Orwell’s Roses

“It is only very rarely, when I make a definitive mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines,” wrote George Orwell of shoveling coal into the fire to keep warm in London. He wrote this The Road to Wigan Pier, his reporting on the horrific condition in northern England’s coal mines in the 1930s.  

Rebecca Solnit’s new book Orwell’s Roses is a meditation on keeping body and soul together in dark times. Orwell—shot by fascists, hunted and blacklisted by Stalinists, maimed by TB—knew some dark days indeed. Candide famously retires to the garden, but Orwell gardened in between his work. This was his re-creation. (Note how the word “recreation” has been tamed.) The titular roses are the ones he planted and tended, some of which may still be around today. They are also more symbolic: the roses of the famous “bread and roses,” the things we fight for. Sustenance for both body and soul.

Solnit calls the “invisibility” and “obliviousness” of where things come from and the price some people pay for this—which is different from the cost to those who buy the things— “one of the defining conditions of the modern world.” 

The paradigmatic historical case is sugar in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. The sweetness came from slavery. Abolitionists boycotted it, but most people slurped it up in all its bloody horror. As it happens, sugar production today is often a very grim affair, with brutal working conditions in fields as close as Florida, where the industry also insists on burning the fields after harvesting to the detriment of health of Floridians and the earth. M&M’s recent rebranding hides the child labor behind the empire of chocolate. 

Exploitation of people and planet undergirds us all. 

Just think of the supposedly effortless “one-click” ordering that the internet gives us as an option. It’s like magic, isn’t it?  I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, so I was surprised to learn that the wizarding world is based by the slavery of the elves. So much, indeed, for magic. 

Consider the steps it takes to get that thing to one’s door, all that is hidden in the SHOP or BUY button. The extraction of the raw materials. The manufacturing of the components and/or the whole. The transportation and distribution and sub-distribution—like from a warehouse built on wetlands in Staten Island, say— and the UPSFEDEXAMAZON truck parked dangerously at a crazy angle in the crosswalks below at the T-intersection. 

In a book very much about bread and roses, the twin necessities of life, Solnit travels to Colombia, where most of the U.S.’s cut roses come from. The rose factories, which is what they are, ringing Bogota grind up workers (“Roses for lovers, thorns for us” say workers who must work 100 hour work weeks in advance of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day) and massively pollute the land, water, air, soil with pesticides. 

Humans have extracted rose scent since the thirteenth century BCE, but today most commercial cut roses have no scent. 

The violence of mining; the brutality of the factory; the virtually lawlessness of international shipping; the frantic domestic trucking system; the prison-like warehouses of constant surveillance . All the violence and the pain, all the soul-crushing—too many people have decided it is worth it without even thinking about it all.

“Nature itself is immensely political, in how we imagine, interact with, and impact it.” (RS)

“Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat.” (RS)

“Our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.” (GO)

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