05 May 2011

Orchid Fever, by Eric Hansen

I just realised I got through the whole of April without writing a single review, and yet I posted something nearly every day of the month. This has to be a record for me. Of course there were reviews, but they were recycled ones that I wrote years go.

Full title: Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy
Year published: 2000
Genre: Non-fiction, travel, history, flowers

I came across this book at a second hand shop a couple of years ago and was intrigued by the title. I then stuck it in the dreaded TBR stack and forgot about it, until last month when I was browsing my TBR for something to read. I promptly picked it up, started reading, and was soon engrossed in the world of orchids and orchid people.

Hansen immersed himself deeply in the orchid world, interviewing collectors, breeders and horticulturists, and obsessively hunting down some collector/breeders who had run afoul of the catch-22 of the CITES convention: in order to own and sell orchids on the CITES list, you had to have CITES papers, but if your orchids were acquired before CITES, when no papers were needed, you would be treated as a criminal, just in case you had acquired them illegally. He points out some major flaws in the CITES convention as regards flora (especially that it makes things hard for scientists and forbids the rescue of plants from habitat that’s about to be destroyed), and relates his attempts to get a handle on the apparent idiocy of some of the CITES rules, but seems to have run into obstacles everywhere. The part of the book that deals with this does drag somewhat, as Hansen gets repetitive and even ranty on the subject at times, but it is enlivened by the portraits of the people he met while researching that part.

Interestingly, the people who were most inclined to talk to him about this situation and answer questions were the people one would have expected to not want to talk: people who had been “made examples of” with confiscation of orchids, fines and jail sentences for possession of illegal orchids, apparently in order to scare others, whereas the people most closely involved in CITES couldn’t or wouldn’t give him much information.

Therefore the book gives a rather one-sided view of this subject. I would love to see something on this subject from the point of view of the CITES people, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

But Hansen doesn’ just write about the apparent idiocy of CITES, he also gives a lot of interesting information and historical tidbits that he peppers the text with in such a way that it never gets boring.  The highlights of the book are the portraits of orchid people and orchids, some of which are very funny and always entertaining, even if sometimes in a “goodness me!” kind of way. I would have liked to see colour photos of the orchids he mentions, as there are only line drawings in the book, and I spent quite a lot of time searching for photos on the Web so I could truly understand what he was describing when discussing orchids. This disrupted my reading somewhat.

This book is well written and gives a look into a world that seems to be inhabited mostly by eccentrics and fanatics (quote: "I don't want to give the impression that perfectly normal, healthy, thoughtful and balanced people are not drawn to orchids. I am told they exist. I just didn't have much luck finding them."), some lovable and some not. It is also interesting to follow his development from interested observer to full fledged fanatic through the course of the book, although in his case he didn’t start collecting orchids, but orchid people. 4 stars.

2 comments:

George said...

Of course the greatest orchid fanatic was Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. On a different topic, I just read a wonderful review of CLASSICS & TRANSLATION. Here's the link if you're interested: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Classic-Carne-Ross-7028. I've badgered my college library into ordering the book. Sounds great!

Bibliophile said...

Thanks for the link, George.

Nero Wolfe is downright normal compared with some of the characters Hansen encountered while writing the book.