Orwell’s Roses, by Rebecca Solnit, Granta, 320 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1783788620
The Brazilian rubber tapper, labour activist and environmentalist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated by a rancher in the Amazon in 1988, reportedly once said that “ecology without class struggle is just gardening”. The aphorism is often deployed to remind less radical environmentalists that questions of social and economic justice have to be at the centre of their concerns. Gardening, a hobby seen as the preserve of the relatively privileged few, becomes a slur in this context, typifying a tendency of the green movement to value nature primarily as a space for merely private contemplation or spiritual nourishment, a refuge rather than a battleground.
One of the effects of climate breakdown is that it is gradually and irreversibly rendering all politics climate politics, whether we like it or not. This is a disorienting situation, to say the least. It means that traditional, much cherished conceptions of nature as something separate from society, and from the sinful humans who would do it harm, become obsolete. What we call nature is no Garden of Eden – it is not a paradise and we were never cast out of it. Instead it is a collaboration between human and nonhuman beings seeking mutually enriching coexistence on a finite planet. But perhaps this shift in our thinking about nature also means reassessing the politics of gardens. This is what Rebecca Solnit suggests through a series of fascinatingly digressive and wide-ranging reflections on the roses George Orwell planted in the garden of his cottage in Hertfordshire in the spring of 1936.
This period marked the key turning point in Orwell’s life, when he went from being what Solnit describes as a partly successful novelist with a curmudgeonly affection for old-fashioned English ways, to a fierce political essayist and prophet of dystopia. The transformative event was the Civil War in Spain, for which he departed at the age of thirty-three in the winter after he’d planted those roses. His experiences among the communists fighting Franco, recorded in his book Homage to Catalonia, marked him indelibly. He emerged from the war a committed revolutionary socialist with a hatred for all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, whether right-wing or left-wing, having witnessed at first hand Stalinist repression of supposed Trotskyists in the Spanish trenches. An already-existing hostility to ideological rigidity and officialdom was intensified in the writer.
Solnit, a leading American cultural critic, feminist and environmental activist, is less interested in dissecting Orwell’s political consciousness than in asking where his love of roses and gardening fit into it. Despite his decades-long influence on her work, she encounters Orwell anew through his horticultural efforts, of which he kept a charmingly straightforward diary that Solnit returns to again and again. Through this and other avenues, she seeks out an Orwell very different from the one most of us know — an Orwell who could bore you to tears with his detailed knowledge of shrubs and the superiority of sixpenny Woolworths roses, an Orwell of wheelbarrows and well-earned cups of tea, who lamented the loss of common English names for flowers to the fancy Greek nomenclatures of science. Solnit observes how her second book, the superb Savage Dreams from 1994, which documented a grassroots campaign against nuclear weapons testing in the deserts of Nevada, echoes Homage to Catalonia in how it interweaves a personal and subjective narrative with a bigger historical one. The two Orwells, she argues, come together in this precarious balancing of the private and the personal – even the seemingly apolitical – against the crushing weight of history and its techniques of power. To love a sixpenny rose, or the wild roses of northeastern Nevada’s Shoshone territory, hardly seems a political act, but it becomes so within a larger social and historical story.
At the same time, Solnit avers, “love of nature is no guarantor of virtue”. This is certainly true, as Stalin’s curious dream of growing lemon trees inside the Arctic Circle demonstrates. But this is where the book becomes somewhat evasive. Solnit addresses the colonial nostalgia implicit (and sometimes explicit) in idealising portrayals of the English countryside, but she largely glosses over how all of this is connected to Orwell’s own sentimental anglophilia and his faith in the common folk. During the 1941 Blitz, he wrote in a famous essay that the English
are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official …
Solnit refers to the passage but does not critique its cultural nativism or the ridiculous claim made in the essay that the plain people of England would never allow totalitarianism to take root in their land precisely because of their natural immunity against the official culture of states and flags and military uniforms, the British empire notwithstanding. If they tolerate such things from their upper classes, it is with a dismissive roll of the eyes. Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in England precisely in order to show the lengths needed to break the national character. Britain’s Marxist intellectuals, on the other hand, were dangerous in Orwell’s view because they were “Europeanised”, their commitment to socialism a russophilic nationalism at odds with the values of the working classes. One seriously wonders whether he would have been a Brexit supporter. Near the end of his life, he notoriously drew up a list of potentially subversive writers and sent it to the British Foreign Office. One name on the list was the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, who did indeed admire the USSR but whose anti-Englishness was for Orwell a red flag in and of itself.
Much of this goes unremarked by Solnit. Orwell’s sexism is largely given a pass too. But then again, a comprehensive picture or rounded biography is clearly not her aim. Her attention to the writer’s life and work is a way to pose much more far-reaching and urgent questions about the role of beauty in the face of existential threats, and she does this with stylistic flair and characteristic insight. When she visits, near the opening of the book, what remains of Orwell’s cottage and sees roses that may well have been the ones he planted in 1936, she is struck by how human lives are intertwined with nonhuman ones whose quiet feats of endurance are rarely attended to. “In an age of lies and illusions,” she writes, “the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time.”
Gardens are too easily dismissed as ornamental or prettified nature. But it is the intimacy between aesthetic pleasure and the sheer endurance of growing things that lies at the heart of Solnit’s concerns. Beauty can be a form of resistance. The famous slogan “bread and roses”, which emerged out of the women’s suffrage movement in early twentieth century America and became a symbol of workers’ rights, embodies how radical politics must go beyond a mere demand for the necessities of subsistence. Orwell’s Roses thus fits into a long-standing debate on the American left regarding the possibility of recognising pleasure, play and joy as insurrectionary forces. Though it may frustrate some, Solnit’s essayistic style takes unabashed pleasure in meandering between topics as random as Jaffa Cakes and Ralph Lauren chintz, wandering far from the beaten path of Orwell for chapters at a time. The writing is informed by its subject matter, the reader comes to realise: gardens, while promising the neat lines of careful cultivation, are often unruly, tangled, joyfully wayward places.
Orwell’s Roses deals with ugliness too. Some of the book’s most compelling passages appear in the sections where Solnit visits a vast industrial “rose farm” in Bogotá, which churns out millions of roses a year for the US-owned Sunshine Bouquet Company. In dozens of greenhouses the size of football fields, non-unionised workers suffer repetitive strain injuries and the sickly, mass-produced flowers never properly bloom. Both human and botanical life here are forced to work to the unrelenting rhythms of consumer capitalism, under conditions that genuinely may be called “Orwellian”. What meaning could a Valentine’s Day rose, produced in such a way, possibly have? Whatever beauty such flowers might have is eclipsed by the ugliness of their production. Capitalism does not just alienate us from nature, it alienates nature from itself. Solnit puts it powerfully:
The idea of an immense airplane whose sole freight was roses burning its carbon and rushing high over the Caribbean to deliver its burden to people who would never know of all that lay behind the roses they picked up in the supermarket was maybe as perfect an emblem of alienation as you could find.
Again, there are interesting parallels with Solnit’s Savage Dreams. Orwell doesn’t appear in that book, but roses do. She remarks, for example, that footage of nuclear bombs detonated in weapons testing on Bikini Atoll resembles “roses in a time-lapse nature film, blooming and withering with a power that is fascinatingly terrible”. The combination of beauty with ugliness here is strikingly captured in this temporal image evoking the slow growth of the flower and the instant devastation of the blast. The same image reappears at one point in Orwell’s Roses and the name of one of the varieties of factory-farmed roses she mentions is “Bikini”. In places like Bikini Atoll and Nevada, the American military tested over one thousand nuclear bombs from 1945 to the end of the Cold War. The indigenous peoples of these lands were moved from their homes, but many have suffered the effects of radiation in the form of cancers and other health conditions. The Shoshone Indians are perhaps the most bombed nation on Earth, having suffered an unfathomable 900 weapons tests on their Nevadan territory. The history of these tests is largely unknown.
Savage Dreams compares this to another history, also relatively unknown, or at least rarely mentioned. Yosemite Park in California, one of America’s most famous wilderness areas, was dubbed a “garden of Eden” in the late nineteenth century by the German-American Romanticist painter Albert Bierstadt. European colonists had for centuries been obsessed with the idea that paradise could be rediscovered in the New World. Columbus himself believed he was on the verge of finding the biblical garden as he sailed up the Orinoco river in 1498. The establishment of the National Parks in places such as Yosemite around the turn of the twentieth century was essentially a continuation of this in a more secular and ostensibly nature-loving way. John Muir, generally regarded as the father of the American environmental movement, helped establish the National Parks, which involved forced evictions of indigenous peoples from lands they had called home for thousands of years. The view of nature as a picture-perfect Eden did not include people, and certainly not indigenous people, whom Muir viewed as unclean, a blemish on the pristine landscape. If the Nevada Test Site was Armageddon, here was Utopia.
As Solnit notes, Muir’s vision of nature as Eden excluded not only society and politics but such profane practicalities as daily toil. But for Orwell – for whom utopian schemes were dangerous folly – a love of gardening denotes the exact opposite of a world of perpetual leisure. The gardens at his Hertfordshire cottage and then, late in his life, on the Scottish island of Jura, were sites not only of aesthetic pleasure but also hard work done for the pure joy of it. We must go beyond both Muir’s paradisal wilderness and the ugly, exploitative ecologies of the Sunshine Bouquet Company in order to imagine a sustainable environmental future. This seems to be the central message of Orwell’s Roses, a book which, despite its partial view of the English writer, offers a compelling synthesis of aesthetics, ecology and the politics of hope.
Aidan Tynan teaches in the School of English at the University of Cardiff. His research cuts across ecocriticism and the environmental humanities, modern and contemporary literature, Deleuze and Guattari studies, critical theory and continental philosophy.