“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.”
Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit’s recently published book, is as much about George Orwell’s life as it is a botanical tour of the history of roses. When Orwell knelt in the dirt outside a small, rented cottage in Wallington, England, he did so during what Solnit describes as a “life shot through with wars.” Born in British India in 1903, Orwell reached adolescence during the First World War. The Russian Revolution and the Irish War of Independence raged into the beginning of his adulthood. During the lead-up to the Second World War, Orwell joined the Spanish Civil War in 1937 to fight Fascism and defend democracy. Before his death in 1945, he saw the rise of the Cold War and the threat of growing nuclear arsenals. The roses Orwell planted in his English garden were, in his mind, gifts to posterity — plants that, if they took root, would outlive the visible effect of any of our actions, good or evil.
Another gardener is highlighted in the parable told by Jesus in Luke 13:1-9. Preceding this parable, Jesus’s followers inform him about Galileans killed by Pilate and eighteen people in Siloam killed by a falling tower. The people of Israel commonly believed that those who experienced pain and suffering were being punished by God for their sin or the sins of their ancestors. But Jesus is quick to correct them: No, God is not a controlling dictator. God does not rule by threat and punishment. Instead, Jesus teaches of God’s divine mercy, giving us chance after chance to live righteously and bear good fruit. We could be the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, the one who mercifully gets another chance. Or we could be the gardener who labors in the field, tends to the soil, plants seeds that may or may not take root.
Orwell planted roses during a time of war, a time when beauty was difficult to find, but necessary and hoped for. Stalin’s Soviet Union was Orwell’s principal inspiration in contemplating larger questions about truth and fact, lies and manipulation and their consequences in his political novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He courageously critiqued the authoritarianism that made gods of power-hungry men who controlled through threat and coercion.
Stalin, Solnit writes, was also an aspiring gardener. He became obsessed with growing lemons in the postwar years after Churchill (or his daughter — the story varies) requested the sour fruit adorn his drink during the Yalta Conference in Ukraine. Stalin was convinced that he could produce his own citrus trees, forcing them, like he forced people, to produce past their natural limits. He had lemon trees planted at his country residence and issued merciless orders to his gardeners. Only one of the trees survived the bitter Russian winter.
For her research, Solnit traveled to the small Wallington cottage to see and smell Orwell’s roses for herself. At the end of her book, she wonders whether the commonly used word “Orwellian” should mean something other than ominous and corrupt. While his name brands a dishonest and destructive assault on truth and thought and rights, Orwell’s idealism, his value of and desire for joy and pleasure and the beauty of roses could also be deemed “Orwellian.” Solnit concludes her book contemplating the soul-destroying forces of today: the threat of authoritarianism, the wars raging against democracy. “The work [Orwell] did is everyone’s job now” she writes. “It always was.”
We are to labor in the field, planting in the faith and hope that God’s kin-dom will grow and bloom. By God’s mercy, we are given chance after chance.
Questions for reflection:
- Consider the garden of your church, your community, your soul. What seeds need to be planted, tended, and nurtured in order to bear good fruit?
- The season of Lent offers us another chance to repent and return to God. How can we best embrace God’s mercy in our lives and spiritual practice?
- The ugly forces of the world are currently on vivid display. Where are the roses blooming? Who have you witnessed tending to God’s garden?
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