In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island
By Lucinda Fleeson
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
310 pp. $13.95
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Reviewed by Mike Weilbacher
Who doesn't want to wake up one day in a tropical paradise? Lucinda Fleeson had the luck and pluck to do just that - and to live to write about it.
A reporter for The Inquirer from 1980 through 1995, Fleeson was - out of the blue, out of her field - offered the development director position at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, an institution with headquarters on the remote Hawaiian island of Kauai, by William Klein, the gregarious onetime director of Philadelphia's own Morris Arboretum.
The Botanical Garden manages five gardens across the islands, and Klein's task was nothing short of hauling the institution into modernity.
Fleeson, seeing a dead end in dead-tree media, seized the opportunity, winding up 5,000 miles away in a crumbling cottage with a broken-down car and a cold-shouldered staff. She slowly began turning her life - and the Garden - around, taking us along for an enjoyable ride.
Kauai is a yin-yang of a place. You've seen it in Jurassic Park, King Kong, South Pacific. Far west of the Big Island, it is the oldest and greenest of the islands, with only 50,000 people inhabiting its 550 square miles. Dominated by a dormant volcano in the center, the island is the wettest spot on Earth: More than 600 inches of rain pour into that volcano annually.
Yet, Hawaii is the extinction capital of the world, home to only 1,000 native species of plants, 89 percent of which live nowhere else. With pressure from people and nonnative species like root-pulling pigs, about 100 plant species have vanished already, and 300 more consist of tragically few specimens. Half of its 140 endemic bird species are already gone.
With global warming hogging environmental headlines, the biodiversity crisis has received too little attention. But the planet is hemorrhaging species at incomprehensible rates - three every hour, 27,000 annually, says Harvard University's E.O. Wilson - with unknown consequences. And Hawaii is ground zero in the biodiversity battle.
There's trouble in this paradise, with an ace reporter thankfully at hand.
As the book's title signals the plot's arc, it's not giving anything away to note that Fleeson doesn't stay in Eden - no one does, that's why it's Eden.
There is an Adam in the story - is there ever - in surfer dude Cal, the "oversexed Poseidon" who helps Fleeson get her groove back. Mangoes make a cameo appearance as forbidden fruit: She finally feels fully settled into her new home when she kicks off her swimsuit and munches a mango naked in her garden. And there is a snake: Doug Kinney, the hard-charging, golf-obsessed chairman of the board, who undercuts Bill Klein.
Along the way, we meet an enticing collection of characters. Like Isabella Lucy Bird, spinster daughter of an English clergyman, who, born with a deformed spine, traveled extensively across Hawaii on horseback and wrote Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. This happened in 1872 when Bird turned 40, and Fleeson repeatedly returns to Bird as totem and inspiration.
Then there's the carrot-topped Kerin Lilleeng-Rosenberger, part-time nursery manager, full-time bartender, who began volunteering at the garden to discover her green thumb. On a quest to grow all 1,000 native Hawaiian plants from seed, she has already conquered 871 of them.
And Keith Robinson, the quixotic Robin Hood of the plant world, enemy of the Botanical Garden, and orchid thief in reverse. He goes into national parks, uproots rare plants, and grows them in his Outlaw Preserve, "a hidden garden of the rarest Hawaiian plants."
Near the book's end, Fleeson finally has the confidence to confront this curmudgeon, and the results are memorable.
Finally, my favorites, the Allertons, a wealthy gay father-son team who move to Kauai from Chicago and purchase an extraordinary estate on the shore where they hold elaborate costume parties. Ultimately, the Allerton Garden becomes the jewel of the National Trust holdings, and Fleeson's reporting skills unravel the full, lush story of this couple. One much younger than the other, they invented a cover as father and foster son to quell rumor, facilitate their globe-trotting adventures, and quietly live together as lovers.
Back to Bill Klein, the soul of Waking. There is a precious moment in the book where he is taking high-end donors on an Allerton tour and, after a barbecue, says about alien plants, "Can you imagine, being cut loose from all your past ghosts and demons and given perfect conditions to thrive and just take off?"
"I laughed," writes Fleeson. "Sounds like us, Bill."
Take one part coming-of-middle-age memoir, stir in an environmental storyline, add a dose of gardening, mix in island history, salt with mellifluous Hawaiian words like pueo (owl) and haole (gringo), and you've got a recipe for not only a sweet book, but also a sweet life, the "impassioned life" that each of us searches for. And deserves.