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Waking Up in Eden: In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Islandby Lucinda Fleeson
Synopses & Reviews
Like so many of us, Lucinda Fleeson wanted to escape what had become a routine life. So, she quit her big-city job, sold her suburban house, and moved halfway across the world to the island of Kauai to work at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Imagine a one-hundred-acre garden estate nestled amid ocean cliffs, rain forests, and secluded coves. Exotic and beautiful, yes, but as Fleeson awakens to this sensual world, exploring the island's food, beaches, and history, she encounters an endangered paradise--the Hawaii we don't see in the tourist brochures.
Native plants are dying at an astonishing rate--Hawaii is called the Extinction Capital of the World--and invasive species (plants, animals, and humans) have imperiled this Garden of Eden. Fleeson accompanies a plant hunter into the rain forest to find the last of a dying species, descends into limestone caves with a paleontologist who deconstructs island history through fossil life, and shadows a botanical pioneer who propagates rare seeds, hoping to reclaim the landscape. Her grown-up adventure is a reminder of the value of choosing passion over security, individuality over convention, and the pressing need to protect the earth. And as she witnesses the island's plant renewal efforts, she sees her own life blossom again.
"An admitted news junkie, journalist Fleeson imagined she would die in the Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom with a half-written story in her computer. But as the newspaper business began its cataclysmic shift in the late 1990s, she started to feel stymied and leapt at a fund-raising job with Hawaii's National Tropical Botanical Garden. Arriving on the island of Kauai, she discovered that Hawaii's native plants were becoming extinct at an alarming rate, with two-thirds in danger of disappearing by the end of the current century. Fleeson delves into conservation efforts — the history of the garden's benefactors, two gay men with a passion for exotic plants and even more salacious parties during the years after WWII. She spotlights a full-time bartender who attempts to cultivate rare plants with basic greenhouse equipment. Finally, she shadows Kauai's own 'Orchid Thief': the Robin Hood of Hawaii known for picking endangered plants in national forests and turning them into prized specimens on his own preserve. An artful and lively tale of flora and fauna illustrates their complexities and serves as a reminder of the need to nurture both. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A little over 15 years ago — dates aren't always specified in this memoir — Lucinda Fleeson was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer as a reporter. The atmosphere was cloudy at the newspaper, but Fleeson chose to believe she had built a stable life for herself. She had beautifully restored a ramshackle townhouse and put in a spectacular garden. She'd been married and divorced and gone through one... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of those love-of-my-life experiences. She was in her middle 40s, childless, alone, fidgety and prone to wondering if she had spent her life well. Then came an unsettling interview with the Inquirer's executive editor. Her prospects at the paper were dim. (And anyway, traditional print journalism was already in serious trouble.) Fleeson had become friends, over the years, with William Klein, who had headed up a botanical garden in Philadelphia. He was in Hawaii now, on the island of Kauai, newly hired at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which had several locations throughout Hawaii. Klein asked Fleeson to come on out to Kauai with him, become a fund-raiser, help to get the garden up and running again. (It had been battered by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and directed lethargically for years before that.) Coming from a position of nowhere else to turn, Fleeson accepted. Klein and his predecessors at the garden had dual missions to fulfill and weren't doing all that well with either. Ideally, various locations on the islands should have been bona fide tourist attractions with inviting displays and lucrative gift shops. But the Allerton Garden in southern Kauai — headquarters of the outfit — didn't even have a decent sign. Another more important but seemingly futile mission was to rescue dying, nearly extinct native plants. The Hawaiian Islands have about 1,000 unique native plant species, but about 100 were already gone. The culprits for this plant massacre were many: the first Polynesians, then white people and their pernicious missionaries, then feral goats and pigs. And there were numerous plant villains as well, particularly bougainvillea and morning glory, named twice here as "pests." But can a wall of morning glory help it if it's attractive and colorful and people like to have it around? No, of course not, but according to certain dogmatists at the garden, morning glory was scum. In fact, at the time Fleeson went there, Kauai didn't lack for fanatics. Up in the highlands a hermit had threatened to destroy his own "outlaw" botanical garden if the government trespassed on his property. He had already burned down a very rare tree to prove his point. So the National Tropical Botanical Garden, specifically Allerton Garden, turns out to be a rats' nest of scandal and intrigue. For one thing, the original Allertons, posing as father and son, were flamboyantly gay, known for their lavish and sometimes prurient lifestyle. Should this be kept secret or made part of the garden's official history? For another thing, the "help" is surly and uncivil when Fleeson arrives, making sure she is given a filthy cottage, a clunker of a car, an office chair that doesn't work, in an office with a view of the parking lot. There's a disconcerting sense that Klein doesn't exactly have his hands on all the ropes. And the chairman of the Garden Board can't stand Klein. Not a happy situation. But Fleeson rises to the occasion. She arranges for her trashy cottage to be remodeled in authentic native style. She surrounds the place with her own elaborate tropical garden. She remembers that she's a reporter at heart and interviews everyone who will sit still for it, including the Allertons' former groundkeeper, who finally loosens up and shows her some of their family photograph albums. She goes on an arduous hike with the seriously cracked hermit, who shows her the charred trunk of the destroyed rare tree. And if the people at the garden won't be friendly to her, Fleeson seeks out other ways to connect. She buys a share of a horse and goes for long, sweaty rides. She swims daily and hooks up with a handsome, brainless surfer. And she joins a native outrigger canoe club, a klatch of middle-aged women who rise at dawn and row their brains out. Because of this club membership, she finds herself helping to cater a traditional luau. In short, she becomes much more than the comparatively prim, set-in-her ways Philadelphia journalist she once was. Between chapters on these relatively personal subjects, Fleeson discusses the garden's research-and-rescue mission. She recounts stories of not very attractive or hardy native plants that are saved — at great physical and financial cost — by heroic botanists. (But doesn't it show just a little hubris to work against the evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest? And why is the idea of plants traveling around the globe inherently sinful? Italy would be lost without the tomato, and without imported fruits continental America would still be limping along on a diet of cranberries and concord grapes!) Perhaps botany, like football or competitive baking, is just another way to channel human aggression. Conditions at the garden become more and more intense, and Fleeson's plans are cruelly cut short by an unexpected tragedy. Her conclusion from this? Since we can't plan for change, we should simply embrace it. All these events here took place from 13 to 15 years ago, and one wishes Fleeson hadn't waited so long to publish this, but her message is certainly timeless. We can't count on anything in this life, so we should, in Van Morrison's immortal words, just enjoy it while we can! Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer for many years and has been awarded an Arthur Rouse Award for Press Criticism, a McGee Journalism Fellowship in Southern Africa, a Knight International Press Fellowship, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. Before settling in Washington DC, she lived in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Budapest, Botswana, and, most notably, Kauai.
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