It’s high summer in the city, which means at least a month spent lying flat in front of massive fans and pressing cold pop cans to my forehead punctuated by episodic treks into the pseudo-wild to canoe and swim and frolic. I have less of a interest in long stretches of reading in the sweltering heat, so what I do read tends to be either really good or quickly abandoned for greener pastures.
For the past few months, with the release of Keep it Beautiful at the centre of my universe, short fiction reading has been the order of the day. After all that fiction, I’ve been craving information. Yearning for facts and figures artfully presented. So, naturally, I paid a visit to Susan Orlean.
The first time I read The Orchid Thief was in too-close proximity to the first time I saw Adaptation, the amazing film written by Charlie Kaufman. I could only hear the voices of Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, and I feel now that I was deaf to the nuances of the prose and much of the tapestry of back story that make the book such a delicious read.
This time around—reading mostly in my little scrub-grass square of an urban backyard—I am most taken by Orlean’s love prose to the Florida ecosystem. She points out the fundamental dichotomy of the place—the fact that, for all its pristinely programmed theme parks and massive shopping malls pumped full of bone-chilling A/C, the place is teeming with life. A construction divot alongside a highway fills with rainwater and fish enough to catch. The air is thick and fertile, so much so that Bromeliad plants cling to any elevated surface they can find and thrive on air alone. She describes the Fakahatchee Strand as a dark, wet palimpsest of resurrection ferns and plants that grow from the roots and bark and leaves and trunks of other plants, the most fleeting and haunting of which is the ghost orchid. She documents centuries of thieves and poachers and explorers and hunters who have been lured by some of the world’s most beautiful, ephemeral, deadly flora and fauna. And she does it all without an ounce of nostalgia. In short, she makes me want to be there—in the midst of the muck and heat and buggy greatness—like, now.
The book is nearly perfect in its building of a self-contained universe. John Laroche, the other plant collectors and poachers he runs amongst, the historical orchid hunters who killed and burned and murdered their way to holding the world’s most beautiful wild orchid species, often only to have them die, sometimes in transit back to the collectors and dealers they worked for, are all moons stuck in the same orbit. It’s the specific pull of orchids, yes, one of the few living things on the planet that can live forever, given the right conditions, and yet is astonishingly slow to grow and difficult to keep in captivity. But it is also the lure of the unknown; the much more common drive to seek out wild places and package them back with us in the hopes that the thrill and freedom of the expedition will stay with us through the keeping of the thing. Any kid whose ever tried to smuggle a frog home from the campground knows that feeling never lasts long.