There is one name that comes to mind when people ask why I decided to write: George Orwell. I loved reading and spent most of grade eight reading political non-fiction — on American politics (why George Bush is evil) in particular — as well as political philosophy — yes I spent most of the summer break between grade eight and nine reading Machiavelli and Rousseau. My mother was worried that I wasn’t reading real books, by which she meant classic novels and literature — what does that word even mean anyways — over time I’ve created my own personal classics list that diverges significantly from the BBC list.
Everyone kept telling me that I should read George Orwell and near the end of grade nine I tracked down a copy of Animal Farm. It was okay, yes just okay. My problem was I knew what was going to happen. I hate reading books when I know what is going to happen and it was so obvious. I moved on and read Homage to Catalonia and Down and out in Paris and London. I was in love and awe of his writing and his life. I wanted to go on adventures and see the world.
Then I picked up Shooting an elephant a collection of Orwell’s essays, when he is truly at his best. In there is an essay titled Some thoughts on the common toad. In my opinion this is Orwell’s best writing, and potentially the best writing in the English language. As I read I was blown away and caught up. This was it. I wanted to make someone feel the way I had just felt. I wanted to express what Orwell had just expressed. I wanted to be a writer. That was the moment. That is the best thing that I’ve ever read. Ever.
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. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.
A story about a toad becomes about the coming of spring and the beauty of nature. Orwell used this simple creature and told a much broader story with it.
For whatever reason I don’t write a lot of essays in the way that Orwell does. I suppose that if I was reading some of his collected works I would likely take on some of his tone in my writing, as often happens with the best writers. Nowadays I identify more with his travel writing and memoir, even though I still count 1984 among my all time favourite books. Homage to Catalonia and Down and out in Paris and London are more similar to my current favourite writers like Karl Taro Greenfeld and Peter Hessler.
Now for the challenge bit: I will try and write an Orwell inspired take on my favourite element of spring.
June announces its arrival in Calgary in the usual way. The snow begins to melt, and for one month, and one month only it is going to rain. The snow pack in the mountains begins to thaw, and rivers and creeks swell.
The bow ceases to be covered with a thin layer of ice. The water creeps up along the banks rising to the layers of gravel left behind after the last spring and submerging the more courageous trees that grow in the flood plain.
Then there is the rain. Rain becomes the usual weather. Rain coats are donned and wellies extracted. Umbrellas are brought to work and forgotten on buses.
Occasionally there is the excitement of a heavier than normal rainfall. The creek in the park near my house swells approaching its banks. It becomes marshy and one must be careful where to walk.
Then there is a true flood. The rain pours down and the melt off is fiercer than usual. You can stand and watch as it fills up fields and becomes more of a river. Sometimes ripping up the concrete path along the way. The water is so powerful, visibly powerful.
Then there is average rain. There is the joy of looking out the window at work and watching people flee the rain or just watching it pour down into the back alley way.
Spring brings change with it and this is mostly in terms of weather. In Calgary it marks the time between the melting of snow (a season that is sometimes synonymous with winter) and the heat of the summer. For me it is the rain. The rain that Calgary never gets except for one magical month a year when the snow is gone and plants are starting to bloom.
It is a time of change and possibility. Classes are over and the summer is just beginning. It is a time of summer jobs and having money for a change. The long months of winter are over, and coats can be put away. They are no longer needed. Spring is here.