Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

“As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state.”

Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

This is the great and terrifying truth about the creative life: Anything we make — all this longing for beauty and meaning, all these reckonings and raptures, these most passionate and personal fragments of being — is just a tiny seed compacting everything we are, blown into the wind that is the world.

Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later — and we can never fully know, or know at all, when or where or how they might.

But in that uncertainty is also our redemption — the thing that sets the artist, that civilizational gardener of eternal ideas, apart from the politician or the entrepreneur or any other harvester of seasonal urgencies.

Rebecca Solnit — one of the eternals of our time — explores this in some lovely passages from her unsummarizably magnificent book Orwell’s Roses (public library).

Rebecca Solnit before her 2020 Universe in Verse performance.

She writes:

It is difficult to know what you’re doing, when you will finish it and whether it was correct. You also don’t know how your work will be perceived months, years or even decades later. The only thing it actually does is to be invisible and take place in the thoughts of people that you’ll never meet or hear from. Writing is a way to disconnect and withdraw from the outside world. This allows you to be connected to the wider world through the shared words. The vividness of the writing lies not in its impact on the senses, but in what happens in the imagination. You can write about a battle, a birth or even a smell.

She then adds her voice to the great writer canon whose garden anchored their art.

Gardening offers the exact opposite to the unanswered uncertainties that writing can create. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect… To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In this age of lies, illusions, and confusion, the garden provides a place to anchor yourself within the world of growth, time passage, the laws of physics and meteorology and hydrology.

Elemental ForcesMaria Popova. Available as both a printed copy and stationery cards.

And yet this is the paradox of the creative life: The world of ideas needs the world of atoms and forces — to believe otherwise is to dial back the centuries and go on perpetrating that amply confuted Cartesianism of regarding the life of the body as separate from the life of the mind. These same forces are at work in our lives. Hydrologies for walking. You can create portable worlds using weather systems that are biochemistry-based and feel. Moving bodies through spacetime in which other bodies are present.

These physical variables, and their interactions with each other, shape ideas. They also shape interdependent chance configurations of variables that we experience as self. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. Leaves of GrassOr Beloved if Whitman’s and Morrison’s minds had been rooted in different bodies and different spacetimes.

If anyone knows this, of course, it is Rebecca Solnit — she who writes so beautifully about how the way we move shapes the way we think and about how the landscape colors the mind with feeling; she who thinks so deeply about trees and the shape of time; she who devotes two years of her life to writing a song of a book about how Orwell’s rose garden shaped his ideas.

Flowers by Clarissa Munger Badger — the artist who seeded Emily Dickinson’s botanial inspiration. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed version. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

Complement with two centuries of beloved writers on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening, then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s stirring letter to tomorrow’s readers about why we read and write.

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