Monday, March 18, 2013

Heading for the finish line

We're more than halfway through this year's One Island One Book and for me, at least, it's been one of the most educational editions of the program. I learned a lot about orchids, from reading the book and from attending a talk at the Key West Garden Club.
The most important thing I learned, according to Garden Club board member Rosi Ware, is that orchids are "hardier than people think." We are blessed to live in a place with orchid-friendly conditions -- humidity and dappled sunlight, essentially -- so even the black thumbs among us (ahem) should feel free to give it a try.
The most important thing about growing orchids, Rosi said, was to make sure their roots were well drained -- not in soil, unless they are ground orchids. She also noted something else I never realized -- that the skinnier an orchid's leaves, the more it wants sunlight.
If you want to purchase an orchid -- and get information from an expert on staff -- Rosi recommends going to the MARC plant store at the old May Sands School (entrance is on Seminary Street). To learn more about orchids, come to the library at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to hear Jay Pfahl, president of the Key West Orchid Society. And to hear more about the Key West Garden Club at West Martello -- a remarkable institution in its own right -- come to the Library on Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. to hear from Historian Tom Hambright.
Still want to talk about the book (The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean)? You've got a final chance -- tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. at the Florida Keys Community College Library. The college is at 5901 College Road on Stock Island; the library is upstairs in Building A.
And remember, you can chime in any time on the readalong (below). See you at the library -- or in the garden!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Orchid Thief readalong: Week 3

And so we come to the end and it's not far from where we started -- with orchid thief John Laroche in the Fakahatchee Strand, going after a ghost orchid. This time he's not intending to take it, just to show a ghost orchid in bloom to writer Susan Orlean, for whom it has become a minor obsession.

But they never find one. For me, one of the major questions of this book is whether that's OK. Orlean herself says this: "It was just as well that I never saw a ghost orchid, so that it could never disappoint me, and so it would remain forever something I wanted to see." Which is an interesting point -- kind of like Christmas morning when you're a kid, high expectations are so often not met. Except ... that the lure of the ghost orchid is central to the point of this book. Isn't it? (I can certainly understand, though, Orlean's overwhelming desire to get the hell out of the marsh before it got dark -- my husband and I once got lost until way past dark kayaking in the Everglades and it was most assuredly Not Fun.)

I'll be curious to hear readers' reactions to the book as we start meeting and talking about The Orchid Thief. The book definitely lacks the sort of narrative arc many may be used to from fiction or even more traditional nonfiction. Laroche as a central character -- the book is named for him, after all -- certainly poses a challenge for the writer, as he gives up on his driving obsession for orchids and cops a plea to the theft charge.

It appears to me that Orlean was really writing about obsession, not orchids -- the plants just happened to be the way she met the various obsessessives. "I suppose that is exactly what I was doing in Florida, figuring out how people found order and contentment and a sense of purpose in the universe by fixing their sights on one single thing or one belief or one desire," she writes. But on this re-reading after many years I mostly appreciated it as a book about Florida, specifically South Florida in the mid to late '90s, a time when I was really getting to know the place and figuring out that I was actually going to stay here. I liked her description and history of the Golden Gate Estates (yeah, I know that was in an early section) a lot. I admired the way she captured how the South Florida landscape can be both despair-inducing and so beautiful it takes your breath away, almost in the same moment. I loved her description of the smell of the Fakahatchee Strand: "you smell the tang of mud and the sourness of rotting leaves and the perfumes of a million different flowers floating by, each distinct but transparent, like soap bubbles." It reminded me of one summer, around the time she was writing this book, when I was housesitting on Upper Sugarloaf Key and came to appreciate the mucky mangrove smell of that area -- it's the smell of deterioration and rot, in one sense -- but also the smell of unstoppable, endlessly renewing Florida life.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Orchid Thief Online Readalong: Week 2

The second section of The Orchid Thief takes the focus a little off John Laroche (which had to be a relief for the author as well as the reader) and places it squarely on Florida, specifically the Everglades. I often don't appreciate outsiders' descriptions and opinions on a place I know well (though Orlean has probably spent more time in the Everglades than I have).
She captures, I think, the transition most of us go through between the time when we first get a look at the Everglades ecosystem and find it daunting -- it's not exactly Yosemite -- and when we start to appreciate its strange beauty. And Orlean makes the connection between that landscape and her real subject -- obsession -- on page 109: "the sheer bigness of the world made me feel lonely to the bone. 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."
The other major theme of this section was its focus on other orchid-obsessed people besides Laroche -- Mote and Fuchs and Smith. I imagine the purpose of that was to show that Laroche was not alone in his willingness to go to extremes in pursuit of orchid glory. I couldn't quite decide, however, whether this demonstrated that orchids make people a little nutty -- or just attract nutty people.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Orchid Thief Online Readalong: Week 1

First of all, if you're wondering what the heck is an online readalong, I'll refer you back to this post from last year. Please don't feel in any way pressured by the schedule. That's the beauty of this thing being online.
For the first section of the readalong, we read the first five chapters, or pages 1-85. Two elements really struck me on reading (or re-reading, since I read this book when it was first published back in 1998). The first was Florida and how well Susan Orlean describes it, both the place and its people. "There is something about Florida more seductive and inescapable than almost anywhere I've ever been," she writes. And she notes dryly, when discussing Laroche's court case, that "The state of Florida does incite people." I especially loved this line: "Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, and I have to start all over again."
The second thing that struck me about reading this passage was how this book isn't really about orchids or even about a particular orchid thief. It's about passion, or even obsession. I loved the historical sections about orchid collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when orchids were "a rich and romantic accessory, a polished little captive, a bit of wilderness under glass." Orlean acknowledges that it is this obsession, rather than orchids, that interests her about Laroche and his story. "I don't even especially like orchids," she writes. "What I wanted to see was this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way." And while she doesn't feel the passion herself, she finds it fascinating in others: "Collecting can be a sort of love sickness. If you collect living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, because even if you manage to find and possess the living things you want, there is no guarantee they won't die or change."
The link between these two topics -- Florida and obsession, specifically orchid obsession -- is John Laroche. The book opens with a physical description of him, though I was most taken with the nicknames bestowed on him by his employers in the Seminole Tribe: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man. Laroche himself explains what it's like to be an obsessive: "I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something -- I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it."
Things I'll be thinking about as I read the next section of the book (though you should feel free to comment on any aspect you like): What do we think of Laroche? Do we like him? Does he seem like a real guy? And why is it so important to him that his intelligence is recognized?