Fooled By a Clever Disguise
Posted by PintofStout on February 13, 2008
Deception and camouflage are common in nature. They are used to disguise the real identity and intentions of predators and also to hide the prey from the predator. The blood orchid uses a clever disguise consisting of appearance and oder to lure a particular kind of wasp to itself with the promise of sex, where the orchid then has a nice lunch. It is a specialized disguise that will only attract one particular species of wasp and makes the orchid completely dependent upon this wasp. Charles Bowden extrapolates this relationship into the human realm in Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America. The main theme distills down to deception by predators and self-deception propagated and encouraged by predators on the human race and Americans, in particular.
This book, which I read through twice consecutively to ensure everything sank in, is written in a tone of a desperate mania, and has a feeling of terror similar to waking from a nightmare. Bowden boldly and bluntly yanks the blindfold from our eyes in a manic stream-of-consciousness style to reveal the jalopy most of us bought in place of a life. He reveals this deception through a few anecdotes about people he had met while being a journalist, in addition to personal stories of his own, acting as clues to the discovery of the emptiness where some meaningful soul should be. Most of the people had one thing in common; their lives and lifestyles were mostly a result of government actions. The comparison of the government and its various deceitful acts (centered around nuclear proliferation) to the blood orchid is made emotionally powerful by the graphic and horrific histories of the the various characters. (To be fair, not all of the evil pointed out in the book is perpetrated by governments. Sometimes the evil is done by the greedy who are unaffiliated with the government.)
The tales of destruction that are detailed in the book carry with them an air of inevitability brought on by natural impulses as part of a cycle of life. Yet, amid the gloom hope springs through like a brightly colored flower from charred soil in a burnt-out forest. The hope is found in the indifference of nature, which adapts and overcomes and transforms in order to continue without batting an eye. Bowden wraps himself in the land and nature like a security blanket and in the process finds an anchor to secure some sanity amid the chaotic destruction generally deemed civilization.
This book shook me up pretty good; so much so that I still find pulling over-arching themes out of it difficult. The stories and characters are vividly real and alive in ways most can hardly imagine. Here’s the author drawing lessons from his experences:
That the land is good, bad, and indifferent, but this never matters because it is all we have or ever can have. That people vary except in one fact -– they are all coming out of an illness now, a fevered delirium that almost killed us and everything around us. That I am a coward and must learn to be brave. That I am cold and diminished and must learn to be warm and larger. That we have lost the war and for this fact must be grateful.
I took from my two readings a feeling for a dire need to re-prioritize, to re-focus, and to try and make myself warmer, larger, and braver. It also makes me quite anxious to get my hands on some of his other works, including follow-up or spin-off titles Blues For Cannibals, an extended search for the cause of our illness, and Down By the River, a look at the War on Drugs along America’s southern border, which is also touched on in Blood Orchid.