The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.
In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.
I'm the product of a happy and uneventful childhood in the suburbs of Cleveland, followed by a happy and pretty eventful four years as a student at University of Michigan. From there, I wandered to the West Coast, landing in Portland, Oregon, where I managed (somehow) to get a job as a writer. This had been my dream, of course, but I had no experience and no credentials. What I did have, in spades, was an abiding passion for storytelling and sentence-making. I fell in love with the experience of writing, and I've never stopped. From Portland, I moved to Boston, where I wrote for the Phoenix and the Globe, and then to New York, where I began writing for magazines, and, in 1987, published my first piece in The New Yorker. I've been a staff writer there since 1992.
Number one: don't judge this book by the movie Adaptation, which is not a screenplay of the book, but rather a screenplay that contains pieces of the book. Number two, my favorite quote: "The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility."
This was originally a piece for The New Yorker, and I think it should've stayed that way. It had its interesting moments but felt a bit bloated and directionless at times. I was expecting something more narrative-based and eccentric like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Instead every chapter just sort of felt like an essay about something related to the orchid industry, with a very small throughline about John Laroche. 2.5 stars
Last year I read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. I found it well done and was able to read it over the better part of a day. I was curious to read more of Orlean’s books, but most of the subject matter was not appealing to me, so I settled on an early work of hers, The Orchid Thief. Later made into a movie called Adaptation, the Orchid Thief takes readers on a journey through a Florida sub-culture of exotic plants. With the weather growing colder, I figured it was as good a time as any to immerse myself in a book about tropical flowering plants.
Orlean worked as a New Yorker staff writer prior to the publication of her first book. She had been assigned to write a feature story about John LaRoche of Florida, an intriguing man who at the time was obsessed with orchids. Orchids are older than the dinosaurs and do not die. They take seven years to grow and are among the most fragile flowers in the world. Some orchids only bloom for a few hours a year, which makes peoples’ obsession with them that much more alluring. LaRoche had been hired by the Seminole nation of Florida to start a plant nursery. The Seminoles desired a basic gardening center where people could by Christmas trees and simple potted plants. LaRoche thought big, and by big he meant orchids. His dream was to obtain the rarest of orchids and clone them in a green house, making him the owner of the most coveted of orchids in the world, the ghost orchid. This plan appeared to be a grandiose scheme and would benefit the Seminoles financially, until LaRoche got caught stealing ghost orchids from a state park.
LaRoche and his three Seminole accomplices got off on a technicality protecting Native American ways of life in Florida. The court case is discussed for less than a chapter because there was not enough evidence to either convict or acquit LaRoche, so the orchid theft became a mistrial. The Seminole nation decided to let him go due to the negative publicity, and LaRoche turned to web design in the early days of the internet. Orlean did not have enough material to write a book on just LaRoche’s schemes, so she turned to the subculture of Florida orchid growers, who have been cultivating new species of flowers since the birth of the state itself. When Orlean had been assigned to write about LaRoche, the state was still recovering from Hurricane Andrew yet was primed to celebrate Miami’s centennial. Orchid growers from around the state vied to outdo each other as they prepared to host orchid enthusiasts from around the world at an international orchid show in Miami’s convention center.
Orlean introduces readers to orchid pioneers Bob Fuchs, Tom Fennell, and Martin Motes. The Fuchs and Fennell families were among the earliest in Miami and lived in south Florida when it was mainly swamp land. As one who has spent much time in Florida, I found the sections explaining how south Florida grew from swamp to metropolis the most interesting. New settlers to Florida could dredge a swamp in a matter of minutes, creating subdivisions, roads, and any community based center in between. This came at the expense of Florida wildlife, especially the Florida panther which is now endangered. At the time of this book’s publication, there were only thirty panthers left in the wild. Relegated to the Everglades and other swamps like the Fakahatchee, it is unclear whether the panther will survive. Yet, orchid enthusiasts like Fuchs, Fennell, and LaRoche continued to plunder swamps for orchids, determined to outdo themselves in hybridization of the flower in attempts to produce the showiest display at orchid growers conventions. His pursuit of the ghost orchid let LaRoche away from orchids, but Fuchs and Fennell continue to run outlandish nurseries, home to hundreds of thousands of orchids, some worth thousands of dollars.
Susan Orlean never saw a ghost orchid in bloom while researching her book. She found in John LaRoche an intriguing person who moved from one obsession to another. While his life did not provide her enough material for a book, it lead her to orchid growers around south Florida, each with an intriguing backstory to tell. I am convinced that the Orchid Thief would have been better conceived if it remained as a magazine article focusing on John LaRoche and his orchid obsession. Critics enjoyed the book and it was later made into a movie called Adaptation. As much as I like Florida weather, I am fearful of alligators in the swamps so I think I’ll pass. As this was one of Orlean’s earlier books and I’ve seen how she’s progressed in her career, I will give her the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully the next book of hers that I read will be a tad more enjoyable.
This is based on Susan Orelan’s journalistic research in the early 1990s of the orchid obsessive John Laroche, the Seminole tribe he collaborated with, and of orchid collectors and breeders generally. The main plot concerns somewhat inept attempts to steal and clone rare Ghost Orchids to sell on.
Image: Dendrophylax lindenii, the ghost orchid, from Wikipedia
Orlean originally published the story as an article in the New Yorker, but later extended it to this. The result reads more like a disjointed collection of vaguely related essays than a coherent book.
There is some interesting biology and history of orchids, but there is more esoteric detail about Florida land reclamation, Seminole Indian history, and property scams than is necessary for the Laroche orchid story.
Image: DVD cover
I suspect I gave the book 3* because I adored Charlie Kaufman's very creative 2002 adaptation, titled (not very creatively) Adaptation. I saw that before reading the book.
Kaufman originally planned to make a film of the book, but struggled, on and off, over many years. So he combined the two: a film that has Charlie, in collaboration with his (fictional) twin brother, struggling to write a screenplay of Orlean’s book, intercut with the story Orlean wrote about. And for good measure, he adds a fictitious postscript!
Stars include Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Tilda Swinton. See imdb for details HERE.
Book to Screen to Book - 360° or 451°?
I was reminded of this when I read Megan Dunn’s brilliant first book, Tinderbox (see my review HERE). She wanted to rewrite Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (see my review HERE) from the point of view of the female characters, but ended up more fascinated by Truffaut's process of adaptation (see imdb HERE).
The result is fascinating, personal, and funny. It’s rather like the inverse of Kaufman’s film: an exploration of her attempts to adapt someone else’s work. And just as good. I recommend both.
Florida is a wild place, a silly place, where the commercial—Disney World, and Orange World, and Twistee Treat (or anything else featured in The Florida Project)—is under constant threat from the natural (and vice versa). You know, swamps, and alligators, and hurricanes. In these swamps there are orchids, and some of these orchids are rare and valuable and are coveted by schemers like John Laroche. FLORIDA MAN…headlines have become a running joke, and John Laroche is the archetypal Florida Man. But he is only the hook, the bait (true crime aficionados look away) into the fascinating world of orchids and orchid hunting, of orchid shows and orchid fanciers and orchid thieves and orchid scandals. Meryl Streep (you know, Adaptation) Susan Orlean writes beautifully and at times slips into Julie Otsuka-like prose as she explores not only Florida and its history, and orchids and their history, but also that of the Native Americans who call Florida home. Having never before taken any particular interest in orchids, I will venture to say I have developed an appreciation for them, at least when presented to me in book form.
This all began with a magazine article Orlean was writing about John Laroche, the title character. She headed down to Florida and spent months studying the guy and the environment in which he lived. It is an interesting tale. The book broadens from this introductory piece to cover other things Floridian. She examines the orchid community/sub-culture in considerable detail. There is much there to consider, not only in its contemporary expression but in the history of orchid acquisition and cultivation. It is a dog-eat-dog world, both for adventurers who travel to remote places to acquire rare species, and for botanists who nurture these finds and attempt to clone and modify orchids to keep the creative act moving. It does come to actual physical violence. Orlean looks at the vagaries of Florida Real Estate scamming as well as quirks in legislation relating to environmental protection and Native American rights. She finds characters all around, and finds also a focus on passion. This was an enjoyable, informative read. Orlean has a style that is accessible. She never tries to make you feel that she is smarter than you. She acts as a representative of us all in looking at this world with a bit of twinkle in her eye, as well as an appreciation for the beauty not only of floral pulchritude, but of varieties of human experience.
P 279 “It’s not really about collecting the thing itself,” Laroche went on. “It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.”
When does passion become obsession? Certainly many of the orchid growers and collectors in this book have gone over the line. Set in south Florida, Orlean is brave and relentless in getting her story. She follows the bizarre John LaRoche into the murky swamps of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in search of the elusive ghost orchid. This preserve is home to many alligators, poisonous snakes, sinkholes, and myriad bugs. Ugh! One has to admire her perseverance.
Orlean is an excellent nonfiction writer. Her descriptions are vivid and often beautiful. Although this is not a slow nor difficult book, I did not find it as compelling as The Library Book. Maybe I just like libraries much more than orchids!
I have not seen the movie Adaption which is based on portions of this book.
I picked up this book because I enjoyed an essay written by the author in The New Yorker. I had found it amusing and perceptive. The book has the feel of an essay, or rather a series of essays focused on the central theme of orchids. Orchid collecting, orchid theft, orchid hunting and orchid obsession are all covered. The writing does go off on tangents. Forays are made into related topics - exploitation of natural resources, environment protection, smuggling and poaching of animals and plants, extensive land scams and the twisting of legislation regulating Native American rights. The setting is Florida. That which holds the whole together is the pull toward obsession. For good and for bad.
The author has met the people and observed firsthand their behavior. She trekked in the swamps, she got lost in Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve searching for ghost orchids. She talks to us not as a learned but as an equal, as a friend. She magnificently well captures the feel of Florida, not merely the place but also the people. Their way of talking and thinking and being. It is this that I appreciated most about the book. She brought back to me my earlier visits to Florida. This portrayal captured me more than the detailed descriptions of thefts and scams and peculiar individuals on which she sidetracks. I like how she told her story more than the actual details of the story. Please see below the quotes I have taken from the book.
The audiobook is extremely well narrated by Jennifer Meyers. Her tone captures perfectly the people and the place, the atmosphere.
Lines from the book that were particularly special for me:
"The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility."
"If you set out alone and sovereign, unconnected to a family, a religion, a nationality, a tradition, a class, then pretty soon you are too lonely, too self-invented and unique, and too much aware that there is no one else like you in the world. If you submerge yourself completely in something -- your town or your profession or your hobby -- then pretty soon you have to struggle up to the surface because you need to be sure that even though you are a part of something big, some community, you still exist as a single unit with a single mind."
"It was a relief to have no hope because then I had no fear; looking for something you want is a comfort in the clutter of the universe, but knowing you don't have to look means you can't be disappointed."
"'It's not really about collecting the thing itself,' Laroche went on. 'It's about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It's a kind of direction.'"
I adore this book. It's one of my favorites, not just because it's about two of my favorite things - plants and Florida - and not just because it's by one of my favorite writers, and not just because Charlie Kaufman made it into a totally kick-ass movie.
I adore it because it's so charming, because of sentences like "I suppose I do have one unembarrassing passion: I want to know what it feels like to be passionate about something," because Orlean writes about her human subjects with a bit of "Can you believe this craziness?" without losing sight of the fact that she is actually writing about humans, and because she has this gift for uncovering those odd little tidbits of information that make the world seem like a magical place where anything is possible.
This is one of those books that, while purporting to be about one thing - the world of orchid fanciers - is really about another thing - obsession. The book takes the idea that the best way to see the universe is through a microscope, and wraps it up in an entertaining package. She also tells the stories using a tactic that another favorite writer of mine, Joan Didion, uses, where she herself is a character in the book, not just as a narrator but a participant, and it gives you, as an outsider in the story, a way to view things as if you were there yourself. Yet you don't get the feeling she's casting judgement on anyone; you just get to see things the way she saw them and feel the things she felt.
Of course, the book might also hold a special place with me because it talks so much about Florida, a state whose history and culture can only be described as "bizarre." (I hate that word almost as much as I hate the word "unique" but really, there is no other way to describe it.) This state attracts people who are looking to realize some sort of dream or other, or who are looking to reinvent themselves, or who are just trying to escape their pasts, and so you end up with a bunch of people all trying to create some new existence on a piece of land that is constantly in flux. It's a tumultuous, chaotic state, where people are free to extend their personalities to the limit, whether its through Christianity or vulgar materialism or alcoholism or whatever. The only thing predictable about Florida is that, if something crazy happens, it's probably happening here. So I love reading about Florida - nonfiction and fiction alike - for these reasons, and I think few have captured that essential quirkiness of the state better than Orlean did with this book.
Probably one of the most unique (bizarre?) books I have ever read. Here's the reflection I wrote after I read it:
I know absolutely nothing about plants. Nor do I really have an interest in ever knowing anything about plants. And yet, be that as it may, I found Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, fascinating. How can that be?
First off, the book is not like any other book, and definitely not like any other biography, I have read. Upon reading the first chapter, it comes across as a fairly straightforward narrative: the life and passions of John Laroche, a man accused, and convicted, of stealing orchids out of a Florida state reserve called the Fakahatchee Strand. On reading further, however, the book is no longer so simple.
My next thought is that the story is actually a biography, not about John Laroche, but about orchids. However, as the book shifts from recounting the history of orchid collecting into recounting the history of the Fakahatchee, and then the Seminole Indians, and then other plants entirely, it becomes obvious that, despite the name, orchids are not the subject of this book.
So what is the subject? What is this book about? What is this book a biography about? And how, even though I care nothing about plants, does Orlean keep me reading? I think the answer to these questions is hinted at in the subtitle: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. Susan Orlean did not write a book about Orchids because she loves plants. Instead, she wrote a story about something that baffled her. Why, throughout history, have people been so obsessed with vegetation? Why are so many individuals willing to dedicate their entire lives to, and spend all of their wealth on, plants?
Or, more importantly, why are people ever obsessed? With anything. What, even, is obsession? What does it stem from? What does it give to us, and what does it take away? Underneath the plants, and the history, and the strange people, these are the questions of Orlean’s book.
Personally, I find Orlean’s interactions with the eccentric world of plant obsession fascinating. The historical details she includes are anything but boring. This is a strange story, and all of her details are startling. Her subject matter may only appeal to a small audience, but the way she presents her subject matter targets a much larger group of readers. She is not writing a book for plant fanatics. Not really. She keeps us interested with bizarre facts, keen observations, and unique experiences.
However, she is a bit random, and while this can be intriguing, it can also be distracting. Some of her tangents seem to have little or no connection with the rest of her story. She also repeats herself. This could be a good thing, if her goal was to help us keep track of people and places, but instead it is redundant. She retells details as if they were new information, and so, instead of remembering the person from a previous chapter, we merely experience déjà vu, and are left a bit dazed and confused.
She also uses extremely long paragraphs. Paragraphs that clump together multiple thoughts, and even stories. While this is not necessarily wrong, I did find it distracting, and I thought it made the book harder to read.
Jasno mi je zašto je Čarli Kaufman skrenuo pameću kada je poželeo da napravi adaptaciju "Kradljivca orhideje". Nije mi jasno kako je ipak uspeo da bude toliko genijalan da od nečega poput ove knjige napravi onako genijalnu adaptaciju - "Adaptaciju"! Film me je previše zaintrigirao i kada sam dobio informaciju da Suzanina knjiga postoji na srpskom, odmah sam pohrlio u knjižare po svoj primerak. Iste večeri sam krenuo da je čitam. Pre. Tri. Meseca. Da, ovo je najduže čitanje 325 stranica u mom životu i znate šta? Nikada nešto gore od ove knjige nisam pročitao. Hahahaha, zaista, polako sam počeo da osećam kako i ja ludim poput Čarlija, u želji da pređem preko stranica i stranica muke, patnje i bola. Verovao sam da sam sam za to kriv! Niko me nije terao da kupim knjigu, znao sam o čemu je, trebao sam pretpostaviti da će me potpuno udaviti. Ali, to je bilo u početku. Negde od sredine knjige počeo sam da se svađam sa neposojećom silom koja me je naterala da istrajem u njenom čitanju, a do kraja sam poželeo da je bukvalno bacim kroz prozor. Ovde nema objektivnosti. Mrzim ovu knjigu ahahahah. Isto tako se u potpunosti slažem sa onim "savremeni klasik dokumentarističke proze", na njenoj poleđini. Ova knjiga je istražena do detalja! DIVIM se Suzan Orlin koja je uspela da prvo obiđe sva ova mesta, upozna sve ove ljude, sve to obradi i stavi na papir. Ali, pobogu, ovo je trebalo ostati na novinskom članku koji je napisala, a iz koga se rodila cela ideja za knjigu. TOLIKO nepotrebnih stvari sam saznao u toku čitanja, toooooliko je knjiga bila zatprana (ma pretrpana!) svim i svačim, bez rezona, jednim za drugim, da mislim da nikada ponovo neću doživeti ovako frustrirajuće čitalačko iskustvo. Poželeo sam da je prodam, ili bacim, ali je toliko ne volim, da je na neki čudan, mazohistički način i dalje želim na svojoj polici. Sve u svemu, zahvalan sam na činjenici što sam je konačno završio, a budem li u skorije vreme video neku orhideju, tačno znam da ću osetiti bol u bubrezima, jetri i levoj srčanoj pretkomori.
"This was the low, simmering part of the state, as quiet as a shrine except for crickets keeping time and the creak of trees bending and the crackly slam of a screen door and the clatter of a car now and then ..."
"We whipped past abandoned bungalows melting into woodpiles, and past NO TRESPASSING signs shot up like Swiss cheese, and past a rusty boat run aground on someone's driveway, and past fences leaning like old ladies, and then almost past a hand-lettered sign that interested Laroche, so he smashed the brakes and craned his neck to read it. 'Look at this!' he exclaimed. The sign read FOR SALE: BABY GOATS, GUAVA JAM, CACTUS. 'That's pretty fucking weird, don't you think?' he asked."
A while back when I blogged about reading and enjoying WINGED OBSESSION, Jessica Speart ‘s compelling work of narrative nonfiction about an exotic butterfly collector and the fish and wildlife agent obsessed with bringing him to justice, a few people who commented wanted to make sure I’d also read Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF. I hadn’t, but somehow, that book never rose to the top of my to-read list. I wasn’t all that into orchids, so I wasn’t sure it was for me. What I didn’t realize then was that while the book is indeed about orchids, it’s more about single-minded passions and Florida and the swamp and the way those things can tug at a person’s soul. THE ORCHID THIEF was indeed a book for me. I read it on vacation in Florida, just a few miles from the Fakahatchee Strand where the whole story began. And I loved it.
Orlean tells the facts of this story in a way that’s at least as suspenseful and intriguing as any novel I’ve ever read. At the center of that story is John Laroche, the man she’d read about in a small newspaper clipping when he was in court for stealing wild orchids from Florida’s state-owned Fakahatchee Strand. Laroche is a character in the very best sense of the word – an eccentric, imperfect, intense bean pole of a man who invited Orlean into his world. What she discovered there was a doorway to the world of exotic plants and the people who love them, sometimes more than they love their own families or even their own lives. Where one finds passion that intense, one also finds amazing drama, and that’s what kept me turning the pages of this book. That, and the chance to travel through Orlean’s words back through a place that both enchants and terrifies me – the Fakahatchee Strand, where I took my first off-boardwalk hike this spring.
In THE ORCHID THIEF, Orleans weaves together the story of Laroche himself and his stolen orchids with the history of orchid collecting, the high stakes trade that it is today, the Florida real estate scams of the 1940s and 50s, and the history of the Fakahatchee Strand itself. Full of colorful characters and settings so rich you’ll feel like you should be slapping at mosquitoes, THE ORCHID THIEF is a great read for lovers of nature as well as students of human psychology. I couldn’t put it down.
Ahoy there me mateys! I wish I would have known that this book was a reissue 15 years after its original release and that the book originally had been an expansion of a news article. Because while I enjoyed parts of this book a lot, I believe these two facts were what led to overall disappointment.
The blurb had promised the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief of the title. Turns out there really wasn't enough substance in the theft part. So only some of the chapters dealt with him. And of those chapters, many of those dealt with the Seminole nation of Florida and Laroche's relationship with the tribe. Many of the other chapters dealt with the orchid professional in general, some snippets of Florida orchid growers specifically, and then had random forays into elements of Florida history and orchid history.
Now I did love learning about the Seminole tribe and Florida real estate history and the Fakahatchee Strand. But I felt it was more like reading small tantalizing articles that tried to shoehorn in orchids without getting into enough detail to satisfy in any area. Also this was written in 1998 in the earlier days of the internet. It makes sense because it felt like the research was not its strong point and the majority of it was the author's opinions and commentary from those that she interviewed. Not horrible but I wanted more.
I think I just wanted more in-depth orchid science and a more deftly constructed book. I do have to give a shout out to narrator Anna Fields. She did a great job with the given material and I don't think I would have enjoyed this nearly as much without her. No regrets but not one to recommend either. Arrr!
Su lectura es inmersiva: puede resultar agobiante la cantidad de nombres de personas y lugares, pero una vez que se entra en el tono del libro, uno queda rendido a los pies de Orlean.
Ya ni importa si su estructura no sigue un orden clásico, porque sólo quiero leer todo lo que está allí: me he convertido en un adicto de las orquídeas y me siento amigo de Laroche.
Reservé sus últimas diez páginas para saborearlas, porque sabía que no quedaba más fuera de ellas, y su final me ha dejado como aquellos que quisieron cultivar la orquídea fantasma fuera de los pantanos.
You could summarize The Orchid Thief as "Florida is a crazy place, y'all." It's one of the better non-fiction books I've read recently, starting with a scheme by John Laroche, a not-precisely-likeable but still very interesting fellow whom the author interviews and follows around in the course of writing her book, but delving into Victorian orchid cultivation (they had no idea how to grow orchids, especially in England, but they were mad about them) and flower genetics, Florida endangered species laws, and Florida real estate.
Orchid collectors, apparently, get really, really obsessed. I can understand this, as I know some people who are into dog and cat shows, and that whole scene is just as silly and obsessive. Orchids, of course, are easier to cultivate and breed for highly specific characteristics, so there are thousands of species and subspecies, and collectors are basically engaged in competitive orchid breeding. Some people will pay thousands for a single plant, and successful orchid breeders who have a popular strain are frequently subjected to break-ins and thefts. There is much drama at orchid shows, people flinging accusations (like claiming you've bred a new strain that was actually smuggled from Thailand) and threats, and meanwhile, poachers can make a good living stealing rare orchids out of protected Florida wetlands for breeders. (They also poach frogs, birds, trees, and pretty much anything else that's endangered and therefore valuable.) This has been going on for over a hundred years; the Victorians had their own "orchid bubble" and they hired people to go to Florida or South America to collect specimens for them.
Most everything in this book centers on Florida, though, and so Susan Orleans goes beyond orchids talking about all kinds of other schemes Florida has been subjected to. There is the long-running saga of the Seminole tribe, an Indian tribe that owned slaves and sided with the Confederacy but whose slaves were pretty much tribe members. The Seminoles were the first tribe to get rich off of casinos, so they are pitched all sorts of business deals by everyone from Donald Trump to Japanese investors. Orleans talks quite a bit about James Billie, the current and former chief of the Seminoles, including his trial for shooting an endangered Florida panther.
There is also a chapter about the infamous Gulf American Land Corporation, which made "Florida swampland" so famous as a real estate scam. They sold thousands of plots of land to working class people, military personnel, etc., as affordable retirement investments. Many of these people never even visited the land they'd bought and so were unaware that more likely than not you needed a boat to reach it. Gulf American was still in operation up until 1970, and the plots are still there - a few people actually moved into the "development" area and live there still, without electricity or telephones or anything else. Crazy people, y'all.
I thought I had added this book to my “read” list along time ago, but discovered I hadn’t. I read this book back in 2002 on the recommendation of a friend. The book is non-fiction and recounts the various misadventures of a a gent whose calling in life is “orchid poacher“. In other words, he makes a living going into the hinterlands of the Everglades (Fakahatchee Strand) to find and harvest, often illegally, rare orchids for buyers willing to pay Big Bucks for these amazing plants. The Holy Grail of orchids is the ghost orchid, a breathtakingly beautiful, and extremely rare, orchid. You can pay a whopping fine and go to jail if you’re caught poaching one of these endangered plants. Please don’t call them “flowers“: orchids are, according to Ms. Orlean, the most highly evolved flowering organisms.
Small wonder, as I learned from this book, there is a thriving “subculture“ in Florida of folks who are absolutely raving insane for orchids. Evidently, there are orchid conventions that are held in parts of Florida, particularly South Florida, where these amazing plants are shown off, purchased, traded, and otherwise worshipped. It’s not exactly “the sport of kings“, but it’s a serious business for a lot of people. Who knew? I thought this book was going to be a snore, but it was absolutely fascinating—my bias, of course, being that I live in Florida and, over time, have become a “student“ of its unique and twisted zaniness. Mask? Who, me?
The 2002 film “Adaptation” starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and other luminaries, is based on this book.
The book gets five stars from me because it is well written and was fun reading from start to finish. It would make great beach reading - if beaches were open.
more shortly, but I really enjoyed this book, which I read because it's my real-world book group's selection for September. It's sad that it got such low ratings because of people's expectations as a book of true crime, because it's so much more: obsession, passion, history, and an exploration of why people become so consumed by having something that they'll do anything to get it.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998; 2002 ed.) 296 pages.
Setting: Florida (Fakahatchee Strand, Golden Gate, Homestead…near Naples, Florida)
It’s hard to believe a book can be written, and even be found interesting, about the extreme passion of orchids. But, here we are. And, believe it or not, orchid lovers have their own society…the American Orchid Society. And once every three years, the World Orchid Conference is held in different places around the world where awards are given out. It’s a cut-throat competition!
The author captures the atmosphere of the south perfectly. This book is part history, memoir, true crime, investigative reporting, and travelogue. I love her writing style and her humor. This gets a 4-star because the last quarter of the book did drag on a bit about nothing really. Otherwise, a super interesting bit of Florida history.
John Laroche, along with a few Seminole men, who actually had immunity from the federal endangered-species law, and had a right to harvest what they may, were caught illegally poaching more than 200 wild orchids and bromeliads out of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve (Florida), in an attempt to bring to a laboratory to be cloned and sold to orchid collectors around the world. Laroche thought he could use the rights of the Seminoles to collect the orchids, particularly the rare Ghost Orchid, to clone and become a self-made millionaire. That didn't pan out so well for him.
There are 11 species of orchids, the Ghost Orchid being one, that can only be found in the Fakahatchee and nowhere else in the U.S. Other native orchids were also found in the Big Cypress and the Everglades. Others were hunted down by hired orchid hunters in South America and the West Indies, and other jungles around the world.
For some reason, the various news articles on this story caught the attention of the author. She spent two years with John Laroche to get his full story, but ended up learning and discovering so much more about the rich history on native orchids that are so elusive, they only grow on tree branches in particular jungles. One seedpod can produce 50 thousand plants or more, and depending on its rarity, could be sold from $100, even thousands of dollars each, up to $10,000. The seeds take from 6-8 months to germinate, then a full seven years before the first flower is produced. Today, orchids can be cloned very easily by the billions and sold at any Kmart or Walmart across the U.S.
In the 1800’s, orchids were such cherished plants, that the rich (the only ones who could afford them) would hand them down to specially chosen loved ones to care for them after their deaths. One orchid can outlive many generations, if properly cared for.
This book is filled with very unique and rich history of the people, especially the Seminole Indians, and the land around the Fakahatchee Strand that you may not read anywhere else. So, if you are from this area, you will definitely enjoy and will relate to a lot of what she writes about. Of course, there was Hurricane Ian that just swept through Florida in October 2022, practically flooding and devastating the whole state. I would be surprised if any of the places mentioned are even still there.
Adaptation (2002), starring Nicholas Cage (as Charlie Kauffman); Meryl Streep (as Susan Orleans); and Chris Cooper (as John Laroche)
Other books to explore:
The Orchid Hunters by Norman MacDonald (1939)
The Joy of Orchid’s: Fennell’s Orchid Jungle by Thomas and Dorothy Fennell (1984)
Посягам към всяка книга от библиотеката „Cabinet of curiosities“ на „Ерове“ с огромна доза скептицизъм и след приключването на всяка съм изненадан и очарован. „Крадецът на орхидеи“ не прави изключение.
Първо отново да отворя дума за оформлението на книгата. Всичко – ВСИЧКО – е изпипано до последния детайл Корица, хартия, шрифт, превод, разделител, каквото се сети човек. Минималистичното разнообразие на кориците придава на всяка от книгите дух, да не кажа характер, а шрифта, в комбинация със снежнобялата хартия е истинско пиршество за очите на читателя.
Но, за „Крадецът на орхидеи“: Сюзан Орлийн не ни потапя в хаотичния живот на Ларош, може това да е била идеята на статията в Нюйоркър, от където е тръгнало всичко, но книгата определено се извисява над симпатичния негодник, който и задава първоначалната рамка. Това е едно антропологично изследване на съвременна субкултура, тясно свързана Флорида, в чиито благодатен климат и тресавища вирее всяко едно растение което човек бодне. Книгата не е и за орхидеи, или поне - не само. Журналистката ни въвежда в един цял свят, в едно съвременно племе, неограничено от расови, класови и каквито и да е други предразсъдъци, чиято госпо��стваща религия е любовта към растенията. Те имат собствен език – жаргонна смес от ботаничека терминология и редица измислени думи, собствени религиозни ритуали – всекидневните специфични грижи за различните растения, собствени празници – десетки изложения и събирания, йерархия.
Орлийн преследва субкултурата на отглеждащите орхидеи със страстта на антрополог, открил недокоснато от цивилизацията племе и безпристрастността на топ журналист. Покрай „полевите“ си изследвания по изложения, разговори с големи и малки „производители“, посещения в ��езервати, тя ни предоставя и редица историческа информация – история на щата, история на лова на орхидеи, история на племето Факахачи, с които действията на Ларош са тясно свързани, и така успява да изгради плътна и цялостна картина на тази няколко вековна мания на човечеството по орхидеите. Дори успява да ни зарази с част от собствения си пламък по тази така жадувана Polyrrhiza lindenii, само за да ни приземи в края на книгата, карайки ни да осъзнаем, че мотивите – нейните, на производителите, на индианците, на Ларош – не са от голямо значение. Голямото е в пътуването през блатата на Флорида, в съществуването на това мултинационално племе любители на растенията, в смисъла осмислящ живота на засегнатите от непонятната мания.
Вече чакам следващата книга на „Ерове“, отново скептичен и отново с нетърпение.
Rex Stout’s fat detective suffered from orchidelirium. He would never vary his routine of working in his famous plant rooms on the top floor of the brownstone house no matter what the emergency, to Archie Goodwin’s consternation. Like bibliomania, orchidelirium is a mania that involves collecting — unlimited collecting. The orchid is “a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant.” Orchids have evolved into the “biggest flowering plant family on earth,” and many survive only in small niches they have carved out for themselves. They are found in many different environments, and human hybridization of the plants creates more varieties all the time. Those afflicted can never seem to get enough. Susan Orlean describes this mania in her fascinating book, which is a compendium of information about orchids as well. The number of orchid species is unknown, and more are discovered or developed all the time. Larceny among collectors is not unknown, and Orlean describes John Laroche, a man of many manias — he collected turtles, and I mean lots of turtles, as a child. Laroche dreamed of making a fortune by finding the one really rare specimen of plant that he could then breed and sell. Seeing himself as a moral thief, Laroche, rationalized his larcenous behavior. He allied himself with the Seminoles, knowing that they were exempt from federal laws prohibiting the collection of wild orchids, so that he could hopefully collect and breed the rare ghost orchid. His justification was that once bred it would likely no longer be collected illegally. Apparently, flower theft is epidemic in Florida; one case Orlean cites was the theft of a fifteen-foot palm tree. The tree was dug up and the hole filled in during the night. How they managed that with no one noticing is somewhat startling. One farmer lost $20,000 worth of bell peppers from his fields. He decided to get out of the business. Laroche merely provides anecdotal backdrops for a very interesting history of the mania for orchid collecting.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I like histories and I like learning how people--usually real people-- live their lives in their particular environment.
This has both: learn the history of the orchid and discover a subculture of crazed flower lovers in Florida. I knew nothing about orchids when I started reading this-- it made me want to know more. 'Why are people obsessed? ... Huh, that is kind of interesting... what an intriguing little flower!' It made me covet my own orchid (could I keep it alive?) and it made me secretly want to spend an entire day with them at the botanical garden.
A fascinating exploration of the obsession with orchids, The Orchid Thief is as much about its author as its subject. It is her story of writing the book: her observations and opinions of everyone she meets and the state of Florida. I preferred the sections not about her: the history of early orchid-hunters, the Victorian era orchid craze, international smuggling of plants and animals, and the local theft of plants. Some digressions, about the history of Floridian real estate fraud and the Seminole tribe, for instance, were less captivating. Nevertheless, reading about people's passion for flowers was quite enjoyable.
The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession is a fascinating, yet oddly meandering, account of journalist Susan Orlean's years-long investigation into the Florida covert orchid trade. The book began as an article published by Orlean in New Yorker magazine in 1995. Orlean became acquainted with John Laroche, an orchid-obsessed caucasian Floridian, who had recently been charged with poaching native Polyrrhiza lindenii (ghost orchid) plants from the Seminole (Native American) preservation at Fakahatchee Swamp, near Naples in south-western Florida. The entrepreneurial Laroche had intended propogating the rare orchids for sale, in collaboration with members of the Seminole community.
Through her association with the quirky and somewhat fickle Laroche, Orlean becomes acquainted with various characters from the Floridian nursery industry, whose activities range from the legitimate to the quite absurd. She delves into the history of orchid-gathering worldwide, as well as land acquisitions and family dynasties in southern Florida. I found it an immersive and (mostly) fascinating story, which was ultimately more an examination of the nature of passion, obsession and human nature than a story about an endangered floral species. However, I felt that the pace of the narrative varied wildly, which was occasionally jarring. The Orchid Thief and its adaptation to film formed the basis of the quirky 2002 Nicolas Cage film Adaptation. Alluring as the ghost orchid may be, I think I'll stick to my ubiquitous and endlessly forgiving Thelychiton (Dendrobium) kingianum (Australian rock orchids)!