Nitpicking Flowers

Just try writing a book about orchid thieves in South Florida and unwittingly including some errors. Then watch the critics bloom.

Aside from the errors, it is the very tone of the book -- often light and breezy -- that offends those most passionate about the Everglades and the flora, fauna, and Native Americans who call it home. The book is "virtually smothered in flashy, sensationalist adjectives," writes Wickman in her upcoming column, "Holashkoan," which means "It's a Lie" in the Miccosukee language. "In the 1980s we used to call [this kind of writing] flash trash."

Wickman goes on to point out a number of errors: a Seminole war ending ten years too early, Osceola's home mislabeled as Silver Springs, a treaty that never happened attributed to the Seminoles and the Confederacy. But what most upsets Wickman -- the author of Osceola's Legacy, a book she wrote in the early '90s to help dispel the historical myths surrounding the legendary chieftain -- is that her book appears in Orlean's bibliography. "After four centuries of misinformation, the history of the Seminole people is being manipulated once again," says Wickman, who says her ire is not at all inspired by the fact the Seminole tribe pays her salary. "Readers might think she took her errors out of my book."

Browder's criticisms are equally harsh. He claims that Orlean packs all of the most interesting anecdotes about the Everglades into the tiny Fakahatchee Strand to give the area an exaggerated sense of eccentricity. "Whenever she finds anything dramatic or colorful, she claims it happened in the Fakahatchee," he says. Though most of the factual errors he attributes to Orlean can be written off as mere semantics, a few are legitimately questionable.

Orlean writes that 50 acres of the Everglades dries up every day, a fact disputed not only by Browder but by Everglades researchers as well. Fred Sklar with the Everglades Water Management District says no one has ever settled on a precise figure and that, though large portions of the Everglades are drier than they should be, other sections are in fact too wet. Fifty acres a day, he says, sounds like a substantial exaggeration.

She also writes that the elusive ghost orchid is exclusive in this country to the Fakahatchee Strand. Mike Owen, chief biologist at Fakahatchee, says that, while the orchids are native only to South Florida, they do appear throughout the Big Cypress Preserve that borders the Fakahatchee. Orlean, though, defends her description, stating that to her mind the boundary between the Fakahatchee and the Big Cypress is in fact "fluid."

Whatever the errors in the book, and there are a number of them, Orlean's reputation isn't likely to suffer as a result. The errors are scarcely lawsuit material, and her book continues to be generally well received by both readers and critics.

"I've got to give her credit," says Ned Nash. "She's sold a ton of books, and there's been a fabulous amount of buzz about it."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address: Jay_Cheshes@newtimesbpb.com

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