Monday, March 26, 2012

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean

It's not that I've spent considerable time in Florida, but I feel like it's one of those places on Earth that a person can't really write about unless they've been there. Both of my parents grew up in Miami, and I have an uncle who still lives there. My grandmother moved a few hours north to Port St. Lucie. My uncle is the head of security at a giant flea market. The place is so massive, it has watch towers at its corners. Between the permanent vendors, the people who turn up and sell things out of their truck beds, and the bargain hunters themselves, it's commerce enabling obsession.

Northwest, by about two hours, sits Naples and the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. In 1994, a man named John Laroche and three Seminole men with whom he worked were arrested for poaching orchids from the Fakahatchee. In state parks, it is illegal to remove any plant or animal life, especially the endangered wild orchid. Writer Susan Orlean happened to catch an article about the impending court case.

In the case of the orchid story, I was interested to see the words 'swamp' and 'orchids' and 'Seminoles' and 'cloning' and 'criminal' in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can't believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.

Laroche's plan was to find wild orchids, particularly the ghost orchid, clone it, then sell the clones at the nursery built on the Seminole reservation. Because orchid collectors tend to want one of every variety they can get their hands on, he figured this would be a "million dollar plant."

Since the Seminoles were exempt from any endangered species laws, he believed he would also be exempt because he worked for them. In case he wasn't, he had the Seminoles handle all the plants so that he could just be "along for the hike." Though he believed wildlife poaching to be wrong, in his version of morality, by breaking the law, his clones would destroy the wild orchid black market.

This was Laroche's traditional dash of altruism. Finally the plan would end with a flourish: He would time everything to take place during the Florida legislative session so that as soon as he had gotten what he had wanted out of the woods, he would address the legislators and chide them for leaving laws on the books that were too loose to protect endangered plants from cunning people like him. The legislators, shamed, would then change the laws to Laroche's specifications, and thus the woods would be locked up forever and no more ghost orchids could be spirited away. Environmentalists who had despised him for poaching would be forced to admire him.

Of course, nothing is that easy. Orlean decides to meet the man, and though she finds him somewhat off-putting at times, his way of expounding on the nature of everything, she finds fascinating. They attend an orchid show together, and she visits him at the nursery, and learns that the Seminoles refer to him as "Crazy White Man" and "Troublemaker." Laroche seems aware that he is a bit odd, but he professes not to care what other people think, as he finds his oddness superior to any other way of living. Orchids are not his first obsession. Before them, he had stints studying turtles, Ice Age fossils, and re-silvering old mirrors. "Laroche's passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively," Orlean says, "like car bombs."

What started as an article for The New Yorker ended up providing enough material for an entire book, and soon Orlean found herself spending more time in Florida — a state in which she had spent many summers as a kid — learning about orchids, their history, and the people who collect them. Laroche's obsession, though he has particular style, is not unique. Along the way, Orlean meets enthusiasts who have risked their lives searching for orchids in South American mountains, nursery owners holding longstanding grudges against one another, and people who have to be talked down from spending thousands of dollars on just one flower.

Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.

The Orchid Thief is of course the book that inspired the movie Adaptation, in which Nicolas Cage loses his shit (again, but in a good way) as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Chris Cooper plays Laroche and Meryl Streep is Orlean — which, hey, not bad. The movie ends up being a highly-fictionalized, highly-entertaining version of the events, in which the orchid is going to be cloned for a psychoactive drug, and "Orlean" ends up trying to murder Kaufman and his fictional twin brother. "I was really happy to see that the movie portrayed the real heart of the book, which is about the pursuit of passion and how it shapes our lives," Orlean says in the prologue of the edition I read. But yes, it was very strange and overwhelming to see herself portrayed, even fictionally, onscreen.

The obsessive part of the brain is the same for everyone, I think — It's just that some people's "spots" are a bit overactive. While some people — say, my mother — might have to read every single article in the local paper, even if they have to play catch-up after vacation, another person — say, me — might be able to debate and swoon over the merits of Oasis b-sides. Or discuss the real world implications of Doctor Who on what we perceive as reality. Or might never have enough tiny, oddball notebooks, no matter how many years it takes to fill them up. Or might suddenly develop a compulsion to eat toast with peanut butter every single morning. Or on the days jam is suddenly preferred, wonder what sort of other change is in the air.

I might have a lot of obsessions, is what I'm saying.

So I understood from where these orchid people came. Orchids are fascinating, once you start learning about them, and Orlean explains everything in a very easy, good-humored way. Even if she doesn't personally "get it," she still likes hearing people's excitement. I'd only read her New Yorker articles before, along with following her on Twitter, but this is the first book I've read. I get the feeling that Susan Orlean can make any subject interesting to anyone. I want to read her most recent, Rin Tin Tin (about the dog, of course), before I hear her talk with Steve Almond at this year's Get Lit! Festival. If I don't before then, I do know that I will pick it up sometime soon.

The Orchid Thief is hard to categorize. My library copy was shelved in the gardening section. It's not a memoir, even though Orlean is part of the narrative, but it's not straight reportage either. I suppose the library wasn't really sure either, and they thought, "Well, hell. It has the history of orchids; we'll just stick it with other informational plant books." (I like to think that librarians think with semi-colons. Indulge me.) Mixing passion and the Florida humidity is certainly an experience that would disorient any writer, but in the end, the appreciation this book has received is mightily deserved. I sense another one of my author-binges on the horizon...


Support your local libraries! I do, particularly with my late fees. :\

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.


  1. I read this book I want to say 10 years ago or so. It was captivating and before reading it had no idea about the number of orchids, let alone anything about rare orchids. It's a fascinating look into a little-known world.

    I never did see Adaptation, but I'm sure it was quite good, too. :-)

  2. It's been a long time since I've seen Adaptation, but I liked it a lot.