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.