Day of the Dead
In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses. I had known this formore than three decades and never thought enough about whatthat meant until a November day a few years ago, when I was underdoctor’s orders to recuperate at home in San Francisco and was alsoon a train from London to Cambridge to talk with another writerabout a book I’d written. It was November 2, and where I’m fromthat’s celebrated as Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Backhome, my neighbors had built altars to those who had died in the pastyear, decorated with candles, food, marigolds, photographs of andletters to those they’d lost, and in the evening people were going topromenade and fill the streets to pay their respects at the open-airaltars and eat pan de muerto, bread of the dead, some of their facespainted to look like skulls adorned with flowers in that Mexican traditionthat finds life in death and death in life. In a lot of Catholicplaces, it’s a day to visit cemeteries, clean family graves, and adornthem with flowers. Like the older versions of Halloween, it’s a timewhen the borders between life and death become porous.
But I was on a morning train rolling north from King’s Cross inLondon, gazing out the window as London’s density dissipated intolower and lower buildings spread farther and farther apart. And then the train was rolling through farmland, with grazing sheep and cowsand wheat fields and clusters of bare trees, beautiful even under a wintrywhite sky. I had an errand or perhaps a quest to carry out. I waslooking for some trees—perhapsa Cox’s orange pippin apple tree andsome other fruit trees—for Sam Green, who’s a documentary filmmakerand one of my closest friends. He and I had been talking abouttrees, and more often emailing about them, for several years. Weshared a love for them and the sense that someday he might be makinga documentary about them, or we might join forces to make somekind of art about them.
Sam had found solace and joy in trees in the hard year after hisyounger brother died in 2009, and I think we both loved the sense ofsteadfast continuity a tree can represent. I had grown up in a rollingCalifornia landscape studded with several kinds of oak trees alongwith bays and buckeyes. Many individual trees that I knew as a childare still recognizable when I return, so little changed when I havechanged so much. At the other end of the county was Muir Woods,the famous redwood forest of old-growthtrees left uncut when therest of the area was logged, trees a couple hundred feet tall with needlesthat condense moisture out of the air on foggy days and drip itonto the soil as a sort of summer rain that only falls under the canopyand not in the open air.
Slices of redwood trees a dozen or more feet across, with their annualrings used as history charts, were popular in my youth, and thearrival of Columbus in the Americas or the signing of the Magna Cartaand sometimes the birth and death of Jesus would be marked on thehuge disks in museums and parks. The oldest redwood in Muir Woodsis 1,200 years old, so more than half its time on Earth had passed before the first Europeans showed up in what they would name California. Atree planted tomorrow that lived as long would be standing in thethirty-thirdcentury ad, and it would be short-livedcompared to thebristlecones a few hundred miles east, which can live five thousandyears. Trees are an invitation to think about time and to travel in it theway they do, by standing still and reaching out and down.
If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and peoplehave found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, andgardens. The surrealist artist Man Ray fled Europe and Nazis in 1940and spent the next decade in California. During the Second WorldWar, he visited the sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada and wrote ofthese trees that are broader than redwoods, but not quite as tall: “Theirsilence is more eloquent than the roaring torrents and Niagaras, thanthe reverberating thunder in [the] Grand Canyon, than the burstingof bombs; and is without menace. The gossiping leaves of the sequoias,one hundred yards above one’s head, are too far away to be heard. Irecalled a stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens during the first monthsof the outbreak of war, stopping under an old chestnut tree that hadprobably survived the French Revolution, a mere pygmy, wishing Icould be transformed into a tree until peace came again.”
That summer before my trip to England, when Sam was in town,we had gone to admire the trees planted in San Francisco by MaryEllen Pleasant, a Black woman born in slavery around 1812, who hadbecome a heroine of the Underground Railroad and a civil rights activist,as well as a player in the elite money politics of San Francisco.She had died more than a hundred years before that day we stood under her eucalyptus trees, which felt as though they were the livingwitnesses of a past otherwise beyond our reach. They had outlivedthe wooden mansion in which some of the dramas of her life hadplayed out. They were so broad they had buckled the sidewalk, andthey reached up higher than most of the buildings around them.Their peeling gray and tan bark spiraled around their trunks, theirsickle-shapedleaves lay scattered on the sidewalk, and the wind murmuredin their crowns. The trees made the past seem within reach ina way nothing else could: here were living things that had beenplanted and tended by a living being who was gone, but the trees thathad been alive in her lifetime were in ours and might be after we weregone. They changed the shape of time.
There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of timelived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about ahundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of timeduring which something is in living memory. Every event has its saeculum,and then its sunset when the last person who fought in the SpanishCivil War or the last person who saw the last passenger pigeon isgone. To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longertime scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemeralitythe way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.
In Moscow there are trees planted during the Czarist era thatgrew, shed their leaves in fall, stood steadfast through the winters,bloomed in springs through the Russian Revolution, shaded visitorsin summers in the Stalinist era, through the purges, the show trials,the famines, the Cold War and glasnost and the collapse of the SovietUnion, dropped their leaves during the autumns of the rise of thatadmirer of Stalin, Vladimir Putin, and that will outlive Putin andSam and me and everyone on that train with me that November morning. The trees were reminders of both our own ephemeralityand their endurance long beyond ours, and in their uprightness theystood in the landscape like guardians and witnesses.
Also that summer, when we were hanging out at my home talkingabout trees, I had mentioned an essay by George Orwell I had lovedfor a long time, a brief, casual, lyrical piece he dashed off in the springof 1946 for Tribune, the socialist weekly where he published abouteighty pieces from 1943 to 1947. The essay that appeared on April 26,1946, is titled “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” and it’s a triumphof meandering that begins by describing a yew tree in a Berkshirechurchyard said to have been planted by a vicar who was afamously fickle political player, switching sides repeatedly in the religiouswars of the time. That fickleness let him survive and stay inplace, like a tree, while many fell or fled.
Orwell writes of the vicar, “Yet, after this lapse of time, all that isleft of him is a comic song and a beautiful tree, which has rested theeyes of generation after generation and must surely have outweighedany bad effects which he produced by his political quislingism.” Fromthere Orwell leapt to the last king of Burma, whose supposed misdeedshe mentioned, along with the trees that king planted in Mandalay,“tamarind trees which cast a pleasant shade until the Japaneseincendiary bombs burned them down in 1942.” Orwell had been apoliceman in the British imperial service in Burma, so he would haveseen those trees for himself in the 1920s, as well as the huge yew hedescribed in the church cemetery in Bray, a small town west ofLondon.
He proposes that “the planting of a tree, especially one of the long-livinghardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity atalmost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes rootit will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, goodor evil.” And then he mentioned the inexpensive roses and fruit treeshe had planted himself, ten years earlier, and how he had revisitedthem recently and in them beheld his own modest botanical contributionto posterity. “One of the fruit trees and one of the rose bushesdied, but the rest are all flourishing. The sum total is five fruit trees,seven roses and two gooseberry bushes, all for twelve and sixpence.*These plants have not entailed much work, and have had nothingspent on them beyond the original amount. They never even receivedany manure, except what I occasionally collected in a bucket whenone of the farm horses happened to have halted outside the gate.”
I’d derived from that last line a picture of the author with a bucketand a gate beyond which horses passed, but I hadn’t thought moreabout where and how he lived at the time and why he planted roses.Nevertheless, I had found the essay memorable and moving from thetime I first encountered it. I thought it was a fugitive trace of anOrwell that remained embryonic, undeveloped, of who he might havebeen in less turbulent times, but I was wrong about that.
His life was shot through with wars. He was born on June 25,1903, right after the Boer War, reached adolescence during the FirstWorld War (a patriotic poem, written when he was eleven, was hisfirst published work), with the Russian Revolution and the Irishwar of independence raging into the 1920s and the beginning ofhis adulthood, been among those who saw all through the 1930s the conflagrations of the Second World War being set up, who fought inthe Spanish Civil War in 1937, had lived in London during the Blitzand been bombed out himself, and coined the term cold war in 1945and saw that cold war and its nuclear arsenals grow more fearsome inthe last years before his death on January 21, 1950. Those conflictsand menaces consumed a lot of his attention—butnot all of it.
had first read his essay on tree planting in a big, ugly, dog-eared paperback titled The Orwell Reader, which I bought cheap from aused bookstore when I was about twenty and wandered through foryears, getting to know his style and tone as an essayist, his opinionsabout other writers, about politics, about language and writing, abook I had absorbed when I was young enough for it to be a foundationalinfluence on my own meander toward becoming an essayist. Ihad come across his 1945 fable Animal Farm as a child, so that I firstread it as a story about animals and mourned the faithful horse Boxer’sdeath and not known that it was an allegory for the corruption of theRussian Revolution into Stalinism.
I’d read Nineteen Eighty-Four
for the first time as a teenager, and then gotten to know Homage to Catalonia
, his firsthand account ofthe Spanish Civil War, in my twenties. That latter book had been amajor influence on my second book, Savage Dreams
, for its example ofhonesty about the shortcomings of one’s own side and loyalty to itanyway and of how to incorporate into a political narrative personalexperience all the way down to doubts and discomforts—thatis, howto make room for the small and subjective inside something big andhistoric. He had been one of my principal literary influences, but Ihad not gotten to know more about him than what he revealed in thebooks and whatever set of assumptions was ambient.
That essay of his I shared with Sam was in praise of the arboreal saeculum, and it was hopeful in that it looked to the future as somethingwe could contribute to and, more than that, in that year afterthe first atom bombs had been detonated, as something we couldhave some degree of faith in: “Even an apple tree is liable to live forabout 100 years, so that the Cox I planted in 1936 may still be bearingfruit well into the twenty-firstcentury. An oak or a beech may livefor hundreds of years and be a pleasure to thousands or tens of thousandsof people before it is finally sawn up into timber. I am not suggestingthat one can discharge all one’s obligations towards society bymeans of a private re‑afforestationscheme. Still, it might not be a badidea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it inyour diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn intothe ground.” The essay took a tone common in his work, travelingnonchalantly from particulars to generalities, and from the minor tothe major—inthis case from one particular apple tree to universalquestions of redemption and legacies.
That summer day when we fell to talking about trees, I told Sam about Orwell’s garden, and he grew excited, and we went over to my computer to see if we could find out if the five fruit trees were still there. It took only a few minutes to dig up the address of the cottage Orwell had moved to in April 1936 and then a minute or two more to zoom in on the address on a mapping app, but the aerial views were full of indistinct blobs of green foliage that didn’t tell us what wewanted to know.
Sam wrote a letter to the unknown inhabitants of the address we’d found, which was far more Sam wrote a letter to the unknown inhabitants of the addresswe’d found, which was far more rural than the place I’d pictured allthose years since I’d first read the essay. It was a very Sam letterthat noted that “we are not kooks,” offering the links to his websiteand mine to try to demonstrate that we were people who had a respectable history of taking interest in obscure facts and researchinghistorical tangents. We hadn’t heard back when I stepped off thetrain in Baldock in Hertfordshire, several stops before Cambridge, alittle wobbly, a little anxious about knocking on that cottage door, butalso more than a little exhilarated.
Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Solnit. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.