Orwell’s Roses: Rebecca Solnit on How Nature Sustains Us, Beauty as Fuel for Change, and the Value of the Meaningless Things That Give Our Lives Meaning
“What is it that makes it possible to do the work that is of highest value to others and one’s central purpose in life? It may appear — to others, sometimes even to oneself — trivial, irrelevant, indulgent, pointless, distracted, or any of those other pejoratives with which the quantifiable beats down the unquantifiable.”
By Maria Popova
There can be no wakeful and wholehearted devotion to standing for anything of substance — justice or peace or the myriad subtle ways we have of protecting all that is alive and therefore fragile — without wide-eyed, wonder-smitten wakefulness to every littlest manifestation of beauty and aliveness. “Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” the young Egon Schiele exhorted in a letter after being arrested for his radical art, hurtling toward an untimely death by the Spanish flu that would take the life of his young pregnant wife three days before taking his.
There can be no reverence for the timeless without tenderness for each moment beading the rosary of our mortal lives, and there is no place where we contact this more clearly than in our encounters with nature, be it in the majesty of a solar eclipse or in the miniature of a flowerpot. “The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end,” the filmmaker and activist Derek Jarman wrote shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death as he began growing through grief amid the beauty of flowers. “Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”
Suspended in time between Schiele and Jarman, ablaze with determination to counter the forces about to unworld the world with its deadliest war, George Orwell (June 15, 1903–January 21, 1950) devoted himself to a small, radical act of reverence for beauty.
In the spring of 1936 — while waiting for his beloved to arrive from London for their wedding, contemplating enlisting in the Spanish Civil War, and germinating the ideas that would bloom into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — Orwell planted some roses in the garden of the small sixteenth-century cottage that his suffragist, socialist, bohemian aunt had secured for him in the village of Wallington.
This poetic gesture with political roots inspirits the uncommonly wonderful Orwell’s Roses (public library). Like any Rebecca Solnit book, this too is a landmass of layered aboutness beneath the surface story — a book stratified with art and politics, beauty and ecology, mortality and what gives our lives meaning.
If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, and gardens.
Three and a half years after he planted them, after thirteen seasons of tending to them, Orwell’s roses bloomed for the first time. World War II had just begun and Ernest Everett Just had just discovered the cellular mechanism by which life begins. It was the year Dylan Thomas wrote his cosmic serenade to trees and what it means to be human and May Sarton penned her exquisite case for the artist’s duty to contact the timeless in tumultuous times, the year the World’s Fair immortalized Einstein’s heavy honey-toned German-Jewish accent in a time-capsule recording, beckoning posterity — that is, us — to defy the mass mentality that leads to war, to mindless consumerism, to the commodification of life itself.
In such a world, a rose is a requiem is a revolution.
On November 20, Orwell recorded in his diary:
Cut down the remaining phloxes, tied up some of the chrysanthemums which had been blown over. Difficult to do much these afternoons now it is winter-time. The chrysanths now in full flower, mostly dark reddy-brown, & a few ugly purple & white ones which I shan’t keep. Roses still attempting to flower, otherwise no flowers in the garden now. Michaelmas daisies are over & I have cut some of them down.
Visiting Orwell’s ghostly garden eighty Novembers later, Solnit writes:
Even on that November day two big unruly rosebushes were in bloom, one with pale pink buds opening up a little and another with almost salmon flowers with a golden-yellow rim at the base of each petal. They were exuberantly alive, these allegedly octogenarian roses, living things planted by the living hand (and shovel work) of someone gone for most of their lifetime.
Transported into Orwell’s presence across time and expectation, Solnit reflects on the roses as levers of gladsome reorientation, reconsideration, and recalibration — not only of the venerated writer’s inner world but of an entire worldview:
[Orwell’s roses] rearranged my old assumptions… This man most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, for facing unpleasant facts, for a spare prose style and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses. That a socialist or a utilitarian or any pragmatist or practical person might plant fruit trees is not surprising: they have tangible economic value and produce the necessary good that is food even if they produce more than that. But to plant a rose — or in the case of this garden he resuscitated in 1936, seven roses early on and more later — can mean so many things.
Regarding the roses as “invitations to dig deeper,” she adds:
They were questions about who he was and who we were and where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone, perhaps of anyone, who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.
Orwell’s roses bloomed for the first time weeks after Harper’s published an essay titled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” by the American educator and medical school reformer Abraham Flexner — a marvelously timeless admonition that “our conception of what is useful may… have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.” A rose is not even a form of knowledge, at least not directly.
A rose is useless in the rawest sense. To ask the utility of a rose is to ask the metric value of love or the meaning of a bird. I am much younger than Orwell’s roses, but I have lived long enough to know that some of our most useless experiences — experiences with no direct application to our chosen work or to the project of “self-improvement” or to world peace or to the conservation of species, experiences that might appear trivial, self-indulgent, even absurd to any outside judgment — are also the experiences that consecrate life with aliveness, the selfsame aliveness by which we make what we make and devote ourselves to justice, to peace, to conservation, to staying alive a little while longer so that we can devote ourselves a little more. Every artist, every deep-feeling and clear-thinking person, everyone who is truly alive, has the analogue of Orwell’s rose garden in their life. (For me, it is my cello. It is the forest. It is the Meyer lemon I grew from a seed, now thriving on my Brooklyn window sill.)
Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. 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 a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
Arriving at the same realization with magnified clarity amid Orwell’s roses, Solnit observes:
You might prepare for your central mission in life by doing other things that may seem entirely unrelated… Orwell seemed to have an instinct for this other work and a talent for giving it what it required. In the last phase of his life, he was both intent upon writing Nineteen Eighty-Four and devoting huge amounts of his time, energy, imagination, and resources to building up a garden verging on a farm, with livestock, crops, fruit trees, a tractor — and a lot of flowers — on the remote tip of a Scottish island. What is it that makes it possible to do the work that is of highest value to others and one’s central purpose in life? It may appear — to others, sometimes even to oneself — trivial, irrelevant, indulgent, pointless, distracted, or any of those other pejoratives with which the quantifiable beats down the unquantifiable.
In this unexpected Orwell she encountered in his garden, which soon became a miniature farm, Solnit found echoes of Thoreau — Thoreau, who paid tender attention to trees and saw nature as a form of prayer and had no qualms about getting jailed for justice as he laid the groundwork for civil disobedience. The young communist who visited Orwell in his final years and found that the author “bored him to death with endless descriptions of the habits of birds” had not yet learned to see the indelible connection between these two modes of paying attention to the world. It strikes me, in this context, that one measure of maturity might be attaining an awareness that there can be no genuine devotion to fighting the forces that unworld the world without genuine devotion to the littlest manifestations of beauty that make this planet a world and this existence a life.
Solnit finds a parallel mooring-post in one of the most famous slogans of the suffrage movement: “Bread for All, and Roses Too” — a phrase originating in a conversation the political activist Helen Todd had with a teenage farm-girl during her 1910 automobile tour of southern Illinois, which stayed with her for its uncommon poetic potency of political meaning. Writing in a magazine upon her return, Todd peered forward to a “time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.” Solnit reflects:
It was a pretty slogan but a fierce argument that more than survival and bodily well-being were needed and were being demanded as a right. It was equally an argument against the idea that everything that human beings need can be reduced to quantifiable, tangible goods and conditions. Roses in these declarations stood for the way that human beings are complex, desires are irreducible, that what sustains us is often subtle and elusive.
The long arc of this recognition, rooted in that long-ago moment of world-reconfiguring change, reaches into our present to offer a mighty antidote to one of the gravest misconceptions of our culture — the tendency to mistake the solemn for the serious in assaying what makes a purposeful, meaningful, world-bettering life. Solnit — who is as present on frontlines as she is behind bylines — writes:
If roses represent pleasure, leisure, self-determination, interior life, and the unquantifiable, the struggle for them is sometimes not only against owners and bosses seeking to crush their workers but against other factions of the left who disparage the necessity of these things. The left has never been short on people arguing that it is callous and immoral to enjoy oneself while others suffer, and somewhere others will always be suffering. It’s a puritanical position, implying that what one has to offer them is one’s own austerity or joylessness, rather than some practical contribution toward their liberation.
Underlying all this is a utilitarian ideology in which pleasures and beauties are counterrevolutionary, bourgeois, decadent, indulgent, and the desire for them should be weeded out and scorned. Would-be revolutionaries often argue that only the quantifiable matters, and that human beings should be rational creatures content with what should matter and fit into how things should be, rather than what does matter and how things are. The roses in “bread and roses” constituted an argument not only for something more, but for something more nuanced and elusive… It was an argument that what makes our lives worth living is to some degree incalculable and unpredictable, and varies from person to person. In that sense, roses also mean subjectivity, liberty, and self-determination.
In a culture that too often sacrifices the timeless at the anger-stained altar of the urgent, thus shortchanging its own durational resiliency, Solnit’s insistence on the value of beauty — this elemental emissary of the eternal — is a countercultural act of courage and resistance, and a humanistic act of generosity to the future. She writes:
Art that is not about the politics of this very moment may reinforce a sense of self and society, of values and commitments, or even a capacity to pay attention, that equip a person to meet the crises of the day… The least political art may give us something that lets us plunge into politics… Pleasure does not necessarily seduce us from the tasks at hand but can fortify us. The pleasure that is beauty, the beauty that is meaning, order, calm. Orwell found this refuge in natural and domestic spaces, and he repaired to them often and emerged from them often to go to war on lies, delusions, cruelties, and follies.
In a sentiment of particular relevance to the type of durational sustenance we need for facing the ecological crisis before us, she adds:
A Vermeer painting makes the case for stillness or looking at canals or the color blue or the value of the domestic lives of the Dutch bourgeoisie or just for paying close attention. Close attention itself can be a kind of sustenance… These artworks and the pleasure that arises from them are like the watershed lands on which nothing commodifiable grows, but from which waters gather to fill the streams and rivers that feed the crops and people, or where wildlife lives that is part of the agrarian system — the insects that pollinate the crops, the coyotes who keep the gophers down. They are the wildlands of the psyche, the unexploited portion, preserving the diversity, the complexity, the systems of renewal, the larger whole as the worked land does not. Orwell defended both the literal green spaces of the countryside and the garden in which he spent so much time and the metaphysics of free thought and unpoliced creation.
In the fierce insistence “bread and roses” makes on the sovereignty and sanctity of our inner lives, there is also a prescient act of resistance to the assault on our privacy perpetrated by today’s algorithmic handmaidens of government and industry, which reduce human beings to datasets and extract that data with the same ruthlessness with which geological wonders are reduced to ores and old-growth forests to timber. Solnit writes:
A society seeking to reinvent human nature wants to reach down into every psyche and rearrange it. Bread can be managed by authoritarian regimes, but roses are something individuals must be free to find for themselves, discovered and cultivated rather than prescribed. “We know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity,” Orwell declares at the end of “The Prevention of Literature,” and the roses in “bread and roses” mean a kind of freedom that flourishes with privacy and independence.
It may be that the highest form of freedom, the supreme grandeur of the human spirit, resides in the willingness to embrace our limitations as mortal and contradictory creatures — creatures, in Maya Angelou’s far-seeing words, “whose hands can strike with such abandon / that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living / yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness.” Noting how “the hideous and the exquisite often coexist” in Orwell’s work and worldview, Solnit cites an observation he recorded in the final and most creatively fertile years of his life, while visiting Germany to write about the end of WWII: By one of the last unbombed footbridges across a river, Orwell saw the dead body of a German soldier, his face waxy yellow, his chest covered with a bouquet that one of the living had made of the lilacs in wild bloom all over the war-savaged city. Solnit reflects on this sight of terror and tenderness that Orwell chose to record:
The lilacs don’t negate the corpse or the war but they complicate it, as the specific often does the general. So does the unseen hand that had laid a bouquet on a soldier and the news that lilacs were blooming in Stuttgart, which in 1945 was shards and rubble from the thousands of tons of bombs dropped on it by British airplanes in the course of the war. The flowers say that this person a British reader would look upon as the enemy was someone’s friend or beloved, that this corpse had a personal as well as a political history.
In consonance with Olivia Laing’s superb case for gardening as a political act of resistance, Solnit adds:
Nature itself is immensely political, in how we imagine, interact with, and impact it, though this was not much recognized in [Orwell’s] era.
The German corpse has something to tell us, and it’s about war and nationalism, and about an encounter with death. The flowers also have something to tell us in that sentence, perhaps that there’s something beyond the war, just as there’s cyclical time, the time of nature as seasons and processes imagined until recently as outside historical time. A human being lives in both, as a political actor, a citizen of this place or that, a seat for a mind with opinions and beliefs, but also as a biological entity, eating and sleeping and excreting and breeding, ephemeral like flowers.
Orwell’s Roses is a sweeping, delicately interleaved, uncondensable read in its entirety. Complement it with the flower-bed epiphany that revealed to Virginia Woolf what it means to be an artist and Michael Pollan on the radical history of gardening, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on growing up, growing whole, and how we compose ourselves, her antidote to despair in difficult times, and her lovely letter to children about how reading shapes and saves us.
Published December 10, 2021