For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 26, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
The Ghost Orchid is a leafless epiphyte—a plant that lives attached to another plant. It is not a parasite that sucks life from its host but, rather, gets the sustaining nutrients it requires through the air and rain and bits of debris that happen upon its dangling mass of roots. The Ghost Orchid is a luminous white, and is found in the swamps of Florida—when it can be found at all. It is rare and therefore valuable, and therefore vulnerable to collectors, thieves, and poachers. The story of one such quirky poacher—brilliant, passionate, protective, and toothless—so obsessed with the endangered Ghost Orchid that he tried to steal it so he could clone it, is the subject of this nonfiction work by journalist Susan Orlean. John Laroche is a fascinating character, such an odd duck that he sometimes seems more character than the real person he is, but the elusive plant, and the obsession it draws, is the star of the story.
The Orchid Thief the book grew from a feature piece Orlean wrote for the New Yorker after Laroche’s arrest for poaching wild orchids from the Fakahatchee preserve, an “aggressively inhospitable place” that might give a person nightmares or might enthrall them with its wild and dangerous beauty. Laroche’s case was bizarre from the start. He was a professional horticulturist, running a nursery near Miami, on the tribal reservation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida . He loved orchids and would never harm them—this is as clear as swamp waters are murky. What’s also clear is that his love was obsession, and that he was, and is, not alone in his desire to see and capture the elusive Ghost Orchid.
Why is The Ghost Orchid a good read for women? This is very much a truth is stranger than fiction story, and it is utterly fascinating. It equally portrays the author’s journey as the subject’s. To write this book, Susan Orlean joined the orchid hunters and willingly entered a swamp full of cottonmouths and diamondbacks; sinkholes, bugs, snapping turtles, and poisonous plants; and soul-sucking wet hot humidity. That might tell you she was passionate about this story, or it might tell you she got caught up in their fanaticism. Either way, this is a story full of dogged determination and wrong-headedness, but also a devotion to a rare and beautiful creation. The subjects of this story are epiphytes themselves, living off the Ghost Orchid.