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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
In an instant, Eric Hansen jumps us into the jungle. "There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy," he writes, as immediately we are bogged down beneath heavy trees, our eyes trained on the shifting lights and crackling branches above. Hansen's raw, straightforward prose makes his adventures real to us; through his stories, we can follow him to unimaginable, crazy worlds. In Orchid Fever, his travel journal/thrill ride, Hansen takes us into the freakish world of the orchid police, where clandestine plants bloom into danger and obsession. It's an electrifying read for gardeners and a rocket-jolt for civilians, too.
In Orchid Fever, Hansen tells us stories about the complex, illogical rules that limit orchid collecting. Those rules began in the late 1980s, alongside rules meant to protect endangered animals: CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) reasoned that rare plants and animals should be left in the wild, so as to preserve dying species. It sounds perfectly reasonable -- except that plants don't reproduce as animals do. Hansen explains: "Endangered megafauna (elephants, rhinoceros, whales) might produce only one offspring per year, whereas a single sanderianum seed pod can produce about 8,000 to 10,000 seedlings per year in a commercial nursery, and a mature plant carries five to twenty pods." He adds wryly: "If whales, elephants, and rhinoceros had this sort of reproductive capability, there wouldn't be room on earth to put them and their offspring." The best way to conserve endangered flora, it turns out, is to dig them up and transfer them to nurseries. The CITES rules don't conserve orchids at all.
Despite that fatal flaw, Hansen tells us, the CITES conservation rules have taken on a life of their own. Conservation officials have learned to choke cash from the business of "protecting" orchids, so they'll never stop hounding orchid collectors. Hansen remarks, "In the beginning, I just wanted to find out how beautiful flowers could be responsible for so much vile behavior. It didn't take long to get a taste of what was going on. I soon discovered that many convicted 'smugglers' were the real conservationists and that certain well-positioned 'conservationists' were smuggling plants."
Hansen makes a good case for his perspective, too. At one point, he even relates a phone call from World Wildlife Fund officials, during which the Fund hollers at a nursery owner: "We don't want to talk -- we just want the money and to make an example of you!" Hansen sighs, "Here, at long last, is an honest and straightforward statement that explains what this orchid conservation game is all about." The officials make the rules so that they can extort money from collectors forced to break the rules. It's a shakedown.
But that conservationist shakedown proves fruitful in one respect: It creates a black market for orchids. In this orchid underworld, hoodlums, scientists, and grandmas squabble over contraband blossoms: They meet at seedy roadhouses under assumed names; they congregate at orgiastic orchid conferences; and they snag cuttings on the q.t. In Orchid Fever, we follow the orchid collectors through their reprobate machinations, all the while marveling at the unlikely individuals swept into the intrigue. We meet Henry Azadehdel, a grower who's gone underground since his orchid-related arrest. And we meet Rebecca, an elderly orchidophile who thrills to the more erotic aspects of her garden; she caresses their petals, crooning: "Big, fat, full...and fabulous."
Of course, Rebecca's not the only outlaw to find orchids sexy. During Western orchid shows, for example, flowers are rated for their fat lips and lustrous dorsals. In the East, orchids can also be rated for their perfumes -- that heady, feminine odor specific to each flower. The orchid underworld, Hansen shows us, is obsessed by hothouse flowers, by their bizarre reproductive systems and their naked beauty. Joe Kunisch threw his wife out when she complained about his pollination projects. Other orchid lovers whisper about dusting pollen pouches with tiny implements or even licking petals.
Such behavior might sound sick, but according to Hansen, orchids have always compelled desire. Hansen notes that the orchid, reproductively, is designed for maximum sex appeal: with its dizzying perfumes, an orchid will lure a bee into a disorienting trap of pollen and glue from which the bee emerges only after hours of struggle. People, too, are drawn under the orchid's spell -- but in Hansen's experience, they rarely emerge from it. As Kunisch puts it: "You can get off alcohol, drugs, women, food and cars, but once you're hooked on orchids you're finished. You never get off orchids...never."
In order to understand orchid fever, Hansen leads us through jungles, orchid shows, perfume factories, and gardens. His investigation reveals much about CITES and orchid smuggling, but it reveals much more about the fiercely individualistic orchid lovers. It's their love of distinctive beauty -- an unusual petal or a singular leaf -- that keeps orchid lovers in the collecting biz. And it's a love of unusual characters that keeps Hansen following the orchid shows.
In Orchid Fever, Hansen collects a nursery-full of bizarre personages and out-of-the-way facts -- and with his highly detailed, witty prose, he makes each collector's story real. In the jungle or in a greenhouse, Hansen finds the stories that make orchids absorbing and the people who make orchid mania fun. Orchid Fever is a wild ride through the underbelly of flower conservation, and a must-read for every gardener.
Jesse Gale is not an orchid smuggler.