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-smitted 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.

It is impossible to revere the inexorable without tenderness for every moment of our mortal lives. There are few places where this can be more evident than when we encounter nature. “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.”

Between Jarman and Schiele, suspended in time, I am ablaze with the determination to stop the forces that threaten to destroy the planet with the 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:

Gardens can sometimes provide an alternative to war, which is why people often find peace in parks, forests, meadows 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. Ernest Everett Just was only beginning World War II and had discovered the basic cellular mechanism through which all life began. 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.

A rose can be a requiem in such a world.

Orwell, November 20, recorded this in his journal:

Reduced the remaining phloxes and tied some of the chrysanthemums that had been broken. Now that winter is here, it can be difficult to get much done. The chrysanths now in full flower, mostly dark reddy-brown, & a few ugly purple & white ones which I shan’t keep. There are no roses in my garden right now, although they still try to flower. Michaelmas daisies are over & I have cut some of them down.

Visiting Orwell’s ghostly garden eighty Novembers later, Solnit writes:

Two large, unruly rosebushes were still in flower on November Day. One had pale pink buds that opened up slightly and the other was almost full of salmon-colored flowers. Each petal has a golden-yellow border at its base. The allegedly octogenarian roses were vibrant and alive.

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. It is no surprise that a socialist, utilitarian, pragmatic person or pragmatist would plant fruit trees. They have tangible economic value and provide food. 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:

These were inquiries about his and our identities and about where enjoyment and beauty, hours without quantifiable results, fit in the lives of people who care about justice, truth, and human rights, and about how we can make the world a better place.

Rose painting and poem by the Civil Rights activist Sarah Mapps Douglass — the first surviving artwork signed by an African-American woman. Available as both a printed copy and 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.

In its simplest sense, a rose is ineffective. Asking the utility of roses is asking about the metric of love and the meaning of birds. 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. It is, for me, my cello. It’s the forest. It’s the Meyer lemon that I started from seed and is now flourishing on my Brooklyn window sill.

Orwell was aware of this. He articulated this with rare clarity in his essay Why I Write. This inspired many writers to think the same.

Anybody who examines my work can see that it even though it seems like propaganda contains many things that would be considered irrelevant by a full-time politician. The world view I grew up with is something I cannot and will not abandon. As long as I am alive, I will continue to be passionate about prose and love the earth. I also enjoy the pleasure of solid and useless information. That side of me cannot be hidden. It is up to me now to be able reconcile those ingrained feelings with the more public and non-individual activities this age demands of 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. His last stage of life was filled with 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, Muriel and his goat. 1939. 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. In this situation, it seems to me that maturity could be measured by realizing that you can’t have genuine devotion and devotion to fighting those forces that devastate the world without genuine love for the smallest manifestations that make the planet a place, and life on this earth.

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:

This was not a very attractive slogan. However, it made a strong argument for the fact that much more than bodily health and survival were essential. It was also a demand as a human right. The argument was made against the idea of reducing all that humans need to tangible, quantifiable goods and conditions. These declarations were filled with roses that symbolized the complexity of human beings, their desires and how they are often complicated. They also indicated that we are dependent on each other for our survival.

Paul Davis created a 1978 poster that repurposed the Civil Rights slogan from the suffragist slogan. (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:

Roses are a symbol of pleasure, enjoyment, self-determination and inner life. Owners and bosses seek to crush workers, but there is also opposition from other left factions who deny the need for these things. There have been many people who argue that enjoying oneself when others are suffering is a callous, immoral act. 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. Many would-be revolutionaries argue that the only thing that matters is quantifiable. Human beings need to be rational and content with how they should work. 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. Roses are also a symbol of 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. There is pleasure in beauty. The beauty that has meaning. Orwell sought refuge in domestic and natural spaces. He repaired them frequently and returned from them to wage war against lies, cruelty, and follies.

Her sentiment is particularly relevant to the types of lasting sustenance needed for facing the ecological crises ahead, she says:

Vermeer’s painting supports stillness, looking at the canals and the blue color or paying attention to the Dutch bourgeoisie’s domestic life. 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. These wildlands are part of our psyche. They preserve the variety, complexity and the systems of renewal. Orwell was adamant about both the green spaces and gardens in his backyard and the metaphysics that allowed for free thought and unpoliced creativity.

Jonathan Burton’s art from the 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 says:

Society seeking to reinvent humanity wants to get down to the core of every person’s mind and rearrange them. While authoritarian regimes can manage bread, roses must be discovered by individuals and nurtured 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 looks back at the moment of terror and tenderness Orwell captured.

The lilacs don’t negate the corpse or the war but they complicate it, as the specific often does the general. It was the unheard hand that placed a flower bouquet on the soldier. The news also brought the information that lilacs had been planted in Stuttgart. This city, in 1945, was littered with rubble and shards from thousands of tons bombs that were dropped by British planes during World War II. 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 is a political entity in its own right. This includes how we think about, interact with and affect it. However, this wasn’t widely recognized. [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. Human beings live in both as political actors, citizens of this or that place, seats for thoughts and opinions, and as biological entities, which include eating, sleeping, excreting, and breeding temporary objects like flowers.

Orwell’s Roses is a sweeping, delicately interleaved, uncondensable read in its entirety. It can be complemented with Michael Pollan’s flower-bed epiphany which revealed Virginia Woolf the meaning of art and Michael Pollan’s radical history and evolution of gardening. Finally, you will revisit Rebecca Solnit about growing up and growing whole. Her antidote for despair during difficult times and her beautiful letter to children on how reading shapes us and saves our lives.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.


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