Giving Up the Ghost




I’M NOT SURE I would recommend visiting the Fakahatchee Strand swamp in south Florida. In midsummer, the air hangs thick with mosquitos that can carpet a bare arm in seconds. During the rainy season, when the air is cool and the swamp reaches its peak depth, alligators, cottonmouths, and fish-eating spiders teem beneath the surface, just out of view. In her masterwork of nonfiction The Orchid Thief (1998), Susan Orlean cautions, “You would have to want something very badly to go looking for it in the Fakahatchee Strand.”

Last year, I waded into the Fakahatchee wanting very badly to find what Orlean had spent her whole book looking for, but never found: a ghost orchid in bloom. No flower may have a story as tortuous as the ghost orchid. It blooms only once a year, for just 10 days. It can take 16 years before a plant produces a single flower. On average, five percent of these flowers get pollinated because only one insect on earth, the giant sphinx moth, has a proboscis long enough to extend down the ghost’s six-inch nectar spur. The ghost orchid is an epiphyte, meaning it grows on another plant but is not a parasite. Its roots blend in with whatever offshoot from which it grows. When it blooms, its delicate white flower appears to be floating, suspended like a phantom above the swamp’s floor. Spend enough time looking for — and failing to find — the ghost orchid, and you might begin to doubt it even exists.

Orlean had developed an interest in the ghost orchid after reading a short article in the Miami Herald about a wiry man named John Laroche who’d been arrested for poaching endangered orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand. “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,” Orlean says at the start of The Orchid Thief.

Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, had a penchant for finding stories in unsuspected places. Sometimes, when pressed for ideas, she would walk to a newsstand near her office and buy a stack of magazines. Orlean knew nothing about orchids and she was confused about how a flower could so consume someone that they’d feel compelled to steal it. She told her editor that she’d like to write about Laroche and the subculture of orchid enthusiasm; soon she was on a plane to Florida. The subsequent piece, “Orchid Fever,” was published in January 1995 and is considered one of the finest profiles ever written; in the lede, Orlean describes Laroche as a man with “the posture of al-dente spaghetti.”

Confident there was more to the story, Orlean returned to Florida to expand “Orchid Fever” into a book. Before long, she encountered a problem. Laroche’s eccentric manner had sustained a magazine feature, but he was hardly enough of a character to carry an entire book. Orlean compensated by immersing herself in research, which yielded disparate sections on botany, the Florida real estate bubble, Laroche’s trial, and digressions on the essence of passion, obsession, and loneliness. None of this work seemed to add up to a story. Orlean regretted picking such an unconventional topic. She didn’t know what her book was about. She wondered if she could back out of the project.

As Orlean continued reporting, she became fixated on seeing the object of Laroche’s obsession: the ghost orchid. Orlean repeatedly went into the swamp, believing she could only understand Laroche if she saw this exceedingly rare flower. “The reason was not that I love orchids,” Orlean confides in The Orchid Thief. “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.”

Orlean’s work was recommended to me some years ago by a mentor who believed I should study it to help find my own voice. At a used bookstore just outside Boston, I bought a paperback copy of The Orchid Thief. Having no interest in botany, I approached the book skeptically. But early on, it becomes apparent that the book is not really about orchids so much as it’s about trying to understand the nature of passion and the void its absence creates. “I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants,” Orlean writes, “but it isn’t part of my constitution. […] I suppose I do have one unembarrassing passion — I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”

Over the years, I would consult The Orchid Thief as a writing guide of sorts, rarely reading it in its entirety, but rather revisiting specific sections the way one might flip through Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style for a quick refresher or a bout of inspiration. “Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more,” Orlean says of the initial newspaper article about John Laroche, “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.”

During one of my sporadic rereadings last winter, I turned to the “Reader’s Guide” in the back of my worn paperback copy, where a Q-and-A reveals that, after The Orchid Thief was published, Orlean declined offers to see a blooming ghost orchid. “Now I am a little afraid to see one,” she confesses. “I like just imagining it, as something irresistible and unattainable.”

I thought it strange that someone could spend all that time looking for something and then give up just when they received a near-guarantee to find it. I got it in my head that I could try and finish the journey for her. So last February, I left a message with Mike Owen, the Fakahatchee Strand park biologist who guided Orlean through the swamp while she was writing The Orchid Thief. Owen told me he no longer leads group tours to see the ghost orchid because 10 have been stolen in the last 13 years, but he said he’d be happy to take me on a private swamp walk. While the majority of ghost orchids bloom in midsummer, there was a small chance we could see a ghost as early as mid-April. A bit impatient, I expressed my desire to go as soon as possible. Owen said cheerfully, “It might work!”

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Lacking a central character or clear narrative arc, it’s difficult to discern on a first (or second or third) read what exactly holds The Orchid Thief together. The book’s amorphous structure ultimately inspired one of the most original screenplays ever written, Adaptation., about the maddening process of writing. In one scene of the 2002 film, Nicolas Cage, who plays a screenwriter tasked with adapting The Orchid Thief, vents to his agent and tries to quit the project: “I can’t structure this. It’s that sprawling New Yorker shit. […] The book has no story. There’s no story!”

Orlean’s thwarted attempt to see the ghost orchid becomes its own twisting narrative, one borne not out of triumph or grand realization, but rather disappointment and irresolution. Chip McGrath, who edited “Orchid Fever” for The New Yorker and consulted with Orlean on The Orchid Thief, told me over the phone, “In a way, the quest for the whole thing becomes the subject.”

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In mid-April, Mike Owen told me he’d examined 40 ghost orchids and three of them had “spikes,” which meant that they would “probably bloom in June.” Nearly three months would pass with no word from Owen, and I began to doubt that I’d ever make it down to the Fakahatchee. Finally, in mid-July, Owen reached out to me. He apologized for being radio silent, it was just that he’d suffered a cardiac arrest, his second in less than two years. We tentatively made plans for a trip in August, but those didn’t come to fruition either. I felt terrible for Owen but also selfishly worried that the Fakahatchee would forever elude me.

But late one September night, my phone buzzed. It was a message from Owen inviting me down to Florida that weekend. The next day, I told Owen I could only make the trip work last minute if there was a realistic chance we might see a ghost orchid. While many ghost orchids had bloomed over the summer, Owen said we still might see one if I got to the swamp by the weekend. That afternoon I booked a round-trip ticket from Cleveland to Fort Myers; the next morning, I awoke before dawn and flew south.

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At the end of The Orchid Thief, Orlean goes into the Fakahatchee one last time with John Laroche. “I told Laroche that we absolutely had to make it that day,” Orlean writes, “because I had booked myself on a Monday flight to go home.” Laroche tells Orlean to pick him up at about 5:00 a.m. — if they go any later, it’ll be too hot and buggy. “I’ll get all our supplies,” Laroche assures her. Orlean requests pretzels, and Laroche adds cheese, peanut butter, sunscreen, extra clothes, and candy. “And lots of water.”

Orlean asks if they should bring a compass or a map. “We don’t need a map,” Laroche replies. “I’ve got everything under control. I know the Fakahatchee like the back of my hand. I mean, you have to know it to go in there. It’s dangerous. All those pits of mud and those big sheets of water. You can disappear and die in the swamp.”

The surprise of this passage is not that everything goes wrong: Orlean oversleeps; Laroche doesn’t have any supplies except a pack of cigarettes; they get lost in the swamp and never see the flower. What’s surprising is that, despite all her prior experiences in the swamp, Orlean still believes Laroche might be prepared, that she doesn’t bring her own compass as an insurance policy, that she still packs a small camera to photograph the blooming orchid.

When they inevitably get lost in the swamp, Laroche tries fashioning a sundial out of twigs and dirt. “It’s not really about collecting the thing itself,” he muses. “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.”

Orlean admits to the reader that she’s fed up. “I did want desperately to see a ghost orchid in bloom, to complete the cycle, to make sense of everything I’d been doing in Florida, but at that moment I wanted even more not to spend the night in the swamp.” She has an argument with Laroche and they trudge through the swamp, finally stumbling upon an embankment leading back to their car. “At this point I realized it was just as well that I never saw a ghost orchid, so that it could never disappoint me, and so it would remain forever something I wanted to see.”

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I met Owen and his wife, Donna, at their home on the Fakahatchee Strand State Park’s property. We rolled out of the driveway onto the narrow gravel road as Owen extolled the risks of the swamp:

Part of the joy of this environment is the danger, the risk. This place, if it was perceived as easy, everything would have been stripped or raped already. But because the Fakahatchee in particular is perceived as dangerous, you know with alligators and venomous cottonmouths and deep water and you can get lost and there’s lightning and heat and mosquitos — everybody’s afraid of all this stuff — that’s why there’s still so much rarity out here, because people are afraid of it.

Owen first learned about the Fakahatchee in a 1981 book called Florida Parks: A Guide to Camping in Nature by Gerald Owen Grow. It was just a short write-up, but it captured Owen’s interest enough that he made a pit stop at the swamp in August 1985, on his way down to the Florida Keys with his family. In 1993, he started working in the Fakahatchee, just a few months before Laroche was arrested.

The car came to a stop. We grabbed our walking sticks, which we’d need for balance in the swamp’s deep water. Owen’s stick had notches that he used to measure the height of the water and the placement of different plants. I put my keys, wallet, and phone in a freezer bag in case I fell into the swamp. I was wearing old tennis shoes, a ratty long-sleeve T-shirt, and athletic pants that I tucked into a pair of tall socks — I didn’t want to leave even the slightest opening for a leech or snake or water spider to slip in.

We followed a narrow path leading into the swamp, with trees encroaching above us on both sides. The water was so deep that Owen had trouble finding a safe place to enter. Owen said he knew of a gator that usually wallowed in the ditches close by.

“I never really go in at the culverts because it’s too easy to hide an eight-foot gator,” Owen said. “It’s too deep.” Owen pointed to a cluster of ferns, re-emphasizing the prevalence of gators and the near-impossibility of seeing them at this water depth. “So a gator could be right there and you wouldn’t know it.” The swamp chirred.

Owen eventually found a suitable entry point, and we slipped through some bushes into the swamp. As the water rushed up to my waist, Owen started talking about pythons big enough to eat alligators, and I did my best to ignore him.

After wading through the swamp for about 45 minutes, Owen paused in a small opening. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy and bounced off the still water as Owen recalled the first time he took Orlean into the Fakahatchee. It had been in late spring, when there was almost no water in the swamp and it was unbearably hot. He couldn’t get Orlean more than 30 feet into the swamp before she refused to go any further. After the book was finished, he remembers reaching out to her and saying he could have shown her the ghost orchid flower with “minimal” effort.

“I know her retort was I would just rather see one by accident,” Owen said. “Well, you’re not going to see a ghost orchid by accident.”

In the months leading up to my trip to the Fakahatchee, I’d become confused about the purported rarity of the ghost orchid. It had eluded Orlean, but it didn’t seem like something that was impossible to find, and in fact if you went looking for it with the right people at the right time of year, it seemed quite feasible to see one.

“See, that’s the thing about the human mind,” Owen told me earlier in the summer on the phone.

We are attracted to the somewhat rare. Not the impossible. To go out and try to find an ivory-billed woodpecker? Virtually impossible. They’re probably extinct. But to go out and see a bald cypress tree, we can go see thousands upon thousands out in these bald cypress swamps. So the human mind doesn’t like impossible, and it doesn’t like easy. We like in between, we like a challenge, we like beauty. The ghost orchid has all of that: it has the challenge of not impossible, but not abundant, and it has that allure of beauty or aesthetic allure because it is sensuous and symmetrical. It’s beautiful.

We moved deeper into the swamp. About 10 minutes later, Owen’s wife, Donna, hollered, “I think I’ve got a ghost!”

¤

Back in the spring, as I’d been waiting on the ghosts to bloom, I’d flown to Los Angeles to meet with Susan Orlean.

I’d recently thumbed through her archives, which are now housed at Columbia University, and while I’d found some interesting bits in the three boxes dedicated to The Orchid Thief — like a note from The New Yorker’s then-editor-in-chief, Tina Brown, responding to an early draft of “Orchid Fever” in which she said the feature was “beautifully written, as always, but seems a piece stranded between two narrative choices” — I’d still left largely confused as to how Orlean cobbled together an entire book from scribbles in notepads, newspaper clippings, and brochures. Her book had become an obsession of mine, and for a time I couldn’t determine whether I wanted to write something like The Orchid Thief or if I resented that I hadn’t written it myself. I went through a phase where I approached every story idea thinking, This could be my ghost orchid. This could be my John Laroche. It never was.

“There were times when I felt both lonely and lost where I felt like I just didn’t know how it was all coming together,” Orlean told me as we sat in her living room. “And there would be times where I’d be walking around thinking, ‘What am I doing? I don’t even know what I’m looking for. And will I know it when I see it?’”

I would call Orlean later in the summer to vent my frustrations about not making it to the Fakahatchee.

“If you were me,” I asked, “would you still try and go see the flower?”

“I don’t want to put myself in a position of giving you advice, you know it’s your story, you know what you’re trying to achieve, and I don’t,” Orlean said. “Do I think it’s necessary to see it? No, I don’t. But I never feel that stories are about a single specific kind of quarry. I just don’t see it as being what this is about. And in fact, the fact that it’s hard to see is almost more what it’s about.”

¤

In front of us were five ghost orchids, each with a seedpod extending from the plant’s nectar spur like a green bean. None had a flower. Owen was overjoyed; he said we were actually seeing something much rarer than a blooming ghost, the ultimate goal of the flowering process, the ghosts that had been pollinated by the giant sphinx moth. “See, I can’t even try to get the notes on the other ones,” Owen said as he sloshed from one tree to the next, measuring each ghost orchid plant and frantically recording the numbers in his notepad. “You know it’s just so overwhelming to try to get the data. It takes us so long to get here that, by the time you do, it’s gold.”

I waded closer to the trees, straining to appreciate what Owen was marveling at, but they just looked like stringy dead plants to me.

“Oh, there’s a ghost that had a couple of old spikes but no seedpods,” Donna told me, pointing up to a tree. “So there’s a ghost there, do you see it on the tree? Can you see it?”

Owen craned his neck up to a bundle of ghost orchid roots on a nearby branch. “I remember when those were blooming. That had three flowers on it. Two of them got pollinated — that’s amazing. We probably just missed it by two weeks.”

It took about an hour to get out of the swamp, and had Owen and Donna not been there, I’m certain I would have been doomed to die in the place. Whenever we paused to rest, Owen set his backpack on a nearby stump, checking first to make sure no cottonmouth snakes were twisted in the tree’s branches.

After we’d crawled out of the swamp and were walking down the path to our car, Owen paused. In a ditch close by sat an eight-foot alligator. Owen made note of the water flowing into its mouth. “This is big enough. Eight feet is a lot of power, a lot of muscle.” Rain began to fall, pattering softly on the water’s surface, and the gator dipped its head below water. “He’s going down,” Owen said, “but see how he can disappear?”

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Owen told me I’d be more than welcome to come down to the Fakahatchee again, either in the fall and winter months, when many other orchids would be blooming, or next summer, when I’d be much more likely to see a ghost orchid in bloom. I declined.

Since I’d left the Fakahatchee, The Orchid Thief had started to seem like a warning that obsession can be blinding. While Orlean set out to “see this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way,” she comes to understand the cost of such a singular focus, a life spent holding out for the ideal, if only because it’s so elusive and therefore can never manifest long enough to disappoint us. This pursuit has burned out even the most fervent orchid enthusiasts. Before John Laroche was obsessed with orchids, he was obsessed with tropical fish: before that, it was antique mirrors; before that, jewels; before that, fossils; before that, turtles. “Laroche’s passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car bombs,” Orlean writes. By the end of The Orchid Thief, Laroche has given up on orchids almost entirely.

As for me, I was already starting to get interested in another story. In the swamp, Owen had asked me to notify him whenever I saw any squirrels or rabbits — Burmese pythons had infested the Everglades over the last 25 years, and with no apex predator to keep them in check, they had killed off nearly all fur-bearing wildlife, decimating the ecosystem.

Owen’s comment reminded me of a story I’d started reporting — and then discarded — a year earlier, about a woman in northeast Ohio who called 911 because her six-foot boa constrictor was choking her in her driveway. Apparently the boa was one of 11 snakes the woman kept in her home. When the firefighters arrived on the scene, it looked as if the snake was trying to eat her alive. Eventually the firefighters cut the snake’s head off with a knife. (“Everything still moves,” one of the firefighters told me later, “even after you cut the head off a snake.”)

I’d read about the incident in a local newspaper, per The Orchid Thief’s tacit advice, and it interested me because I didn’t know how boas got to northeast Ohio or why someone would want one as a pet or exactly how many snakes were living near me without my knowledge. For the moment, this was all just a crumpled paper ball, a collection of odd facts tied to a curious subculture of exotic animal collecting. But I was beginning to feel it had enough creases that it just might unfurl into something more, something marvelous.

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The author is grateful to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, to Mike Owen and Donna Glann-Smyth for guiding him through the swamp, and to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University for allowing him access to Susan Orlean’s archives.

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Hal Sundt is a writer from Minnesota. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Rumpus, Eephus, The Awl, Away, and elsewhere.


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