Orwell and Nature

In a fit of inability to do aught else, I have been thinking about Orwell and idly reading some of his essays. He is most known for his position in industrialized society, not least because of the dystopia he conjures in 1984 (particularly since Animal Farm is a poignant allegory rather than a true account of a farm). His other works typically focus on urban and industrial England. For example, Coming Up For Air is a dark comedy about the comforts of urban life and the nostalgia for lost nature. Sure, nature comes up a fair amount, but the theme is that that nature is a thing of the past. This side of Orwell stands in particular contrast to Hemingway, who is known for his hunting excursions and wilderness adventures–despite some of his most famous works being largely set in Paris.

Nonetheless, it seems that Orwell was more aware nature (as it were) than he seems at first glance. At the very least, his preoccupation with industrialized society seems to have made him keenly aware of the nature world besieged by industry. Curiously, he also indicates in his essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” that his readers did not appreciate any discussion of nature. In fact, he states: “I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually “sentimental”, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them.” He answers his critics by pointing out that his interest in nature is not due to sentimentality or his mere lack of familiarity with the soil (there is something to his argument, though he is clearly interested in discrediting his critics and may overplay his hand).

I have no real conclusion here. In Coming Up For Air there is a sense that there are two worlds, neither of which is fully real even though one of those two worlds no longer exists. In “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” Orwell reminds the reader that that the nature world does continue to exist and resist. Though some people may attempt to keep people from enjoying that natural world, they are not allowed to.

“I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. But I am aware that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians, and I am not suggesting that in order to enjoy the spring you have to take an interest in toads. There are also the crocus, the missel-thrush, the cuckoo, the blackthorn, etc. The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site…life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle…I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and–to return to my first instance–toads, 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.

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time 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. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. 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.”

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