Bread and roses

What do Putin, Wigan and gardening have in common? With flowers planted in 1936 as her starting point, writer, activist and historian Rebecca Solnit tells us in her latest book, Orwell’s Roses

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When Rebecca Solnit moved to San Francisco as a student in 1981 she found an atmosphere of gender violence in which merely existing as a woman was perilous. By immersing herself in protest movements, the gay community and punk rock, she was liberated to find her voice as both a writer and an activist.

These formative experiences are recounted in her 2020 memoir Recollections of my Nonexistence – one of more than 20 books the social historian has penned exploring art, feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster. Her 2014 book, Men Explain Things To Me, brought her mainstream success and she is now a regular columnist for the Guardian, sharing her thoughts on everything from the climate emergency to US politics and women’s rights.

In her latest book, Orwell’s Roses (Granta), Solnit uses the flowers planted by the English writer and critic in his cottage garden in Hertfordshire in 1936 as a starting point to meander through both pastoral and political landscapes, historical and contemporary. It considers the events that shaped Orwell as well as the optimism that countered his dystopian view. But it is no more a biography of Orwell than it is of roses, which, she argues, represent joy as an act of resistance and symbolise life itself. Solnit uses her framework to explore everything from coal consumption to the delusions of Putin.

In what way was Orwell’s garden a reaction to what he’d witnessed in the North of England while researching The Road to Wigan Pier?
He came straight from the bleak and deadly landscape of the industrialised and coal-fouled North to this cottage in Wallington and began building a real garden, after years of only having allotment plots, and we know he was a passionate and devoted gardener, raising quite a bit of his own food. There were chickens, and eventually goats, as well as the considerable vegetable plantings. Nothing says it was a direct and conscious reaction, but the contrast must have been striking to him. I suspect he noticed not only the contrast in landscapes but in labour – directly producing stuff on your own terms is one way to escape the alienation and oppression of fragmented, atomised industrial labour, in which workers are small cogs in big machines with little to no decision-making power and creativity.

Tell us about your climate project Not Too Late, its aims and what you mean when you say the climate crisis is an imagination crisis and a storytelling crisis.
Not Too Late is a project to first of all tell the despairing that it is not too late to choose the better options on climate, that the deal is not sealed. And then it’s an argument not for optimism, which means sitting around presuming we’ll be okay, but for hopeful engagement in action to make the future we want. There’s a crisis of imagination – including the people who can’t imagine the planet we’re on has been dangerously destabilised, and those who do but don’t imagine that we have the solutions and that there’s still time to steer clear of the worst-case scenarios, and finally those who imagine we can do something but imagine that it will be all renunciation and austerity. In fact, giving up fossil fuels is giving up literal and political poison, and much of what we need to renounce is the worst stuff in the present world order, from overconsumption and extremes of inequality to poor designs in everyday life and lack of confidence in the future. So part of the work is to tell better stories about what we can do and have and how to get there and how utterly worthwhile it is to do the work.

You have pointed out the “blood-drenched irony” and “malignant patriarchy” of regulating abortion while deregulating guns in America. Is it possible the Texas shooting may finally lead to gun control?
I’m not holding my breath, because while states across the US have made significant progress, the industry-backed cult of the gun continues, and federal action will be hard to achieve. But yeah, Texas in particular is taking away the most basic rights of bodily self-determination from anyone who might get pregnant and giving others the right to carry weapons of war that can kill dozens in a few minutes. So we’re seeing one sector’s rights shrink into nothing and another’s expand so monstrously that they take away everyone else’s right to safety.

Do you think the Biden administration may protect Roe v Wade? 
They will do what they can, but if the Supreme Court overturns it, it’s Congress that can pass laws or even a constitutional amendment overruling this reckless and illegitimate Supreme Court.

Are Putin’s actions in Ukraine an expression of the same “malignant patriarchy” behind gun and abortion laws or are there other forces at play? 
Putin seems to be both a rather typical angry man who is obsessed with control and domination and cannot cope with not getting his way. He is also quite consciously leading a global white Christian nationalist movement and misogyny, homophobia, racism, and hatred of Jews and Muslims are all part of it. Too, his regime quite explicitly infiltrated the US’s National Rifle Association as part of its agenda to meddle in US politics and create conflict in US society. So yeah, basically.

Will the world be forced to reassess the value and purpose of bread now there’s a global wheat shortage, and do you think Ukraine will be able to plant roses once more? 
Well the invasion of Ukraine, shuttering of its ports, stealing of hundreds of tons of its grain, and disruption of its agriculture looks to be producing a global food crisis. But I suspect the poor never stopped valuing bread.

With fresh debate about street harassment and women’s safety, do you have any advice to women and girls trying to navigate this landscape or do we need to target our advice to men and boys?
Do what you need to survive, but never forget that women, queer people, people of colour and everyone should have the right to walk down the street and generally move freely in the world without fear of attack for who or what they are. And that our safety should be not left to us but ardently defended by our societies and institutions.

What remains outrageous and seldom addressed is the sheer entitlement of violence, the entitlement to harm, to violate, to take a life, and what gives men and boys (who commit the lion’s share of such violence) the sense that they have the right to do it, that it somehow enhances rather than degrades their identity, and that it will give them some sort of satisfaction. Changing all that seems essential too.

The gentrification of San Francisco and the resulting poverty and homelessness is well documented. What lessons can other cities learn from it?
That what we call wealth, when it’s concentrated at the top, produces poverty and privation, not prosperity. There’s no trickle-down in systems designed to pump uphill.

As an activist and writer your concerns are varied. In the internet age do you think we are too quick to align ourselves with one cause/stance or is there still a role for what used to be called public intellectuals?
I think that acknowledging the underlying themes that connect these issues is really important work, so yes to public intellectuals, and a bigger yes to visionaries and dreamers drawing maps of those connections.

Hope is a recurring theme throughout your work and is present in both Orwell’s Roses and Recollections of My Nonexistence. How, as an essayist whose muse is often the most urgent issues of our time, do you continue to summon it?
Hope for me is a recognition that the future is in many respects both uncertain and something we may be able to help shape. My hope draws on past histories of popular power, victories, on the sheer unexpectedness of many twists and turns in recent history – from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet satellite states in 1989 to the rise of a renewable energy revolution adequate to let us leave the age of fossil fuels behind. Too, it’s the long-term view. Have the last few years been great for women? I’d say the record is mixed, but even if they’ve been terrible, the picture of the last 60 years will remind you that we are well into a revolution on women’s roles, status, power, and access, and that means changing things that are millennia old.

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