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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.”

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

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.

George Orwell

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.

She writes:

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.

Orwell’s cottage in Wallington.

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.

Rose painting and poem by the Civil Rights activist Sarah Mapps Douglass — the first surviving artwork signed by an African-American woman. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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.)

Orwell himself knew this. In his classic essay Why I Write, which inspired generations of writers to ponder the same, he articulated it with uncommon force of clarity:

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.

Orwell feeding his goat, Muriel, 1939. (Photograph: Dennis Collings. British Library.)

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.

1978 poster by artist Paul Davis, repurposing the suffragist slogan for the Civil Rights movement. (New York Public Library archives.)

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.

George Orwell

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.

Art by Jonathan Burton from a Folio Society anniversary edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four

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.


The Beauty of the Overlooked: Philip Henry Gosse’s Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations of Coastal Creatures and Reflections on the Delicate Kinship of Life

“These objects are, it is true, among the humblest of creatures that are endowed with organic life… Here we catch the first kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame in the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.”

“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote with her mind perched on the water’s edge, contemplating the ocean and the meaning of life in an era when the boundary between land and water marked the shoreline between knowledge and mystery, between the mapped terrestrial world and a world still more mysterious than the Moon.

Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

A century earlier, the poetic English marine biologist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (April 6, 1810‐August 23, 1888), inventor of the seawater aquarium, extended a tender and trailblazing invitation into the wonders of the water world in his 1853 treasure A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (public library | public domain) — an uncommon marriage of scientific investigation and poetic presence.

Published the year Gosse created and populated the world’s first public aquarium at the London Zoo — a decade after Anna Atkins walked those selfsame shores to collect the seaweed she rendered in stunning cyanotypes that made her the first person to illustrate a book with photographic images, a decade before the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and left Darwin wonder-smitten with his exquisite paintings of jellyfish, and exactly 100 years after Carl Linnaeus created the modern nomenclature of nature — Gosse’s lyrical guide to the life of the shore features twenty-eight exquisitely painted plates of marine creatures, labeled with their Linnaean names, “all drawn from living nature, with the greatest attention to accuracy,” comprising “about two hundred and forty figures of animals and their component parts, in many instances drawn with the aid of the microscope.”

Jellyfish detail from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Urging the reader not to expect “a book of systematic zoology; nor a book of mere zoology of any sort,” Gosse instead offers an invitation to contemplative companionship in lively curiosity about and amid the living world:

I ask you to listen with me to the carol of the lark, and the hum of the wild bee; I ask you to stand with me at the edge of the precipice and mark the glories of the setting sun; to watch with me the mantling tide as it rolls inward, and roars among the hollow caves; I ask you to share with me the delightful emotions which the contemplation of unbounded beauty and beneficence ever calls up in the cultivated mind.

Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Gosse made what he made — his visual art and the art of understanding we call science — in the spirit in which all genuine creators make what they make:

The following pages I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to make a mirror of the thoughts and feelings that have occupied my own mind during a nine months’ residence on the charming shores of North and South Devon. There I have been pursuing an occupation which always possesses for me new delight, — the study of the curious forms, and still more curious instincts, of animated beings… Having conveyed pleasure and interest to myself, I thought might entertain and please my reader.

Tide pool creatures from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

To the then-common, still-common, unconsidered objection that to bridge science and beauty is “to degrade science below its proper dignity,” Gosse counter-objects with a sentiment of lyrical lucidity:

That the increase of knowledge is in itself a pleasure to a healthy mind is surely true; but is there not in our hearts a chord that thrills in response to the beautiful, the joyous, the perfect, in Nature?

In this poetic spirit, leaning on Wordsworth’s timeless pronouncement that “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [and] the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Gosse plunges into raptures about particularly dazzling facets of these overlooked animals, many of them wholly novel to human eyes. He kneels on the rocks to peer into the “exceedingly charming” “natural vivarium” of the tide pool with its colorful underwater forest of seaweed, exults in discovering the valved mechanics of how Pecten opercularis — the queen scallop — climbs and leaps with its “delicate little foot,” marvels at its frilly microscopic gills, delights in its diamond eyes, “possessing all the brilliancy of precious stones.”

Dead man’s fingers coral and eye of scallop from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Each of the animals he describes — the mollusk and the medusa, the shrimp and the sea lemon, the dinoflagellate and the dead man’s fingers coral — he describes with absolute reverence for its beauty and microscopic magnificence, all the more enchanting for being so overlooked.

Although, throughout his life, Gosse struggled to reconcile science and religion, through this portal of creaturely awe he touched the elemental truth to which his culturally conditioned mind blinded him — the unbroken link between these exquisite primitive creatures and ourselves. Six years before Darwin exposed the science beneath the kinship of life-forms in On the Origin of Species and a century before Lucille Clifton celebrated the poetics of “the bond of live things everywhere,” Gosse exulted:

These objects are, it is true, among the humblest of creatures that are endowed with organic life. They stand at the very confines, so to speak, of the vital world, at the lowest step of the animate ladder that reaches up to Man; aye, and beyond him… Here we catch the first kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame in the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.

Jellyfish detail from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Jellyfish detail from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Medusa from A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast by Philip Henry Gosse, 1853. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with Gosse’s compatriot William Saville Kent’s kaleidoscopic illustrations from the world’s first pictorial glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef and the living wonders rendered in Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, drawn from the epoch-making Valdiva expedition and published a decade after Gosse’s death, upending the longtime belief that the ocean is lifeless below 300 fathoms: a testament to the frequency with which every time we have let our self-referential imagination limit the complexity, diversity, and resilience of life, we have limited the wonder of possibility and we have been wrong.


Broken Tulips: How a Virus Gave the World’s Most Prized Flower Its Beauty

An epochal intersection of art and science, ecology and culture, psychology and microbiology.

Broken Tulips: How a Virus Gave the World’s Most Prized Flower Its Beauty

In 1634, Rembrandt painted his wife, Saskia, as Flora — the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. One large bloom droops over her left ear from the wreath crowning her head, dwarfing the other blossoms in scale and splendor — a single tulip, its silken petals aflame with stripes of red and white.

These tulips no longer exist. Today, their closest kin are known as Rembrandts. In the painter’s day, these living canvases of expressionist color transfixed the human imagination across cultures, casting a singular enchantment with their sudden and mysterious eruptions of contrasting color. Lay gardeners and professional horticulturalists all over Holland, France, and the Ottoman Empire planted tulip bulbs by the hundreds, by the thousands, hoping some would bloom in this inexplicable pattern of painterly stripes. On those rare and unbidden occasions when it happened, the tulip was said to “break.”

Broken tulip by Henriette Antoinette Vincent, 1820. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Gardeners went to extraordinary lengths to force tulips to break, their techniques still insentient to the newborn scientific method, still resonant with the echoes of alchemy haunting the atmosphere of their time: They would plant beds of white tulips, then sprinkle over the soil pigment powders of the hue they wished to see stripe the white petals, hoping rainwater would wash the bulb with pigment and somehow imprint the flower-to-be.

Because the history of our species is the history of humans longing for control of their fortunes and other humans exploiting this longing in the absence of knowledge and critical thought — from religions imbuing with mystical meaning yet-unexplained astronomical phenomena like comets and eclipses, to internet scammers — a new trade of charlatans emerged, promising surefire recipes (some involving pigeon droppings, others powdered plaster from the walls of old houses) to make the tulips break.

But what was really at play was something no one suspected, because no one had the reference-point nodes of understanding we call knowledge. What was really at play was an epochal intersection of science and culture, the story of which Michael Pollan tells with his signature enchanting erudition in The Botany of Desire (public library). He writes:

One crucial element of the beauty of the tulip that intoxicated the Dutch, the Turks, the French, and the English has been lost to us. To them the tulip was a magic flower because it was prone to spontaneous and brilliant eruptions of color. In a planting of a hundred tulips, one of them might be so possessed, opening to reveal the white or yellow ground of its petals painted, as if by the finest brush and steadiest hand, with intricate feathers or flames of a vividly contrasting hue… If a tulip broke in a particularly striking manner — if the flames of the applied color reached clear to the petal’s lip, say, and its pigment was brilliant and pure and its pattern symmetrical — the owner of that bulb had won the lottery. For the offsets of that bulb would inherit its pattern and hues and command a fantastic price. The fact that broken tulips for some unknown reason produced fewer and smaller offsets than ordinary tulips drove their prices still higher.

In an epoch when the microscope was still a novelty known to the very few and owned by the very privileged, when the discovery of submicroscopic non-bacterial pathogens was a quarter millennium away and the word ecology was two centuries from being coined, what the ardent gardeners and the ardent bulb-buyers and Rembrandt did not know was that a virus brought by another species was responsible for the rapturous breaking of the tulip; a virus the discovery of which vanquished the broken tulips and broke the spell their beauty had cast upon this ever-living, ever-dying world. Pollan explains the biomechanics behind the beauty:

The color of a tulip actually consists of two pigments working in concert — a base color that is always yellow or white and a second, laid-on color called an anthocyanin; the mix of these two hues determines the unitary color we see. The virus works by partially and irregularly suppressing the anthocyanin, thereby allowing a portion of the underlying color to show through. It wasn’t until the 1920s, after the invention of the electron microscope, that scientists discovered the virus was being spread from tulip to tulip by Myzus persicae, the peach potato aphid. Peach trees were a common feature of seventeenth-century gardens.

By the 1920s the Dutch regarded their tulips as commodities to trade rather than jewels to display, and since the virus weakened the bulbs it infected (the reason the offsets of broken tulips were so small and few in number), Dutch growers set about ridding their fields of the infection. Color breaks, when they did occur, were promptly destroyed, and a certain peculiar manifestation of natural beauty abruptly lost its claim on human affection.

Every time I think of the story of the broken tulip, I think of Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower.

Couple this fragment of Pollan’s altogether enchanting The Botany of Desire with Emily Dickinson and the nonbinary botany of flowers, then revisit Sylvia Plath’s almost unbearably beautiful poem “Tulips.”


The Blue Horses of Our Destiny: Artist Franz Marc, the Wisdom of Animals, and the Triumph of Beauty Over Brutality

Tragedy and transcendence in the search for the spiritual in nature.

“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” wrote Mary Oliver in one of the masterpiece from her suite of poems celebrating the urgency of aliveness, Blue Horses (public library).

In the bleak winter of 1916, in the thickest darkness of World War I, several enormous canvases dappled in pointillist patterns of color appeared across the French countryside, as if Kandinsky or Klee had descended upon the war-torn hills to bandage the brutality with beauty. But no. The painted tarps were military camouflage, designed to conceal artillery from aerial observation — the work of the young German painter, printmaker, and Expressionist pioneer Franz Marc (February 8, 1880–March 4, 1916), who had devoted himself to parting the veil of appearances with art in order to “look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.”

Deer in a Monastery Garden, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Conscripted into the German Imperial Army at the outbreak of the war, midway through his thirties and just after a period of extraordinary creative fecundity, Marc found this improbable outlet for his artistic vitality during his military service. Unlikely to have had any practical advantage over ordinary camouflage, his colossal canvases are almost certain to have served as a psychological lifeline for the young artist drafted into the machinery of death.

Within a month of painting them, Marc was dead — a shell explosion in the first days of the war’s longest battle sent a metal splinter into his skull, killing him instantly while a German government official was compiling a list of prominent artists to be recalled from military service as national treasures, with Marc’s name on it.

The Fate of the Animals, 1913.

Among the paintings he produced in those two ecstatically prolific years just before he was drafted was The Fate of the Animals — an arresting depiction of the interplay of beauty and brutality, terror and tenderness, in the chaos of life. An inscription appeared under the canvas in Marc’s hand: “And all being is flaming agony.”

Destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1916, The Fate of the Animals was restored by Marc’s close friend Paul Klee, who painstakingly recreated the oil canvas from surviving photographs.

The Tiger, 1912. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
The Foxes, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Animals, Marc felt, were in many ways superior to humans — more honest in their expression of their inner truths, in more direct contact with the inner truths of nature:

Animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.

The Little Monkey, 1912. (Available as a print.)
The Large Blue Horses, 1911. (Available as a print.)

In 1910, just before he turned thirty, Marc became a founding member of The Blue Rider — a journal that became an epicenter of the German Expressionist community that included artists like Kandinsky, who had just formalized his thinking on the role of the spiritual in art, and Klee. At the end of that year, Marc began corresponding with the twenty-two-year-old writer and pianist Lisbeth Macke, who was married to one of the Blue Rider artists, about the relationship between color and emotion through the lens of music. Exactly a century after Goethe devised his psychology of color and emotion, Macke and Marc created a kind of synesthetic color wheel of tones, assigning sombre sounds to blue, joyful sounds to yellow, and a brutality of discord to red. Marc went on to ascribe not only emotional but spiritual attributes to the primary colors, writing to Macke:

Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two!

Further exploring the analogy between music and color, Marc envisioned the equivalent of music without tonality in painting — a sensibility where “a so-called dissonance is simply a consonance apart,” producing a harmonic effect in the overall composition, in color as in sound.

The Tower of Blue Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Twenty years after Marc’s death on the battlefields of the First World War, when the forces of terror that had fomented it festered into the Second, the Nazis declared his art “degenerate.” Many of his paintings went missing after WWII, last seen in a 1937 Nazi exhibition of “degenerate” art, alongside several of Klee’s paintings. Marc’s art is believed to have been seized by Nazi leaders for their personal theft-collections. An international search for his painting The Tower of Blue Horses has been underway for decades. In 2012, another of his missing paintings of horses was discovered in the Munich home of the son of one of Hitler’s art dealers, along with more than a thousand other artworks the Nazis denounced as “degenerate” in their deadly ideology but welcomed into their private living rooms as works of transcendent beauty and poetic power.

The Dreaming Horses, 1913. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The title poem of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses embodies the original meaning of empathy, which became popular in the early twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. The poet projects herself into Marc’s painting The Large Blue Horses, running her hand gently one animal’s blue mane, letting another’s nose touch her gently, as she reflects on Marc’s tragic, tremendous life that managed to make such timeless portals into beauty and tenderness in the midst of unspeakable brutality:

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.


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