A Wild Read: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Maybe it’s the falling leaves hitting my head, or maybe it’s the crazy weather we’ve had lately (an earthquake in New England, a hurricane in Connecticut, snow on Halloween, temps in the 50’s-60’s at the end of November), but I’ve been in the mood for books inspired by and embracing the wilderness.

I began with Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness, which was recommended to me by my supervisor, and began reading it, but one night I left it in my car. Not wanting to brave the cold wilderness myself that night, I looked around and noticed among my ‘to-read’ stack of books The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean.

The Orchid Thief was the inspiration for the movie, “Adaptation”,  a strange journey through the wilds of the mind of a screenwriter tasked with adapting the book into a screenplay. I had seen the movie, was unsettled by it, but plowed ahead with the book anyway….

…and was really glad I did. The Orchid Thief was a quick read, but it covered a lot of ground. Orlean talks about orchids and their history, Florida and its history, Native Americans in Florida and their history, as well as a varied cast of characters and their own peculiar histories. Orlean links all these narratives together by following John Laroche around as he tries to show her Florida’s elusive Ghost Orchid.

Being a Florida native, I loved hearing Orlean describe the wild nature of Florida–it’s ability to be nothing and everything, to be changed by humans and yet, not succumb to alteration.

She talks about the changes humans have tried to effect–draining the Everglades, blasting the ground with dynamite just to be able to farm on the land, creating beaches by dumping sand–and notes how nature, when unchecked, quickly begins to reclaim itself, undoing these changes. Florida is malleable, but like water, it seeks out its own equilibrium.

Orlean also goes into the history of the Seminole Indians. This tribe is actually comprised of Indians from different tribes in the northern states–they escaped captivity and slavery and sought refuge in the swampy lands of Florida. Over time, different battles were fought with the US Government, but the Seminole tribe, with their brave leader Chief Osceola,  never gave up, never surrendered, and now have the distinction of calling themselves the “unconquered” tribe.

Orlean also explores the nature of obsession. Her book is much more interesting and coherent than the movie that referenced it. Her writing about people and their obsessions is much more real, sympathetic, and interesting. She covers a whole sub-culture of orchid-crazed people, but is especially intrigued by her main subject, John Laroche. He is serially-obsessed, going from one all-consuming passion to the next, with no mourning time in between. Orlean never truly discovers why is he is this way, but she has a wild ride while reporting on it.

Does everyone have a secret (or not-so-secret) passion? Mine seems to be stories… What’s yours?

Coming next: Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness

  1. Susan said:

    I’m reading Van Gogh: The Life by Naifeh and Smith. Vincent Van Gogh went from one obsession to another. He obsessed on people, places, ideology and art. The book is amazing. The authors spent 10 years working on putting together his life story based on the huge volume of letters and other records at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam (obsessed). The reader gets an incredible look inside the mind of an addled genius.

    • I’m going to try and start a biography run for a bit…just got my hands on a good-looking Benjamin Franklin bio, written by Walter Isaacson – same guy who wrote the recent Steve Jobs bio. If I can get my hands on a copy of Van Gogh, I’ll give it a try… maybe I’ll be inspired to pick up a paintbrush myself!

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