, care and vigilance. Here he is on the common toad:

How many times have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t…. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

This morning, listening to the news from our nation’s capital, I sort of wish for an Orwell to make sense of this moment in history—the man who could write a letter to the Manchester Guardian to stand up for Indian passengers who’d been treat badly aboard a ship, who could lament our ability to change nature for the worse (“With the aid of the atomic bomb we could literally move mountains; we could even, so it is said, alter the climate of the earth by melting the polar ice-caps and irrigating the Sahara.”), and who wrote about starvation in Europe after the Second World War. That he was also the man who could daydream his way into an imaginary pub, the charmingly named Moon Under Water, with its grained woodwork and stuffed bull’s head, makes him someone I wish I could exchange plant cuttings with, share seed potatoes, and sit with over a pint on the stoop of the farmhouse on the island of Jura he went to ten years after planting those roses in Wallington, talking about gardens and freedom. It’s the beauty of this book that gives him to us with such immediacy and poignancy. Such urgency.

“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” (Rebecca Solnit)

not orwell's roses

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.

“Here again is the usual door.”

bucket list

A winter visit from my family, a run of mild days, and time by water: these are some of my favourite things to help with the dark days. These, and re-reading essays I’ve always loved, finding in them passages to serve as signposts for the years ahead.

Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure”, for example, in which Woolf offers a kind of walking guide for exploring the evening streets.

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

When the familiar, in other words, becomes something other, luminous and shimmering, because of a walker’s altered perspective.

Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet.

We’ve been doing things we usually do in summer, walking to Francis Point to look at crabs,

francis point

and taking coffee and muffins down to Ruby Lake in the unexpected warmth of a January morning:

by water

And in winter, they are unexpectedly sweet for all that is contained of other seasons, other excursions to beloved places, for swimming and the sight of ducklings, for long sunsets and the evening calls of the common loons.

At bedtime last night I was reading Orwell’s wonderful “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, which I first read as a teenager, and which still feels true:

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money…

My grandson keeps me company when I’m at my desk and he opens the baskets I have all around me, the ones with feathers, with ancient notes to self, stones, the emptied egg case of a skate (or mermaid’s purse, we always called them), a bit of charred embossed tin ceiling panel from the old townsite of Granite Creek, a few fossils from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He opens the baskets and each thing is new to him, and to me, who looks at it as a child looks at a stone or feather, curious and enthralled. After he leaves this weekend, I’ll hear his voice calling out in huge excitement as his father carefully overturned rocks to reveal the tiny crabs scuttling for cover, and his delight as he crept into a hollow in a huge cedar on one side of the trail down to the water. None of this cost us a penny, not for the light or the water or the sound of his voice in the surprising warm air. And when we drove* home in darkness, after a meal at the pub, there was moonlight on the driveway, a scattering of stars, smoke in the air from our fire. “Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it.

*ok, so we had to pay for gas….