March 2018:  The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

March 2018: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean


I disagree with almost every cover review of this book.  It seems the publishers tried to bill this as a story of intrigue, adventure, and intense passion.  I thought it was a story chronicling a history of botanical greed.  I could most closely equate reading this book to an extended chapter of Howard Zinn's People's History - but for plants.  It was tragic but deeply illuminating.  It made me sad, it made me angry, it enlightened me, it enthralled me.  And it's changing how I interact with the world around me.

As a watercolorist that dabbles in botanical illustration and enjoys working with natural subjects in the wild, I am always curious to learn more about the natural flora and fauna of the world around me.  What are the names of all these living things?  What is their history?  Are they native or exotic?  Every landscape has a layered history, and understanding even a little bit of it makes your experience and interaction more deeply meaningful.

I have managed to acquire two orchids, very much by accident.  One was a housewarming gift that has just, rather miraculously (considering my not-so-green thumb), exploded into bloom again, and the other was given to me by the owner of the local bookshop while I was purchasing a book on how to help me care for the first orchid.  (The bookstore orchid hasn't bloomed for me yet and I'm burning to know what the flowers look like.)  It was a curiosity to learn a little more about these delicately beautiful and slightly alien plants that inspired me to read into the subject.

The history of the orchid reveals both Humanity's natural and powerful attraction to beauty, and it's selfish need to possess it.  Based on what I learned in this book, and others, such as Jack Nisbet's The Collector, I no longer pick up as much on nature walks (things like rocks, pine cones, bird feathers, etc.)  These days I prefer to tread lightly, make sure I leave my campsite or plein air site just as I found it, and limit my interaction with the landscape to observation.  I can take my paintings with me and leave the natural world as I found it.

Orlean's writing style is descriptive and enjoyable.  I looked forward to each new chapter and found the pages turning quickly.  This book reads more like a Bill Bryson book (but without the delightful British-style humor) and less like an adventure story with an overarching plot; it meanders down different pathways as it lays open various histories of the orchid, the state of Florida, the different people that have hunted, sold, bred, and stolen orchids, and the modern orchid and exotic plant trade of today.

As always, I'm curious to know what you think or if you have any book recommendations for me!  Feel free to share you thoughts using #greenleafblueberrybooks so that we can all discuss!

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