It’s A Jungle Out There

orchardthiefEvery so often a non-fiction book becomes surprisingly popular, as I understand The Orchid Thief did after the release of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film that was very loosely based upon it. I haven’t seen the film (tell me: should I?) but I did recently read the book. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was extremely intriguing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Basically, Susan Orlean, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, read a small article in a paper about an eccentric named John Laroche who was on trial for having attempted to steal a large quantity of ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida. Curious about his motivations, Orlean went to Florida to follow the trial and to learn more about both Laroche and the world of orchid thieves and collectors (can be tricky to distinguish the two). Initially, this became a New Yorker article, and then Orleans turned it into a book, which is maybe why the story of Laroche bookends a mass of digressive but often engaging information about the history of orchid collecting, the character of the plant men that she meets in Florida, life on an Indian reservation and the nature, in all its meanings, of the state of Florida.

But first, Laroche, whom she describes as ‘a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.’ Laroche has a history of manic obsession, beginning as a child with turtles, and moving on to Ice Age fossils, lapidary, old mirrors, tropical fish and then, finally, orchids. Each passion was intense, short-lived, and fiercely compartmentalised. After he had given away the 60 fish tanks he collected, for example, he did not go near the Atlantic, despite living so close to it, for the next 17 years. Or so he says – Orleans reports him faithfully I don’t doubt, but you do begin to wonder quite how much confabulation occurs in every one of Laroche’s stories. Still, he does appear to be one of those people to whom extreme things happen. In the run-up to stealing the orchids, he went through a particularly taxing few years. He spilled toxic pesticide on a cut and suffered irreversible heart and liver damage from it. He was in a dreadful car crash that cost him his front teeth, put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. Then he separated from his wife. Then the plant nursery he owned was decimated by severe frosts, contaminated fungicide and Hurricane Andrew. In need of work, he came to work on the Seminole reservation, starting up a nursery for them.

Obsessed by orchids, and aware of how much money could be made from a ready source of hard-to-find ghost orchids, he believed he could get around the laws that preserve endangered species. The Fakahatchee strand is Seminole land, and land belonging to Indians is supposed to be free from the usual laws in the U.S. Laroche took two Indians with him into the swamp and made them do the collecting, but as they emerged with four cotton pillowcases full of two hundred species of orchid and bromeliad they were, as the phrase goes, ‘apprehended’ and charged with theft.

Just when you think that Laroche is a unique oddity, Orleans launches into the history of orchid collecting, in which a large number of rich and greedy and obsessed patrons sent plant hunters off to the wild and dangerous parts of the globe with unreasonable demands. The plant hunters, themselves obsessed, reckless, greedy and, in the way they depleted large areas of indigenous plants, thoughtless, were happy to do their bidding. Somehow the world survived and plants trotted the globe, mostly dying en route until someone figured out the bell jar. Orchids more than any other plant seem to inspire a certain frantic passion and because they are, on the whole, a lot tougher than they look, have produced thousands of different species to keep collectors on their toes. Laroche had his own methods of maintaining a clear conscience, while going about the business of stealing plants:

he would poach only a limited number at a time and he would never strip every one off a single tree and, most important, he would be poaching so that he could help the species in the long run by propagating it in his lab and making the orchids cheap and available. He trusted himself alone to balance out pros and cons, to disregard rules and use real judgement instead. He thought that no one else in the world could see things his way because other people had attitudes that were as narrow as ribbon and they had no common sense at all. For a single-minded lunatic like John Laroche, this seemed like a very bold position to take.’

This is a book packed full of eccentrics, madmen (very few lady collectors) and con artists. And when you reach Florida, the state of outsize everything, you seem to be in a landscape that inspires crazy schemes on a huge scale. I enjoyed reading about the Florida land scam that began somewhere around 1824 with a number of wide boys selling plots of Florida that they didn’t own, and which multiplied and grew until 1975 when the main company involved was $350 million in debt.

The subsequent bankruptcy took thirteen years to settle and is considered the biggest and most complex reorganization in Florida’s corporate history, involving more than nine thousand creditors, twenty-seven thousand lot owners and five hundred thousand acres of land.’

It’s almost as if Florida invites this sort of trouble, Orleans explains. The land is permanently changing as more coastal areas are reclaimed, and what’s there is so vast and wild and uncontrollable. Nature always wins in the end, but the urge to battle her is irresistible. ‘The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream,’ Orleans writes. And this is the core of the book, not so much articulated as voyaged around repeatedly. Man vs. nature results in all kinds of unhealthy obsessions, all of them doomed, but all hypnotic nevertheless.

There is a lot going on in this book, huge amounts of data on offer, outlandish characters, hair-raising exploits, lots of chances to shake your head in sighing pity for the silly things people do on tenuous justification. Orleans has a repetitive style that can grate at times, but then she said a lot of things I marked up as interesting, too. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, just don’t expect as much about John Laroche as the blurb implies.

Ebooks: Publishing Shoots Itself in the Foot

I get very tired of misleading headlines in the media, which continues to be biased against the conventional book. On the BBC website the other day there was an article entitled ‘Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012’. This was based on the statistic that the revenue of the paper book market had fallen by 4.6% across the past year, a loss of around £74 million in the UK.

However, a spokesman from the Bookseller declared that ‘In essence, people are buying more books but they are paying less for them’. This is because the ebook market rose about 5% to 13-14% of the market share (the article admits that ebook figures are hard to verify) and the fall in profits is the result of heavy discounting by publishers, with many books being sold at rock bottom prices.

I think this is what they call a ‘loss leader’, a way of enticing consumers into a new market in the hope they’ll become hooked. There are a couple of problems with this, however. The first is that the much lauded growth of ebooks is really not that impressive. When CDs were introduced in the mid-80s, they rocketed ahead of vinyl, with market share growing 20-30% or more each year. This is not surprising; the CD marked an evident improvement in the experience of listening to music: consumers enjoyed much better sound quality and durability with their new purchase. Ebooks don’t improve the book that’s being read, and at best they imitate the experience of ordinary reading. Then there are the surveys that indicate some reluctance by readers to switch formats. This blog seems to have access to good statistics and claims that last year nearly half the kindles given as gifts in the UK had still to be opened, a month after Christmas. And this year’s survey claims that a third of people given eReaders in the USA used them once before putting them aside. Ereaders are not the unqualified success publishers hoped they would be in converting non-readers into readers. As for increased durability, well, let’s not get into the problems of power failure, problems with amazon, issues of obsolescence and the interesting situation that will occur the next time a main publisher hits the wall. Owning an ebook is only loaning one while the company lasts.

However, between the huge discounts the publishers are offering and the tsunami of self-published works currently flooding the market, readers are having their perception of value altered. I heard publishers fretting about this at a literary festival event I attended: if a nicely produced book retails at around £10, it will be considered as a good gift. However, if customers begin to associate books with the price of a pound or 99p, this is far too cheap as a gift option. But of course canny consumers will become increasingly reluctant to pay more for their own reading needs. If there is a ready supply of books at this extremely low rate, who would pay more? Add to that the wealth of reading material available online for free, and suddenly books aren’t commercial products any more, they’re moving towards open source.

My feeling all along with ereaders is that they are a welcome addition to publishing as a multi-media industry. They are great for readers who do a lot of travelling – communting to work and so on. They can be very good for people with poor eyesight, as the font can be easily increased. My friend with MS loves hers, because she can put it down on a table, saving strain on her hands (although watching her try to use the teeny buttons below the screen can be painful). But this doesn’t account by any means for all the people who love reading. The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading. They are a great addition to the options we have for reading, but as a replacement for books, they are not entirely satisfactory. And their main effect so far has been in efficiently reducing the overall value of the book market.

To say this, though, is like an act of treason in the current climate. I think this is because there is a powerful fantasy at work in our culture that insists technology is a force for great good. What’s new must be better than what’s old. The end of the nineteenth century was supposed to have witnessed the collapse of the ‘grand narratives’, which is to say the stories surrounding religion and science that supposedly showed mankind headed towards a state of perfection, stories that explained life and gave us optimism for the future. At the end of the twentieth century, I think technology has given us a new boost in such fantastic endeavours, a sort of steampunk rewrite of the old grand narrative of science. Whether that’s true or not, the stories remain skewed towards the celebration of ereaders and the derision of paper. But right at the moment, publishers have paid huge amounts to create new departments to handle ebooks, they have put thousands of hours into creating digital archives and paid substantial legal fees to sort out nightmare problems of rights. And all this to provide consumers with nearly free books. Who says businesses aren’t charities?

Back with Bullets

1. Well, I did it. I managed to write the essay despite starting it so very close to the deadline. I know a lot of people find a deadline energising, but I find it oppressive and dispiriting. If I’ve only got three or four days for 5,000 words, I think, what’s the point? I was so close to abandoning the whole idea. But then I decided to knuckle down to it, and the process was smoother than I’d anticipated. So I wrote it and hated it, as you do, but my posse of readers actually returned very encouraging feedback. Maybe I am finally learning how to write biography.

2. When I resurfaced after a mere week away from the internet, there were almost 300 posts in my feed reader. You’ve all been very busy, haven’t you? Yesterday I read through most of them, and commented on some of them, but I’m still not caught up with my emails. It’s amazing. No way would I put pen to paper and write this many letters, but email holds this false promise of ease and concision. In fact, I probably write more than I would long hand. Between the emails and the blog reading, I am forced to come to the conclusion that my virtual life has got out of hand. How on earth does one prune it, though? I like chatting to all my peeps.

3. I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately because it seems to suit the winter months to my mind. I finally read Elizabeth George – in particular: Payment in Blood, and found it to be excellent. Really fine classic crime, with lots of character development, a twisty plot and a satisfyingly surprise conclusion. I also read my first Louise Penny. It happened to be A Trick of the Light, which is book 7 in the series. I am not normally bothered about reading things in order, and I fell foul of my practice here, as the novel spent a great deal of time talking about events that took place in a previous book. To begin with, I felt the endless series of short, faux-dramatic sentences would get on my nerves. But once I’d settled into the style, I did enjoy it. She has very good observations and is generous with them.

4. My reading project for December is very odd for me and probably doomed to failure but I want to give it a go nevertheless. I’d like to read three chunksters this month: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (with Stefanie if she’s up for it), Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (for Caroline’s Dickens in December) and Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (with Danielle if she can squeeze it in alongside Camilla!). I don’t think I can possibly read one after another, so I’ll have to read at least two simultaneously if not the whole three. I do wonder what on earth I will post about all month. Best of 2012 lists can’t stretch that far. Anyone got any good memes?

5. In the wake of the Leverson enquiry into the conduct of the press, the question now is how any form of reliable self-regulation might be put into practice. Given that the police and the politicians all turned out to be complicit in the phone-tapping scandal, ordinary forms of law enforcement are looking a little dodgy. I wondered whether regulation of the press couldn’t be a kind of jury service for English teachers? You could take a team of a dozen and assign them to the tabloids for a week, and they could pick to their hearts content at the appallingly emotive argumentation, the lack of evidence-based facts, the fallacious causality, and so on. I’m so tickled by the idea of all those dreadful stories about Z-list celebrities being returned to their authors with ‘Please come and see me to discuss this’ scrawled across the bottom.
6. Talking of new job opportunities for the 21st century, I was Christmas shopping in John Lewis yesterday (along with half the population of Cambridge) and waiting in the queue to pay when I noticed a harassed employee running up and down the line, directing customers to a till when one became free. This was an entirely unnecessary task. We were in full view of the tills and could all see perfectly clearly when a bag-laden shopper moved away, business conducted. Yet the unexpected cabaret being put on by this poor lady, who seemed utterly fraught with anxiety about us all making reasonable progress towards purchase certainly calmed and quietened the queue. I realised then that we were all outsourcing our frustration. She was doing the impatience so that we didn’t have to. What a thought! Would it be possible to use this technique elsewhere, I wondered? Like in examination halls, or virtual forums? It might be so much better to hand the negativity over to trained personnel rather than letting it get out of control with ordinary individuals.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – In The Body or the Mind?

Is chronic fatigue syndrome a ‘real’ illness or is it the most recent incarnation of hysteria? Ever since chronic fatigue appeared on the scene, it has persistently been labelled a psychosomatic disease. This means that the medical establishment is not searching as actively as it might for a cure, and in any country where medical care is insurance based, there is very little attention or treatment available for what is a highly debilitating condition.

I fell ill in 1997 but wasn’t diagnosed until 2006. In part this was because I had a nasty suspicion it would be chronic fatigue but I’d heard too many cruel comments about other sufferers (particularly in a university setting) to be in any way comfortable with such a diagnosis myself. I can’t tell you how much I did not want to be lumped into that particular group, because it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before, or what kind of a person you are: it’s scary how willing people are to believe that you are ‘avoiding’ unpleasant situations, failing to show the proper moral backbone or downright malingering. By the time I was finally diagnosed, I’d been such a workaholic that the university was quite sympathetic. My family was a harder sell. When my husband rang up his mother to say I’d be taking time off work, she said ‘But isn’t this all in her mind?’ I had spent the past ten years trying to do work I loved and battle an illness that attacked every part of my body. You may imagine how I felt about the suggestion that I was simply neurotic.

But when it came to finding some treatment for myself, psychotherapy was one of the few possibilities. Oh I tried lots of alternative therapies, none of which got me anywhere, although they contained some of the secondary problems I was experiencing. But I knew stress and anxiety had had big roles to play in my falling ill and psychotherapy gave me the best chance of at least managing what I had and coming to terms with it. Without a place to make sense of what was happening to me, and a very sympathetic listener, I don’t know how I would have coped. If chronic fatigue has anything to do with depression, it’s because the illness is so overwhelming and so devastating that it knocks you for six. It has a tendency to attack driven, hardworking people who invest a lot emotionally in what they do, and who are very cut up when they can’t keep doing it. And as I remember all too well, to feel as ill as I did, with no prospect of anything at all that could be done about it, and this stretching out for months, years, into the future, is a pretty depressing prospect.

I’ve been reading Osler’s Web: Inside the Labyrinth of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Epidemic by Hillary Johnson, an American journalist who has researched the rise and spread of the illness in America in painstaking detail, and the medical establishment’s failure to take it seriously. Johnson identifies an outbreak that seems to have begun in 1985 in Nevada and then cropped up in Boston, California and New York. The majority of the early cases were middle-class, middle-aged women, and given that they displayed a perplexing array of symptoms and no obvious, simple bacteria offered an identifiable cause, the official decision was that it was all in their minds.

I’ll add another significant factor into this: chronic fatigue doesn’t kill enough people. You have to die to be taken seriously in medicine, and whilst CFS can reduce people to bed-ridden vegetables or just destroy their quality of life forever more, it isn’t enough compared to, for instance, the other illness that was hitting the headlines about the same time: AIDS. Johnson also reports how the government felt there was surprisingly little lobbying by the sufferers of the illness, which is the way that ‘new’ diseases call political attention to themselves, and eventually, research money. No one seemed able to put two and two together that CFS-ers were just too sick and too tired to organise a lobby. Plus, the celebrity cases were not keen to identify themselves with the illness. Johnson reckons that the register of sufferers included James Garner, Robert Wagner, Morgan Fairchild, Cher, David Puttnam, Kirstie Alley and Cathy Lee Crosby, but few spoke out publicly. Cher was reported as falling ill for more than three years after a flu-like virus and another patient declared “I’d like to be in the room when you tell Cher… that her illness is due to ‘unachievable ambitions and poor coping skills.’”

Like just about everything else, medicine responds to public outcry, and if there is insufficient public sympathy, then nothing happens. It also responds, probably most rapidly of all, to the pharmaceutical industry. If scientists develop a drug that works, then the illness can be verified. But to do that, doctors need a simple yes or no diagnostic test, and that has never been forthcoming – it’s a vicious circle. Many people are unconcerned because they think it’s not contagious, although this book argues otherwise, with evidence of many health care professionals falling ill after handling blood samples. And then medicine has a very poor record of giving credibility to illnesses that involve fatigue (a word I dislike as it is so feeble compared to what it wants to describe). Multiple sclerosis was for a long time considered a psychosomatic illness, as was lupus and the Epstein-Barr virus. Doctors are also prejudiced against nebulous, debilitating illnesses in white women with private means (actually, they’re not alone), without being able to see that only women with enough money and sense of entitlement ever make it through the professional contempt and lack of interest to reach a diagnosis in the first place.

So where are we now? This book was published in 1996, and not a great deal has changed, except perhaps public opinion is kinder to chronic fatigue sufferers, and more willing to concede that an illness is involved. There has been significant research into possible viral or retroviral roots to the illness without any conclusive breakthrough, and tens of millions of people are said to suffer with some version of it, men, women, children, regardless of social situation. A significant proportion of them make up the long-term unemployed and the chronically poor. Less than a fifth of cases ever recover, and ‘these patients inevitably describe a series of readjustments or realignments of goals and expectations that would have been unthinkable prior to the onset of their illness.’

I include myself in that category – I’m much better, and I do much, much less, after a long fight against my inclinations. My own experience suggests that it is a disease based in the endochrinal system – adrenal exhaustion triggers a severe immune system response (when you feel ill, that’s your immune system working to evacuate the perceived threat) and because the illness is so intense, the entire hormonal system is thrown out of balance. There is also a psychological component, bound up in the trauma for some of us of suffering the illness, and built into the body’s defense systems which seem then to be on a hair-trigger (as is often the case with other autoimmune illnesses like asthma and hayfever). But given that I’m a smart enough person and ten years in therapy didn’t cure me, I don’t think it’s entirely psychological. There is some biological component involved that has yet to be found. I think I’m one of the lucky ones – for the rest I fervently hope that some solution will be uncovered.