George Orwell's Ode to Springtime
We do not think of the English novelist and essayist as a nature writer, but in fact he wrote as well—and at length—about nature as he wrote about everything else.
Two of his novels are among the most widely read books ever written. His stringent, clear-eyed chronicle of fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is the single most telling memoir from that heartrending conflict. His writings on topics ranging from poverty in North Africa and English pornographic postcards to Dickens, Shaw, Goebbels, and other literary and political figures are models of concision, insight and—frequently—a searing, hard-won anger.
But one particular trait that threads its way through so much of the work of the India-born writer Eric Arthur Blair, known to the world as George Orwell, is rarely discussed, and almost never celebrated: namely, the man’s profound love of the natural world.
That Orwell is not remembered as a pastoralist is hardly surprising. When readers only familiar with his most famous titles, 1984 and Animal Farm, consider the writer and the man, they’re likely to picture Orwell as a tubercular, glowering, nicotine-stained wretch, more comfortable scratching away in a cold-water London flat than strolling a sunlit meadow or working the soil in an English garden. Even the one book that Orwell set firmly in the country, Animal Farm, is hardly a paean to so-called rural values. It’s a delineation of toxic ideologies, power-mongering, and cynical betrayal—exactly the sort of vicious nonsense many of us associate with the maneuverings of city sophisticates, rather than ingenuous rustics.
But today, as much of the U.S. finally exhales after a winter that, at times, felt it would have no end, and as spring is now, in mid-May, well and truly upon us, many of Orwell’s nature-inflected writings rise up, inexorably, in memory, as sure and welcome as crocuses unfolding in the sun.
In an early chapter in 1984, for example, when Winston Smith is heading for an assignation with his lover, Julia (“a rebel from the waist downwards”), he walks a lane “through dappled light and shade, stepping out into pools of gold wherever the boughs parted. Under the trees to the left of him the ground was misty with bluebells. The air seemed to kiss one’s skin. It was the second of May. From somewhere deeper in the heart of the wood came the droning of doves.” The simplicity, the immediacy, the rightness of that brief description suggests that not only was Orwell familiar with exactly that sort of restorative, ex-urban experience, but that he saw in it a kind of antidote to the obdurate, bruising reality of so much of urban life—especially urban life as lived by the poor and working classes.
Many of Orwell’s books and his uniformly excellent essays feature, to one degree or another, passages extolling the quiet glories of nature: conscious respites from the grimmer landscapes of the author’s political explorations. For every bleak London slum or vile kitchen of a French restaurant, a prim, beloved garden. For every deadening trip into the suffocating dark of a coal mine, a journal entry hailing the beauty and the bounty of fruit trees Orwell planted with his own hands.
But his loveliest, longest, and, for those unfamiliar with this side of Orwell, his most unexpected hymn to nature’s wonders is a 1946 essay published under the misleadingly humdrum title “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” Here, in 1,600 words, all of the very best characteristics of Orwell’s essays are in evidence: his talent for launching, deftly and without preamble, into his theme; his matter-of-fact eloquence; his avoidance of cant; his empathy for the underdog; his wry humor; his reporter’s eye for the telling detail; his delight in elementary beauty.
Above all, however, the essay’s great strength and abiding charm reside in the evident pleasure Orwell takes not only in nature, but in sharing that appreciation with the reader. More so than in most of the man’s writings, one senses Orwell genuinely enjoying himself while crafting this particular piece.
“Before the swallow,” the essay begins, “before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water.” Leave it to Orwell to cite the standard heralds of spring—the swallow, the daffodil—but to ordain the common toad (and, at length, the common toad’s sex life) as an emblem of rebirth worth rhapsodizing.
“At this period, after his long fast,” Orwell goes on, “the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice what one might not at another time: that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-colored semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.”
That a staunch, self-described Democratic Socialist would, in a praising tone, ascribe a “spiritual look” to a toad is surprising enough; that the writer would also notice that the toad’s beautiful eye resembles the shading of a particular gemstone borders on the phenomenal.
But even as “Some Notes on the Common Toad” is filled with similar, seemingly un-Orwellian observations, the majority of which speak to a sensibility more aligned with John Muir than with Karl Marx, the man V.S. Pritchett famously called “the wintry conscience of a generation” is never quite out of the picture.
“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and toads,” Orwell maintains, “one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.”
It’s at the very end of this wonderful and defiantly optimistic essay, however, that the two better halves of Orwell—the man of nature and the tireless fighter against injustice—merge, and speak as one.
“How many a time,” he writes, “have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t … The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
This year, this spring, I’m with Orwell—a man who knew when to stop, look, and marvel at the world we’ve received, not simply rage or despair at the one we’ve made.