George Orwell on natural history

George Orwell in the Monegros

May 29th, 2010

secs b4 d'storm by batiskafo.

George Orwell fought during the Spanish Civil War in the Sierra de Alcubierre in the Monegros on the Aragonese Front, during the freezing winter of 1937 (above photo by batiskafo on Flickr). He famously described his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Unlike the diaries he wrote in the very late 1930s and 40s, which have a truly remarkable number of entries on natural history, he wrote unsurprisingly little on wildlife during his time in Spain. There are, however, a few interesting nature-related passages:

THE days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming.  Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabian. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears. In the evenings they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.

…and on the geography of the Monegros:

As the road struck into the sierra we branched off to the right and climbed a narrow mule-track that wound round the mountain-side. The hills in that part of Spain are of a queer formation, horseshoe-shaped with flattish tops and very steep sides running down into immense ravines. On the higher slopes nothing grows except stunted shrubs and heath, with the white bones of the limestone sticking out everywhere. The front line here was not a continuous line of trenches, which would have been impossible in such mountainous country; it was simply a chain of fortified posts, always known as ‘positions’, perched on each hill-top. In the distance you could see our ‘position’ at the crown of the horseshoe; a ragged barricade of sand-bags, a red flag fluttering, the smoke of dug-out fires. A little nearer, and you could smell a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards. Into the cleft immediately behind the position all the refuse of months had been tipped–a deep festering bed of breadcrusts, excrement, and rusty tins.

and on the hills and the lack of birds

Often in the mornings the valley was hidden under seas of cloud, out of which the hills rose flat and blue, giving the landscape a strange resemblance to a photographic negative. Beyond Huesca there were more hills of the same formation as our own, streaked with a pattern of snow which altered day by day. In the far distance the monstrous peaks of the Pyrenees, where the snow never melts, seemed to float upon nothing. Even down in the plain everything looked dead and bare. The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants. Almost always the sky was empty of birds. I do not think I have ever seen a country where there were so few birds. The only birds one saw at any time were a kind of magpie, and the coveys of partridges that startled one at night with their sudden whirring, and, very rarely, the flights of eagles that drifted slowly over, generally followed by rifle-shots which they did not deign to notice.

On stripeless tree frogs and snails

Spring was really here at last. The blue in the sky was softer, the air grew suddenly balmy. The frogs were mating noisily in the ditches. Round the drinking-pool that served for the village mules I found exquisite green frogs the size of a penny, so brilliant that the young grass looked dull beside them. Peasant lads went out with buckets hunting for snails, which they roasted alive on sheets of tin.

On the cold, wild crocuses and mountains

The weather was mostly clear and cold; sometimes sunny at midday, but always cold. Here and there in the soil of the hill-sides you found the green beaks of wild crocuses or irises poking through; evidently spring was coming, but coming very slowly. The nights were colder than ever…..

I hate mountains, even from a spectacular point of view. But sometimes the dawn breaking behind the hill-tops in our rear, the first narrow streaks of gold, like swords slitting the darkness, and then the growing light and the seas of carmine cloud stretching away into inconceivable distances, were worth watching even when you had been up all night, when your legs were numb from the knees down, and you were sullenly reflecting that there was no hope of food for another three hours.

George Orwell in Gibraltar

December 17th, 2009

I’m enjoying very much reading the newly published George Orwell Diaries, also available online here. In addition to politics and fascinating insights into the daily life of the late 1930s such as the price of eggs, there is a remarkable amount on natural history, clearly something Orwell found important and interesting. Although the diaries do not cover his time in the Civil War in Spain, he does write this from Gibraltar in September 1938:

Weather mostly hot & nights sometimes uncomfortably so. Sea variable mostly rather choppy. When no wind fish visible at least 10 feet below surface.
The Barbary Ape is said to be now very rare at Gibraltar & the authorities are trying to exterminate them as they are a nuisance. At a certain season of the year (owing to shortage of food I suppose) they come down from the rock & invade peoples° houses & gardens. They are described as large doglike ape with only a short stump of tail. The same species found on the African coast just opposite.
The breed of goat here is the Maltese, or at any rate is chiefly Maltese. The goat is rather small, & has the top half of its body covered with long & rather shaggy hair which overhangs to about the knees, giving the impression that it has very short legs. Ears are set low and drooping. Most of the goats are hornless, those having horns have ones that curve back so sharply that they lie against the head, & usually continue round in a semi-circle, the point of the horn being beside the eye. Udders are very pendulous & in many cases simply a bag with practically no teats, or teats barely 1/2 inch long. Colours black, white & (especially) reddish brown. Yield said to be about a litre a day. Goats apparently will graze on almost anything, eg. The flock I watched had grazed the wild fennel plants right to the ground.
Breed of donkeys here small, like the English. The conveyance peculiar to the place a little partly closed in carriage like the Indian gharry with the sides taken out.

Photo from Wikipedia by Karyn Sig