Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: The Orchid Hunter

After reading The Butterfly Isles earlier on in the year, I went looking for other books that had a similar story to them. Just to recap, in Barkham’s fantastic book, he spends the summer trying to see every species of butterfly found in the UK – which of course is no mean feat! When stumbling around in Waterstones one afternoon earlier on this summer (as you do), I spotted The Orchid Hunter and immediately knew that it would help fill that fix of a almost impossible ecological challenged, set within the span of a British summer. The premise of the book is simple. The author Leif Bersweden sets himself the goal of seeing all 52 species of orchid found in the UK, during his gap year before starting university. It sounded like it was right up my street and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in! I tried hard to like this book, the narrative is a bit drab in places and the botanical descriptions are sometimes lacklustre. I feel that the everyday person could easily get lost in jargon and terminology used, which is unfortunate. Bersweden lacks the same character and experience as a writer compared to Barkham, and this shows. However, as the pace pace picks up and Bersweden nears his goal, there are pockets of well written and informative chapters, such as the one on the ghost orchid.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m no botanist. I’ve always been fascinated by plants but I’ve never found the time to learn all of their names and identifying characteristics. I recognise a few from a number of different habitats, with that list always expanding as I’m able to discern the difference between species. I feel that this is a big problem as The Orchid Hunter expects everyone to be an amateur botanist. Some of the species listed within are completely new to me, lacking descriptions or illustrations/photographs. It would have been nice to have had these included (so that everyone was on the same page), but I guess that would distract from the main event. This is easy to do however, I’m sure that I sometimes assume that someone has the same level of knowledge and passion about amphibians or reptiles as I do, before going off on a rant and leaving them far behind. Sorry! While the orchids within are of course the main focus, I found it hard to visualise some of the scenes described by Bersweden of orchids hidden among meadows of other plants. How tall are these other plants? What colours are they? How would they obscure the view of the orchids to the average person? Would I have been able to see the orchids for the weeds? Whilst no one may have completed the challenge Bersweden set out to complete before, I wish he’d made his journey slightly more accessible.

Aside from this, there were other things that I didn’t like about this book such the stereotypes that the author clings to throughout, with the Irish taking a fair share of the blows. Then there is a female botanist that Bersweden mocks when he mistakes for a man due to her “masculine voice”. A worrying and ongoing theme throughout concerns Bersweden’s lack of friends and a girlfriend. I certainly know how that feels, I remember when I was 18 and obsessed with amphibians and reptiles as I am now, I always wondered why no one else seemed to be besotted by them as much as me. However, this book wasn’t written when Bersweden was 18, but later on after he’d started his PhD. I’m not sure if this was included as an act of self-depreciation or if those were genuine thoughts he had during his travels. Either way, they don’t really belong in a popular science book, especially as they highlight his lack of experience as a writer. It is a real shame, as The Orchid Hunter had a lot of potential but in my eyes it seems rushed. The narrative doesn’t always flow and there are a number of mistakes that somehow passed the editing stage. If you’re a botanist, maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did. If you’ve read The Orchid Hunter, please let me know what you thought.

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