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The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief - Susan Orlean, Jennifer Jay Myers You could summarize The Orchid Thief as "Florida is a crazy place, y'all." It's one of the better non-fiction books I've read recently, starting with a scheme by John Laroche, a not-precisely-likeable but still very interesting fellow whom the author interviews and follows around in the course of writing her book, but delving into Victorian orchid cultivation (they had no idea how to grow orchids, especially in England, but they were mad about them) and flower genetics, Florida endangered species laws, and Florida real estate.

Orchid collectors, apparently, get really, really obsessed. I can understand this, as I know some people who are into dog and cat shows, and that whole scene is just as silly and obsessive. Orchids, of course, are easier to cultivate and breed for highly specific characteristics, so there are thousands of species and subspecies, and collectors are basically engaged in competitive orchid breeding. Some people will pay thousands for a single plant, and successful orchid breeders who have a popular strain are frequently subjected to break-ins and thefts. There is much drama at orchid shows, people flinging accusations (like claiming you've bred a new strain that was actually smuggled from Thailand) and threats, and meanwhile, poachers can make a good living stealing rare orchids out of protected Florida wetlands for breeders. (They also poach frogs, birds, trees, and pretty much anything else that's endangered and therefore valuable.) This has been going on for over a hundred years; the Victorians had their own "orchid bubble" and they hired people to go to Florida or South America to collect specimens for them.

Most everything in this book centers on Florida, though, and so Susan Orleans goes beyond orchids talking about all kinds of other schemes Florida has been subjected to. There is the long-running saga of the Seminole tribe, an Indian tribe that owned slaves and sided with the Confederacy but whose slaves were pretty much tribe members. The Seminoles were the first tribe to get rich off of casinos, so they are pitched all sorts of business deals by everyone from Donald Trump to Japanese investors. Orleans talks quite a bit about James Billie, the current and former chief of the Seminoles, including his trial for shooting an endangered Florida panther.

There is also a chapter about the infamous Gulf American Land Corporation, which made "Florida swampland" so famous as a real estate scam. They sold thousands of plots of land to working class people, military personnel, etc., as affordable retirement investments. Many of these people never even visited the land they'd bought and so were unaware that more likely than not you needed a boat to reach it. Gulf American was still in operation up until 1970, and the plots are still there - a few people actually moved into the "development" area and live there still, without electricity or telephones or anything else. Crazy people, y'all.