Tag Archives: George Orwell on nature

Orwell in Spring

Spring has finally arrived to George Orwell back in 1940 . This entry is from 1st April:

Strong wind, which has dried the soil greatly, but beautiful spring weather in the morning. In the evening overcast, but no rain. Violets out in great numbers everywhere. Larks singing, the first I have heard this year, though most years one hears them much earlier than this. Partridges pairing, rooks & seagulls not yet. A few tulips forming heads. Arabis well out. Note that a few of the carrots I left in the ground were not destroyed by the frost, though most went to mush.

Sowed broad beans, & some in box to fill up gaps. Cleared the ground where peas & parsnips are to go. Dug a little more.

17 eggs.

From the excellent Orwell Diaries

In praise of the little owl

Michael McCarthy laments the sad decline of the little owl (Athene noctua) in Britain in today’s Independent, noting that unlike other introductions, they have not spelled ecological disaster, forming an attractive addition Britain’s birdlife. They were introduced by Victorian gentleman-ornithologists in the 1870s who wished to pay testament to their fame in Greek mythology. Little owls were linked to the godess Athena, perhaps because they bred in her temple, the Parthenon in Athens. The bird also became the symbol of the city, and its bug-eyed image was such a feature of Athenian silver coins – that they were known as “owls”.

Coincidentally, I came across last week this entry by George Orwell spotting a little owl back in January 1940,

No thaw. Unable to unfreeze pipes etc. Saw a little owl today – have not previously seen any of these round here.

Photo by Arturo Nikolai on Wikipedia

The cold snap – Orwell 1940

The Orwell Diaries is a remarkable blog which publishes George Orwell’s diary entries on the same date 6o years later. The entries are full of fascinating insights into the daily life of the author between  1937 and 1947 and include a surprising amount of observations on natural history. The comments by the readers are also, unusually, interesting. Here is his entry of 11th January from the cold winter of 1940:

No thaw. It would be possible to skate on the church pond, but unfortunately I have no skates here. The other ponds not bearing. Water beetles (the kind whose legs look like oars) can be seen moving about under the ice. When a brick lies in the bottom in shallow water, there appears in the ice above it a curious formation the size & shape of the brick itself, presumably something to do with the temperature of the brick when thrown in being higher than that of the water. Turned up a woodcock in the common lane. No rabbits in the field today. Birds very bold & hungry. Rooks in the vegetable garden, where they do not usually come. One or two primroses & polyanthi budding, in spite of the frost upon them. One of the elm trees apparently bleeds a brown-coloured stuff, sap or something, & large icicles of this hanging down, looking like toffee. Milk when frozen goes into a curious flaky stuff like flaky pastry.

Orwell had an enduring interest in natural history which stemmed from his childhood. In letters from school he wrote about caterpillars and butterflies and he had a keen interest in ornithology. He also enjoyed fishing and shooting rabbits, and conducting experiments as in cooking a hedgehog or shooting down a jackdaw from the Eton roof to dissect it. Wikipedia

George Orwell on Jura

Between 1946 and 1948, George Orwell spent two spells of six months on the Isle of Jura with the aim of giving himself  ‘six months’ quiet’ in which to complete 1984.  A rich friend had let him use a small, remote stone farmhouse called Barnhill seven miles from Ardlussa, the nearest village, on the bleak northern tip of the island. After “a quite unendurable winter”,  he grew to love the isolation and wild beauty of Jura, while writing his most famous novel. He spent a lot of time with his young son fishing the loch and sea, shooting rabbits, laying lobster pots, and lending his hand at farming: he kept a small vegetable garden and orchard and had sheep, a cow and pig. One day on a fishing trip with friends he was nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Sadly, the island’s damp weather weakened his already fragile lungs and after finishing 1984, he finally left the island for a tuberculosis sanatorium in January 1949. Twelve months later, he  died.

Orwell disliked cruelty towards animals though according to a friend of his this clearly did not extend itself to this adder, rather common on the Isle of Jura, he came upon. I wonder if this attitude came from his days in Burma where he may well have seen people die of snake bites.

“‘We landed in a sort of shingly bay and the first thing we saw was a dirty great adder, an enormous thing and Eric quickly planted his boot right on top of its neck and anchored it to the ground and I fully expected that with the other foot he would grind its head into the ground too – he was obviously intent on destroying it – but he got out his penknife and quite deliberately opened and proceeded more or less to fillet this wretched creature, he just ripped it right open with the thing – quite deliberately. I must say, it surprised me terribly because he always really struck me as being very gentle to animals, in fact I think he was a very gently, kindly sort of man.’…”

From here Orwell’s Life on Jura

See also

From The Guardian on writing 1984 on Jura…Now Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura,. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, that Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

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