Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

This is the great and terrifying truth about the creative life: Anything we make — all this longing for beauty and meaning, all these reckonings and raptures, these most passionate and personal fragments of being — is just a tiny seed compacting everything we are, blown into the wind that is the world. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later — and we can never fully know, or know at all, when or where or how they might. But in that uncertainty is also our redemption — the thing that sets the artist, that civilizational gardener of eternal ideas, apart from the politician or the entrepreneur or any other harvester of seasonal urgencies. Rebecca Solnit — one of the eternals of our time — explores this in some lovely passages from her unsummarizably magnificent book Orwell’s Roses (public library). Rebecca Solnit prior to her 2020 Universe in Verse performance. She writes: Writing is a murky business: you are never entirely sure what you are doing or when it will be finished and whether you got it right and how it will be received months or years or decades after you finish. What it does, if it does anything, is a largely imperceptible business that takes place in the minds of people you will mostly never see and never hear from (unless they want to argue with you). As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state. What is vivid in the writing is not in how it hits the senses but what it does in the imagination; you can describe a battlefield, a birth, a muddy road, or a smell. And then, making her contribution to the canon of great writers whose gardening anchored their art, she holds up the counterpoint and vital counterpart to this ethereal uncertainty: A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect… To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses. Elemental Forces by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.) And yet this is the paradox of the creative life: The world of ideas needs the world of atoms and forces — to believe otherwise is to dial back the centuries and go on perpetrating that amply confuted Cartesianism of regarding the life of the body as separate from the life of the mind. We are living embodiments of these selfsame forces of physics and biology. Walking hydrologies. Portable worlds with weather systems of biochemistry and feeling. Bodies moving through a world of other bodies in a particular stretch of spacetime. All of these physical variables and the interactions between them shape our ideas, for they shape the interdependent chance-configuration of variables we experience as a self. We would not have Leaves of Grass or Beloved if Whitman’s and Morrison’s minds had been rooted in different bodies and different spacetimes. If anyone knows this, of course, it is Rebecca Solnit — she who writes so beautifully about how the way we move shapes the way we think and about how the landscape colors the mind with feeling; she who thinks so deeply about trees and the shape of time; she who devotes two years of her life to writing a song of a book about how Orwell’s rose garden shaped his ideas. Flowers by Clarissa Munger Badger — the artist who seeded Emily Dickinson’s botanial inspiration. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.) Complement with two centuries of beloved writers on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening, then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s stirring letter to tomorrow’s readers about why we read and write.

Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

This is the great and terrifying truth about the creative life: Anything we make — all this longing for beauty and meaning, all these reckonings and raptures, these most passionate and personal fragments of being — is just a tiny seed compacting everything we are, blown into the wind that is the world.

Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later — and we can never fully know, or know at all, when or where or how they might.

But in that uncertainty is also our redemption — the thing that sets the artist, that civilizational gardener of eternal ideas, apart from the politician or the entrepreneur or any other harvester of seasonal urgencies.

Rebecca Solnit — one of the eternals of our time — explores this in some lovely passages from her unsummarizably magnificent book Orwell’s Roses (public library).

Rebecca Solnit prior to her 2020 Universe in Verse performance.

She writes:

Writing is a murky business: you are never entirely sure what you are doing or when it will be finished and whether you got it right and how it will be received months or years or decades after you finish. What it does, if it does anything, is a largely imperceptible business that takes place in the minds of people you will mostly never see and never hear from (unless they want to argue with you). As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state. What is vivid in the writing is not in how it hits the senses but what it does in the imagination; you can describe a battlefield, a birth, a muddy road, or a smell.

And then, making her contribution to the canon of great writers whose gardening anchored their art, she holds up the counterpoint and vital counterpart to this ethereal uncertainty:

A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect… To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.

Elemental Forces by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet this is the paradox of the creative life: The world of ideas needs the world of atoms and forces — to believe otherwise is to dial back the centuries and go on perpetrating that amply confuted Cartesianism of regarding the life of the body as separate from the life of the mind. We are living embodiments of these selfsame forces of physics and biology. Walking hydrologies. Portable worlds with weather systems of biochemistry and feeling. Bodies moving through a world of other bodies in a particular stretch of spacetime.

All of these physical variables and the interactions between them shape our ideas, for they shape the interdependent chance-configuration of variables we experience as a self. We would not have Leaves of Grass or Beloved if Whitman’s and Morrison’s minds had been rooted in different bodies and different spacetimes.

If anyone knows this, of course, it is Rebecca Solnit — she who writes so beautifully about how the way we move shapes the way we think and about how the landscape colors the mind with feeling; she who thinks so deeply about trees and the shape of time; she who devotes two years of her life to writing a song of a book about how Orwell’s rose garden shaped his ideas.

Flowers by Clarissa Munger Badger — the artist who seeded Emily Dickinson’s botanial inspiration. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with two centuries of beloved writers on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening, then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s stirring letter to tomorrow’s readers about why we read and write.