There's an orchid exhibit going on now at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. My husband and I went to the Arboretum a week or so ago, not with the aim of going to the exhibit, but only with the intent to "get out of town" for a couple hours, to breath fresh air even if it was still cold air. I hadn't anticipated the floral olfactory blast when we opened the door to the Visitor's Center and there the orchids all were, filling the lobby. In the middle of a long winter when the only fresh flower in sight is wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store and everything green and alive is hidden under a couple feet of snow, the sweet spicy smell of so many flowers actually in dirt and growing, blooming, was like a reminder of a forgotten reality.
I'm not an orchid enthusiast and my thumb isn't even a hint of green, but several years ago I read and loved The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orleans. The book had its origin in a profile piece Susan Orleans wrote about John Laroche for The New Yorker, a piece that was triggered by an article in a newspaper that had grabbed her attention. Laroche had been arrested for stealing wild orchids from the Fakahatchee, swampland that only the Seminole Indians were allowed to take from. Laroche, an employee of the tribe, believed the liberty applied to him as well and took his case to court. From this core, Orleans wrote a book that not only explores the character of Laroche, but also the nature and culture (read, obsession) of orchid collecting in Florida and around the world now and centuries past, the history and culture of the Seminole Indians, and the noncoastal nontourist inland Florida culture. But the book is about more as all good books are. It is about pursuit and passion. About wanting to want something.
"If the ghost orchid was really only a phantom it was still such a bewitching one that it could seduce people to pursue it year after year and mile after miserable mile. If it was a real flower I wanted to keep coming back to Florida until I could see one. The reason was not that I love orchids. I don't even especially like orchids. What I wanted was to see this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way. Everyone I was meeting connected to the orchid poaching had circled their lives around some great desire--Laroche had his crazy inspirations and orchid lovers had their intense devotion to their flowers and the Seminoles had their burning dedication to their history and culture--a desire that than answered questions for them about how to spend their time and their money and who their friends would be and where they would travel and what they did when they got there. It was religion. I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants, but it isn't part of my constitution. I think people my age are embarassed by too much enthusiasm and believe that too much passion about anything is naive. I supposed I do have one unembarassing passion--I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately. That night I called Laroche and told him that I had just come back from looking for ghost orchids in Fakahatchee but that I had seen nothing but bare roots. I said that I was wondering whether I had missed this year's flowers or whether perhaps the only place the ghost orchid bloomed was in the imagination of people who'd walked too long in the swamp. What I didn't say was that strong feelings always make me skeptical at first. What else I didn't say was that his life seemed to be filled with things that were just like the ghost orchid--wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with but a little fantastic and fleeting and out of reach." –Susan Orleans, The Orchid Thief