Writers outside higher education make use of the same methods used by qualitative researchers – those of participant observation, interviewing and document analysis. In her book Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit (2021) used these methods, along with a rhizomatic thought process (p. 125) to explore the connections emanating from author George Orwell’s mention of planting roses in his garden at his home in the village of Wallington in 1936. Solnit’s collection of essays explores numerous topics relevant to the present day. Her journey began with a passage by Orwell that a reader might well skip over:
One of the fruit trees and one of the rose bushes died, but the rest are all flourishing. The sum total is five fruit trees, seven roses and two gooseberry bushes, all for twelve and sixpence.(Solnit, 2021, p. 8)
Thinking about Orwell’s interest in roses led Solnit to think about what roses represent, how we think about gardening, and how both roses and gardens are inextricably embedded in human relationships with nature and the cultural contexts in which we live. Solnit explores issues to do with class, race, and the economy, among others. Orwell’s Roses is a collection of essays organized in seven parts, loosely arranged to connect with different periods of Orwell’s life and writing. Many of the essays begin with the sentence, “In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” And from there, in each essay, Solnit takes readers on journeys to different parts of the world.
The book begins by introducing readers to Eric Blair, who was born in 1903 to Richard Walmesley Blair, a sub deputy opium agent who worked for the British government (p. 167) in northern India. Blair later took the name George Orwell and went on to write books that are known and studied worldwide. Solnit introduces us to Orwell, his slave-owning ancestors, and Orwell’s interests and ideologies. There is so much to learn from this book. Through Solnit’s exploration of Orwell’s life and writing, we become acquainted with the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell fought and was injured before returning to England. We cross paths with Tina Modotti, who migrated from Italy to the US, and became a photographer, before moving to Mexico where readers learn about her abandonment of photography in later life and her involvement in the communist movement. Readers travel to the former U.S.S.R. where we learn about not only Joseph Stalin’s interest in lemon trees, but the terrible atrocities he perpetrated. In Bogotá, Columbia, we accompany Solnit and her guide on a tour of a vast greenhouse in which poorly paid workers cultivate, pick and pack millions of roses for markets all over the world. Solnit’s essays take in a wide range of topics: the use of fossil fuels and the impact on climate change, labor relations, and one of Orwell’s abiding interests — how totalitarian regimes develop. For example, on totalitarianism, Solnit quotes a passage from Orwell written in 1944:
“The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future,” a framework that would morph into Big Brother’s “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
(Solnit, 2021, p. 145)
The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase what has happened, silence the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes.
(Solnit, 2021, p. 145)
She writes that Orwell was “passionately committed to language as a contract crucial to all other contracts” (p. 221). In his writing (both in his essays and the novel 1984), we learn how in Solnit’s words,
lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect. In withholding or distorting knowledge or imparting falsehood, a liar deprives others of the information they need to participate in public and political life, to avoid dangers, to understand the world around them, to act on principle, to know themselves and others and the situation, to make good choices, and ultimately to be free.(Solnit, 2021, p. 221)
This collection is not only an example of the excellent application of using qualitative research methods to explore topics of interest, but a provocation for readers to think about what we value in life, how we communicate with others, and how atrocities are made possible. Solnit comments that gardens, of and by themselves are not apolitical – and reminds readers that in Voltaire’s Candide, when retreating to his garden, there is no suggestion that Candide “is just recharging preparatory to returning to the fray” (p. 150). Through exploring the “enclosures” established in the 18th and 19th centuries in England (“enclosing” erased the “commons” and villages, and consolidated land ownership among the wealthy – this was perpetrated by a series of parliamentary acts), Solnit reminds us of the hard work involved in working the land. She suggests that although “there might be virtuous ways to love nature,” “the love of nature is not guarantor of virtue” (p. 156).
Solnit’s book is much more than a meditation on roses. These essays highlight Orwell’s focus on how we can make a life by attending to the every day and find beauty in the mundane. Prior to reading Orwell’s Roses, I knew little about Orwell the man and his writing beyond his books Animal Farm and 1984. This book inspired me to begin a re-reading of 1984 and Animal Farm. As we contemplate a world in which multiple calamities are occurring simultaneously, Solnit’s review of Orwell’s life and work is a timely reminder that:
All art is propaganda, Orwell noted, and nature is political. So are gardens. Trees. Water. Air. Soil. Weather.(Solnit, 2021, p. 154)
Solnit, R. (2021). Orwell’s roses. Viking.