LOVING THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH: ORWELL'S ROSES, with REBECCA SOLNIT
Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist. Her long bibliography epitomizes her wide ranging humanitarian interests – from politics, to cultural geography, to feminism, to environmentalism and an abiding love of the earth herself. Solnit's many books include Wanderlust, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Far Away Nearby, Men Explain Things to Me, and Orwell’s Roses, “a lush exploration of politics, roses, and pleasure, and a fresh take on George Orwell as an avid gardener whose political writing was grounded [and sometime refueled] by his passion for the natural world."
Solnit is to many people's mind's, one of the great critical thinkers and writers of our time, her 2021 title – Orwell’s Roses is an inquiry into another great writer, of the previous century, George Orwell, and his life-long love and dedication to land, plants, and gardening.
Solnit’s tracing of this little-plumbed aspect to Orwell's life leads to whole new readings of Orwell, as well as striking insights on just what constitutes resistance, how we each make meaning, and the human impulse to garden as well.
In the course of the book, and her years researching and writing it, Solnit dives into not just Orwell's surprising love of roses, but a great diversity of, related, ideas such as
Orwell’s emphatic defense of liberty, and what "liberty" means to each of us, including our own ability to choose what it means, and the importance of beauty as a necessity to our humanity. Throughout the work, she deftly compares and contrasts the idea of "bread" - what which we need to survive - and "roses" - those aspects of pleasure and beauty that might be different for each of us, but which for any of us make life meaningful and worth living.
In many ways, Orwell's Roses is as well as incisive look back at the legacy of British colonialism (which can be seen as stand in for all colonialism), cultural, political, and environmental policy and a celebration of gardening in one view AS an act of liberty, beauty, resistance, and regeneration for the fight on behalf of the earth and our own best nature as humans cohabitating will all other lives here. Solnit is, however, courageous enough to not leave her exploration at that, but to trace as well the other side of gardening - as an expression of capitalism, extraction, control, and a show of un-mitigated power and totalitarianism - she does this via stories of "gardening" in the hands of Stalin, of Orwell's own ancestors deeply-enmeshed in the economic benefits of enslavement and the labor of the enslaved, and finally in a journey Solnit makes to Columbia to witness for herself the vast environmentally-degrading, often human-rights-diminishing industry of commercial rose growing in Colombia. Wherein a "rose" becomes the antithesis of beauty, liberty, and "loving the surface of the earth."
The entire book is thought-provoking and powerfully affecting as to the role of gardening - and beautiful life - for any of us.
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Solnit all rights reserved; bio photo of Ms. Solnit by Trent Davis Bailey. Images of extant roses planted by Orwell at his Wallington home, by Rebecca Solnit. Images of Orwell's Wallington home from internet open source images.
Rebecca Solnit is a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian, you can follow Rebecca Solnit online at: http://rebeccasolnit.net/biography/; and on Instagram: @rebeccasolnit/
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Speaking of Plants and Place.....
Speaking of Plants and Place, this week what else? The wonder, beauty, diversity, fragrance, resistance and pure pleasure of roses…native roses that is.
March is not only Women’s History Month, but also the general season of rose pruning, and a time when a great selection of bare-root roses are or will soon be available and shipping out to gardeners from our nurseries and catalogues.
Anyone who has listened to me for any length of time, knows I love roses. And they can be one of those hot topics in the garden world – a sort of flash point between ecological gardens and nightmarish visions of over-fed, over-sprayed, over-bred monoculture hybrid tea rose gardens of old. A very clear either/or conversation - but rose lovers need not despair, there is so much room for and/also. We can have our roses AND also our ecological function in the form of pollinator and bird food, and excellent habitat.
Organic old world old garden roses, especially the single open flowering varieties, interplanted with native flowering herbaceous plants or shrubs, are one way to move your rose love in this direction, but so too are native shrub roses!
They don’t hold up quite as long in a vase or an arrangement, but they make for great hedges and additions to the back of borders or hedgerow style plantings. They feature the sweetest little rosy faces in spring and intermittently into summer, have nice fresh green foliage, and then often fantastic and colorful (and edible/medicinal) rose hips – ranging from bright red, to orange, to purple, in the late summer and fall.
Rosa, the namesake genus of the rose family Rosaceae, same family as apples by the way, is one of the fabulous plant kin whose members are almost everywhere we as humans are, and historically they’ve often been carried with us as we move around the globe, although they are native primarily in the temperate Northern Hemisphere.
There are more than a handful of native species and subspecies of wild rose in California, including Rosa californica, Rosa gymnocarpa, the wood rose, Rosa nutkana, the Nootka Rose, and Rosa spithamea, sometimes called the Sonoran rose, or ground rose, and Rosa woodsii, the Mojave Rose. In Benjamin Vogt’s new ecological garden book Prairie Up!, he highlights the prairie wild rose, Rosa arkansana; in the native plant primer for the Pacific Northwest, plants people Kristin Currin and Drew Merritt recommend both Rosa nutkana and Rosa woodsii; in my cousin’s backyard garden in Charlottesville, Virginia, summer mornings are accented by the native bumble bees extravagantly enjoying her very manageable hedge of native Rosa virginiana, and in Ben Whitacre’s review of north American Roses for "Mother Earth Gardener," he highlights the Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera), native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri and Texas, and the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri.
While the wild roses are quite adaptable to a wide variety of soils, and are even remarkably drought adapted once established, they are all pretty vigorous growers if they are happy – so keep appropriate size and space in mind, or surrender yourselves to the joys (and jabs) of significant annual rose pruning to keep them in check as needed for space, neighborly etiquette, fire prevention, etc. But if you have the room – do not keep these beauties in check, and they will become robust rose thickets of bloom, and hip, songbirds, bees, and butterflies the whole year round.
For good native roses for your area, seek suggestions from your local native plant society, botanic garden, rose society, or independent native plant nursery and turn your rose love into lovely habitat too.
Thinking out loud this week:
I want to share with you a few passages from Orwell’s Roses: this first one from the very first chapter: "Day of the Dead." Solnit is writing about the history and meaning of trees in general:
“The oldest redwood in Muir Woods is 1200 years old, so more than half of its time on earth had passed before the first Europeans showed up in what they would call California. A tree planted tomorrow that lived as long would be standing in the thirty-third century AD, and it would be short-lived compared to the bristle cones a few hundred miles east, which can live five thousand years. Trees are an invitation to think about time and to travel in it the way they do, by standing still and reaching out and down. If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parts, and gardens.”
I like that invitation, as Solnit sees it, from trees: to stand still and reach out and down. Deeper still.
In another passage from Orwell’s Roses, Solnit is writing about how she perceives Orwell’s first adult garden with its fruit trees and roses in the aftermath of returning home to England from War, well before he had begun to conceive of his dystopian novel 1984:
“the gesture of planting the roses and launching the garden could mean a thousand things, but for now let it mean a collaboration with the world of and work of plants, the establishment and tending of a few more carbon sequestering, oxygen producing organisms, the desire to be agrarian, settled, to bet on a future in which the roses and trees would bloom for years, and the latter would bear fruit in decades to come or even, as he wrote, a century hence. To garden is to make whole again what has been shattered: the relationships in which you are both producer and consumer, in which you reap the bounty of the earth directly, in which you understand fully how something came into being. It may not be significant in scale, but even if it’s a windowsill geranium high above a city street, if can be significant in meaning. He was thinking about the future and how to contribute to it when he advocated for the planting of trees as perhaps the most long-lasting gesture most humans can make. The man who planted those roses knew that to choose to be on the side of the plants also meant being on the side of the future.”
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