The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

By Susan Orlean; Published In 1998
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography, History, Science
I don't like hiking with convicts carrying machetes.

I don't want to collect anything for myself right now. I really have to watch myself, especially around plants. Even now, just being here, I still get that collector feeling. You know what I mean. 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. " He shook his head and scuffed up some gravel. "You know, I'll see something, just anything, and I can't help but thinking to myself, Well, Jesus Christ, now that's interesting! Jesus, I'll bet you could find a lot of those.

If you had really loved something, wouldn't a little bit of it always linger?

If you set out alone and sovereign, unconnected to a family, a religion, a nationality, a tradition, a class, then pretty soon you are too lonely, too self-invented and unique, and too much aware that there is no one else like you in the world. If you submerge yourself completely in something - your town or your profession or your hobby - then pretty soon you have to struggle up to the surface because you need to be sure that even though you are a part of something big, some community, you still exist as a single unit with a single mind. It is the fundamental contradictoriness of the United States of America - the illogical but optimistic notion that you can create a union of individuals in which every man is king.

I never thought very many people in the world were very much like John Laroche, but I realized more and more that he was only an extreme, not an aberration - that most people in some way or another do strive for something exceptional, something to pursue, even at their peril, rather than abide an ordinary life.

In the universe there are only a few absolutes of value; something is valuable because it can be eaten for nourishment or used as a weapon or made into clothes or it is valuable if you want it and you believe it will make you happy. Then it is worth anything as well as nothing, worth as much as you will give to have something you think you want.

I passed so many vacant acres and looked past them to so many more vacant acres and looked ahead and behind at the empty road and up at the empty sky; 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. If I had been an orchid hunter I wouldn't have seen this space as sad-making and vacant - I think I would have seen it as acres of opportunity where the things I loved were waiting to be found.

I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words 'swamp' and 'orchids' and 'Seminoles' and 'cloning' and 'criminal' together in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can't believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.

I suppose I do have one embarrassing passion- I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.

I think the real reason is that life has no meaning. I mean, no obvious meaning. You wake up, you go to work, you do stuff. I think everybody's always looking for something a little unusual that can preoccupy them and help pass the time.

It's not really about collecting the thing itself," Laroche went on. "It's about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It's a kind of direction." He stopped on the word "direction" and chortled. "If anybody had a plant I didn't have, I made sure to get it. It was like a heroin addiction. If I ever had money I would spend it on plants.

I wanted a Fakahatchee ghost orchid, in full bloom, maybe attached to a gnarled piece of custard apple tree, and I wanted its roots to spread as broad as my hand and each root to be only as wide as a toothpick. I wanted the bloom to be snow-white, white as sugar, white as lather, white as teeth. I knew its shape by heart, the peaked face with the droopy mustache of petals, the albino toad with its springy legs. It would not be the biggest or the showiest or the rarest or the finest flower here, except to me, because I wanted it.

I would argue that it might be easier to endure loneliness than to endure the idea that you might disappear.

More and more, I felt that I was meeting people like Lee who didn't at all seem part of this modern world and this moment in time - the world of petty aggravations and obligations and boundaries, a time of bored cynicism - because how they lived and what they lived for was so optimistic. They sincerely loved something, trusted in the perfectibility of some living thing, lived for a myth about themselves and the idea of adventure, were convinced that certain things were really worth dying for, believed that they could make their lives into whatever they dreamed.

Now I was also trying to understand how someone could end such intense desire without leaving a trace. If you had really loved something, wouldn't a little bit of it always linger? A couple of houseplants? A dinky Home Depot Phalaenopsis in a coffee can? I personally have always found giving up on something a thousand times harder than getting it started, but evidently Laroche's finishes were downright and absolute, and what's more, he also shut off any chance of amends.

Orchid hunting is a mortal occupation.

Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida

Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.

The old orchid hunter lay back on his pillow, his body limp... 'You'll curse the insects,' he said at least, 'and you'll curse the natives... The sun will burn you by day and the cold will shrivel you by night. You'll be racked by fever and tormented by a hundred discomforts, but you'll go on. For when a man falls in love with orchids, he'll do anything to possess the one he wants. It's like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine... it's a sort of madness...

There is a deep stillness in the Fakahatchee, but there is not a moment of physical peace. Something is always brushing against you or lapping at you or snagging at you or tangling in your legs, and the sun is always pummeling your skin, and the wetness in the air makes your hair coil like a phone cord. You never smell plain air in a swamp - you smell the tang of mud and the sourness of rotting leaves and the cool musk of new leaves and the perfumes of a million different flowers floating by, each distinct but transparent, like soap bubbles. The biggest number in the universe would not be big enough to count the things your eyes see. Every inch of land holds up a thatch of tall grass or a bush or a tree, and every bush or tree is girdled with another plant’s roots, and every root is topped with a flower or a fern or a swollen bulb, and every one of those flowers and ferns is the pivot around which a world of bees and gnats and spiders and dragonflies revolve. The sounds you hear are twigs cracking underfoot and branches whistling past you and leaves murmuring and leaves slopping over the trunks of old dead trees and every imaginable and unimaginable insect noise and every kind of bird peep and screech and tootle, and then all those unclaimed sounds of something moving in a hurry, something low to the ground and heavy, maybe the size of a horse in the shape of a lizard, or maybe the size, shape and essential character of a snake. In the swamp you feel as if someone had plugged all of your senses into a light socket. A swamp is logy and slow-moving about at the same time highly overstimulating. Even in the dim, sultry places deep within it, it is easy to stay awake.

There is nothing more melancholy than empty festive places.

There were orchids for sale, for one and two and three and five hundred dollars, a madhouse of orchids in every color, in every shape, with wide leaves and skinny leaves and no leaves at all, with fat jutting lips and lips cupped like thimbles, and with blackish-red hoods and freckles, with ruffles, with pleats, with corkscrew curls, big as fists, small as fingernails, smelling of honey, grass, citrus, cinnamon, or of nothing, not a smell at all but just the heavy warm quality that air has after it has been sitting in a flower.

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.