Orlean: The Orchid Thief

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Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief. New York : Random House, 1998. x + 284 pages.

First off, if you’ve heard that the movie "Adaptation" is based on the book, don’t worry: it is absolutely nothing like the film. I mooched this awhile ago, because I thought it sounded interesting, but when I saw on the cover it was the inspiration for "Adaptation", my heart sank. That was a weird movie, and I’m not a huge fan of weird movies. Fortunately, the book is a straight-forward, non-fiction, journalistic account of Florida, orchids, and the many odd people who are interested in them.

While the topic was interesting, I thought the book was very uneven; one chapter I’d be fascinated by, while the next seemed to drag on forever. I think that’s partly because it’s an eclectic book: there are history chapters, science-y chapters, and people-focused chapters. My favorites were the history and science parts: I learned lots of interesting things about Florida, about orchid hunters in the nineteenth century, and of course about orchids themselves.

My least favorite, and this was a bit over half of the book, centered on the people. They were all a bit kooky, but not in a very interesting way, just in a "I hope he doesn’t sit next to me on the bus" kind of way. Especially the main guy she profiles, John Laroche (the orchid thief himself). You can tell from reading it that Orlean had a love-hate fascination for the guy, but he just seems incredibly slimy and cocky and unstable to me. So I didn’t really care about anything in his life.

The rivalries between various orchid growers didn’t particularly interest me either. I had the same reaction to both of John Berendt’s books, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and City of Falling Angels; I’m much more interested in places and history than random people who seem a few cards short of a deck.

That being said, Orlean has a very engaging writing style, so people who enjoy reading about quirky characters will probably really like this. And she’s very descriptive: when she was describing the Florida swamps I was right there with her! Even though I live in the mountains, I suddenly felt like I was breathing steamy air, with sweat trickling down my back, so kudos to those writing skills.

Favorite Passages

"At last I was introduced to a park ranger named Tony who said he would go with me [to the Fakahatchee swamp state park]. I then spent the next several days talking myself into being unafraid. A few days before we were supposed to go, Tony called and asked if I was really sure I wanted to make the trip. I said I was. I’m actually pretty tough. I’ve run a marathon and traveled by myself to weird places and engaged in conversations with a lot of strangers, and when my toughness runs out I can rely on a certain willful obliviousness to keep me going. On the other hand, my single most unfavorite thing in life so far as been to touch the mushy bottom of the lake during swimming lessons in summer camp and feel the weedy slime squeeze between my clenched toes, so the idea of walking through the swamp was a little bit extra-horrible to me. The next day Tony called again and asked if I was really ready for the Fakahatchee. At that point I gave up trying to be tough and let every moment in the lake at Camp Carnidal ooze back into my memory, and when I finally met Tony at the ranger station I almost started to cry."

"To get a good look at the orchids we had to walk from thigh-high water into waist-high and deeper. ... When the four of us were gathered by the tree, the ranger introduced me to the giants and said they were in the inmate work-release program of Copeland Road Prison, just down the road from the Fakahatchee--I had passed it on my way in. Both of the men were bashful and spoke in tiny, mumbly voices. After we were introduced I noticed that both of them were carrying three-foot-long machetes. I’m not sure how I hadn’t seen the machetes before that. The ranger leaned over and whispered to me that she had given the men the machetes because they were both terrified of snakes and had refused to get into the swamp without some protection. ... The cold black water slapped at my belly button every time they would pop up and down. The swamp was hot and hushed except for the splashing and smack of the giants’ machetes against the water. You could disappear in a place like this, really disappear, into one of these inky sinkholes or in the warm muck under the thick brush. No one could find you in a place like this once you sank in."

"[An orchid] has no natural enemies except bad weather and the odd virus. Orchids are one of the few things in the world that can live forever."

"Orchids had been a high-class hobby in China for three thousand years."

"Melaleucas love living in Florida. Since their introduction they have multiplied by the thousands. They spread at the rate of fifty acres a day. ... No one has any sentimental feelings about the species, and most people now consider them a spreading evil. The problem is that melaleucas hate to die. If a melaleuca tree is frozen or starved or chopped or poisoned or broken or burned, it will release twenty million seeds right before it dies and resow itself in every direction, so in a sense it ends up more alive than dead. The trick is to kill the tree gradually, because the shock of dying is what causes it to shoot out its seeds. ...you hack a little bit of the tree, squirt in just a little bit of herbicide, come back after a while and hack and squirt again, and keep hacking and squirting until the tree languidly dies."

"If you like flowers, or fluorescent-feathered exotic birds, or a perfect turquoise swimming pool with a vanda orchid mosaic in the middle, or a coral-rock pond with a waterfall and a special kind of dappled fish that flash to the surface of the pond when you feed them, or a beautiful wooden grandstand where you can sit and watch the waterfall and the fish, or a dramatic, airy house filled with antique Limoges and Royal Worcester orchid porcelains and fine furniture and trophy heads of African game and a Fabergé egg of gold and rubies with a tiny jeweled orchid sculpture for its yolk, or a front yard that opens onto a path leading to a spick-and-span nursery of seven greenhouses filled with a hundred thousand candy-colored flowers, you would probably like his house."

"This has always been a puzzlement to me, how to have a community but remain individual--how you could manage to be separate but joined, and somehow, amazingly, not lose sight of either your separateness or your togetherness."

-- Notes by EVA

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