Remind me never to buy roses from any vendor other than the farmer who grew them.
In Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit’s 2021 biography and appreciation of George Orwell, she devotes a chapter of the book to her visit to a site in Colombia where roses are factory-farmed — and where the problem is not the treatment of the product, but of the workers. They sort and trim plants treated with pesticides, putting in long hours for minimal pay, so that fresh flowers can be flown daily to the US and Europe — something like 6 million roses for Valentine’s Day and another 6 million for Mother’s Day.
Solnit’s report on this visit is an homage to Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), wherein the essayist examined the lives of workers in the industrial north of England. At one point he crawled underground to reach the coal face, which was more than a mile from the base of the elevator shaft, the air filled with choking coal dust, his hands and knees filthy within minutes, his clothes soaked with sweat. When back above ground, he could never stop thinking about what was going on below ground, all the time, to support his life of comparative ease.
As Frances Wilton wrote in her review of Solnit’s book*, that factory in Colombia “is Solnit’s coal mine, and her aim, like that of Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, is to make ‘visible what had been invisible.'”
Reading Solnit made me want to revisit Orwell’s essays, a small collection of which I still have from a university course I took in spring 1971.† I was pleased to be reminded of his anger, his commitment to democratic socialism, his disgust with the excuses made by people in power in defense of their obviously self-serving actions. He saw quickly through the lies people told themselves about the Soviet Union under Stalin — what they were willing to ignore in support of a dream that anyone willing to accept the truth could see had become a murderous nightmare.
Orwell wrote frequently about other writers and artists: Kipling, Dickens, Yeats, Dali, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, Arthur Koestler, and other less recognizable names (for instance, Charles Reade, and the comic postcard artist Donald McGill). For most of the authors Orwell showed admiration tempered with dismay at lost opportunities. For instance, Orwell believed that Twain chose to court popularity rather than challenge wealth and power: “[Twain] had in him an iconoclastic, even revolutionary vein which he obviously wanted to follow up and yet somehow never did follow up.” Orwell pointed out that Dickens’ writing is recognizable from the “unnecessary detail”, that Yeats had “Fascist tendencies”, whereas Kipling was not a Fascist.
Orwell had blindspots, which Solnit points out: he examined neither the lives that women led nor the patriarchy under which they lived, and he used homophobic epithets (“pansyish”, for example) to characterize male behavior of which he disapproved.
And yet: Orwell enjoyed puttering around a garden. He planted roses and fruit trees at a house he knew he would be leaving within just a few years. He planted them so that people in the future could enjoy their beauty. In one of his essays, he recommends such actions as penance for one’s sins. “[E]very time you commit an antisocial act, … make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.”
So, keep an eye out for acorns that need a shove in the right direction. You may frustrate a few squirrels, but, as Orwell wrote, if one out of 200 such acorns sprouts and grows, you could “end up as a public benefactor after all.”
*”‘Invitations to Dig Deeper'”, The New York Review of Books, February 24, 2022.
†If you don’t mind reading on your computer or smart phone, you can find an extensive gathering of Orwell’s essays here, courtesy Project Gutenberg Australia.