September 2021

Vox

by Keely Jobe

The orchid eye

The strange and beautiful world of orchids and how they’ve seduced us


November 2017

A friend told me there were native orchids growing behind the Cascade Brewery in South Hobart. She reckoned they were growing in such ambitious numbers you had to be careful where you placed your foot, but days later, when I found the spot, I was certain my friend had made a mistake. The track was nothing more than a narrow scribble, a dusty trace of macropod traffic, and the scrub around it seemed equally desiccated – all white gums, baked earth and bleached leaf litter. I couldn’t imagine anything remarkable growing in such a listless place.

Eyes peeled for bursts of colour, I searched the area for a good hour and climbed a kilometre uphill before finally giving up and turning around. I was irritated and thirsty. My friend had given me a bum steer.

On the way back I came across an echidna nosing in the earth. I edged closer, fumbled for my phone, pegged my elbows into the ground to get a snap. It was there, two feet from the grubbing monotreme, that I spied my first native terrestrial orchid: Calochilus platychilus, the purple beard. And, yes, they were indeed everywhere. I was surrounded by a Lilliputian horde of hairy, quavering blooms.

Up close, orchids can be pretty freaky, and the purple beard was no exception. Its fleshy green petals and sepals were alarmingly veined, like it had been pumping iron. The bearded labellum was jutting forward like a soldier’s jaw and above the beard were two eyes that looked like mustard seeds. It was quite spiffy. I thought it would look good in a dim bar sipping whisky on the rocks.

Standing in the middle of the colony, I understood how I’d passed by without noticing a single orchid. It was the scale. I had the scale all wrong. I was never going to see an orchid the way I’d been looking. And it wasn’t simply a case of whittling down my focus, of trying to spot something small. There was also an element of enchantment involved.

Orchid chasing is equal parts wonder and attention. It’s a willingness to be charmed. To see what I was looking for, I needed to embrace new scales of enchantment. Some call this “the orchid eye”. Others refer to it as “getting your eye in”, as if access to the world of orchids is less about detecting anomalies than it is crossing a threshold.

That afternoon, having got my eye in, I found three other species of orchid. And that was it. I’d been got.


I’ve come to see Dr Nigel Swarts, one of the coordinators of the Orchid Conservation Program, an initiative that’s been running since 2013 at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. It’s a crucial project. There are 214 native orchid species in Tasmania and 75 of them are endemic to the state. Almost every one of the 75 is listed as threatened. The acute specialisation characteristic of orchid endemism has resulted in one of the most diverse and outrageous plant families in the natural world, yet it is this characteristic that places the orchid family most at risk. They have made themselves finicky, accustomed to a very particular way of life.

Terrestrial orchids, which account for all orchid varieties in Tasmania bar one, rely on complex and highly specific biotic associations with the world around them. These alliances trigger distinctive, localised orchid adaptation and consequently limit some species to very small tracts of land. Climate, habitat, pollinators and subterranean fungi all have a role to play in keeping a population going, but if one of these elements suddenly goes missing (think insecticides and pollinators) or rapidly changes (think flood, fire or land clearing) an entire population can be wiped out overnight. This has happened before, and it will almost certainly happen again.

Still, despite the evident need for orchid conservation, the project at the botanical gardens continues to run entirely on voluntary efforts. Why? Because it doesn’t get any government funding. Not a cent. Orchids, it would appear, just don’t matter.

“So why bother conserving them?” I ask Nigel.

“Because they have their own innate value like everything else,” he answers without pause. “From an ecosystem perspective, our orchids don’t bring much to the table. There isn’t really any evidence that orchids give much, if anything, back to the environment that sustains them. They’re essentially parasites. If these plants were gone tomorrow, there would be no real consequence for the rest of the world. But that’s not really the point. It’s the diversity we’re trying to maintain. Losing these orchids would be a great loss for biodiversity.”

For someone who spends long stretches of time with tiny, imperilled plants, Nigel is very relaxed. I ask what drives his work. He talks about his dad taking him orchid hunting as a kid in Western Australia. He talks about sleeping in a swag under the stars, about solitude in an immense landscape, and I immediately understand the correlation. I’m learning that the orchid eye is not necessarily limited to orchids. It’s just a way in. It’s recognising connections in systems we think of as isolated. It’s finding wonder in unlikely places and hidden things.

“I like that there’s an above ground and a below ground,” he says. “I like that there’s a relationship between the two.”


August 2018

In late winter, I returned to the track in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington to chase bird orchids. There were a few colonies around – carpets of deep green hidden beneath crispy debris, leaves like propeller blades pasted to the ground – but none of the plants were in flower. It didn’t matter so much. I was beginning to learn what to look for, finding myself drawn to certain patches of cracked earth or mounds of leaves banked up around trees. I was getting to know what an orchid might want.

Far from the track I found a large patch of something or other: hundreds of heart-shaped leaves hugging the earth, and from the centre of each heart, a single plum-coloured stem reaching out, morphing finally into something dark and leggy, not much bigger than a mosquito. I couldn’t imagine what this thing was, but surely it wasn’t an orchid. It was minuscule. And besides that, it didn’t really fit the standard. It wasn’t fecund or flirtatious like the orchids I had seen. The thing was emaciated. It looked like something that would suck your blood while you were sleeping.

I stood and walked away.

Twenty minutes later, back on the track heading home, I was struck with a sudden, niggling doubt. I googled “orchid that looks like mosquito”. Google responded immediately. Acianthus. I scanned the images and there it was – the heart-shaped leaf, the flamboyant twiggy stretch, the sticky golden pollinia, the unabashedly phallic column. Acianthus caudatus, the mayfly orchid.

Bugger.

I spun on my heels and tried to retrace my footsteps, felt myself yanked back by some baffling vegetal tug. It was no use. Acianthus didn’t want to be found again that day. But I learnt something new: I was kidding myself if I thought orchids would politely adhere to a standard.


“Nature doesn’t work that way. There’s usually some kind of tit for tat. Not so with orchids. It’s like nature has said to them, okay, you can just be fabulous. You don’t have to give anything back.”

Deborah Wace is a volunteer with the Orchid Conservation Program. We meet in her art studio, which is stuffed to bursting with books, prints, slides, fabrics and photos. The shelves are stacked with manila folders, some filled with articles, others with pressed plants.

The remaining scraps of free space are sprinkled with drying sprigs of seaweed and lichen.

That there are orchids everywhere, both real and rendered, goes without saying.

Deb is insatiably curious and her enthusiasm for all things non-human is charmingly childlike. She’s the perfect person to work with orchids.

“Oh, I’m totally accountable to them,” she says with not a hint of sarcasm. “And I’m happy to be used.”

She shows me a series of photos she took at the Orchid Conservation Program lab. I see a small group of average joes wearing blue rubber gloves, each bent over their own mysterious task. There are sharp shiny implements, dark smudges on damp tissue and small samples of fine dust, which I’m told are orchid seeds. Then there are dozens of Petri dishes arranged like a game of checkers and each has a puff of gossamer trapped inside. This is the mycorrhiza, fungi that draws immune-boosting nutrients from the earth and hands it over to the orchid.

But when it comes to the accoutrements, not every species wants the same kind of bling. Each orchid relies on a different type of fungi, bacteria, insect, climate and season.

The symmetry of events that leads to an orchid’s existence seems to me entirely unlikely, but somehow, out in the world beyond the lab, these plants manage to strike the perfect balance with what’s available to them. It’s a miracle these orchids ever came to be, and it’s this miracle that the volunteers must re-create.

Something about the photos strikes me as odd. The scenes seem too quiet, too clinical to be described as environmental activism, though that’s exactly what they are. When I think of environmental activism, I picture loud colours and catchy slogans, stoic acts in the face of blue uniforms, handcuffs and paddy wagons. This is a different kind of activism altogether. It is shadowy, behind-the-scenes work. Necessarily subdued. I guess megaphones and microscopic seeds don’t really belong in the same room.

“It’s funny,” I muse with Deb. “There’s almost a master–slave dynamic going on here.”

“Oh, that’s absolutely the case. They’re merciless, these plants.”

There’s certainly some evidence of their all-consuming self-interest in these photos. The volunteers seem to be bending, however consciously, to another’s will. I imagine their eyes may be strained doing this work, their backs made stiff, their hands made shaky. I imagine that when they go bush, they struggle to see expanses, can’t help but scan the ground immediately in front of them, or that, after a day in the lab, they dream of tiny seeds and mycorrhizal creep. It’s really quite wicked, what these plants can make people do.

“Wow,” I giggle. “You’ve become pollinators.” “Yes,” Deb grins. “We’ve become pollinators.”


January 2019, Freycinet National Park

When we arrive the car park is full and a line of cars snakes all the way back to Coles Bay. At wits’ end, some people edge their campervans off the road, mashing fresh spaces into the growth. Clumps of tourists stand by the loos squinting in the heat, chastened by the harsh light and the hill they’re about to climb. Tasmania is supposed to be cool and wet. This is not what the ad promised.

A queue huffs slowly uphill to the Wineglass Bay lookout. The red-faced folk keep a single image in mind, something they’ve memorised from postcards and bus stop shelters: turquoise sea, a pure white stretch of sand cupped like a hand, not a soul in sight. Towards the summit the queue will gather pace – the ultimate Kodak moment rushed like a Boxing Day sale.

Halfway up and just off the track I find a single flying duck orchid, Caleana major. The flower stands roughly 20 centimetres tall in the mottled shade of a eucalypt, petals popping like beetle wings. Its labellum is lowered in prayer and the sun skips light off its polished dome. A triangle of sticky golden seed is pushed forward at the midriff.

“There you are,” I whisper. “Aren’t you gorgeous?”

Gross. Does everyone sound sleazy when they talk to orchids? I’m crouched as low as I can go but it still feels like I’m looming. I am a moist, heaving mass, all hot breath and juddering meat. I’m menacing. The plant does look lost, though. I’ve only ever seen these orchids growing in colonies and as far as I can tell this one’s all alone. Then again, what would I know? Maybe it’s happy where it is. Maybe this is the perfect spot for a flying duck orchid. Right here. Coiled into the earth, tapped into the endless mycorrhizal chatter. At once shaded and on show. Its very own place of becomings.

The orchid dashes about in the breeze, stem thick as a barbecue skewer. It’s a dance that looks distinctly like flight, the kind that happens in an upturned glass.

It’s making a fuss. It wants to be seen.

In particular, it wants to be seen by the sawfly, to which the flower looks like a mate. It waits, bobbing up and down, dressing itself in slips of UV. And when the moment finally comes – the whine of quick wings, the ponderous landing – Caleana’s lowered head will quickly close, trapping the insect inside. The entire episode will be brief and torrid, and when the sawfly is released it will take the pollinium with it, on to another devious bloom.

I wonder if the orchid anticipates the collision. Does it remember the feeling from last time? Stretched trap snapped shut around hard little body. Panicked eyes and membranous fury. Antennae groping for an exit. Does it remember the struggle? Does it remember holding on? There is so much going on beneath the surface, but I like to think some rhizomatic echo sings these things, recalls countless emergings and witherings, unfurlings and crushings, scorchings and drownings. Perhaps the orchid is bolstered by the song. You win some, you lose some. There’s always another season.

I leave the plant and merge with the crowd, but for one vertiginous moment, I am not entirely myself. In that moment I see what the orchid might see. The towering blindness and mindless progress. The strange prevailing skins we shed – empty water bottles, fast-food wrappers, cigarette butts, wads of chewing gum. We are so loud. Louder in numbers and more erratic. Lives lived at an addling volume. Is it any wonder we tumble past and don’t see a thing? Is it any wonder a plant might keep itself small?

And what happens when one of these loud lives breaks from the crowd, crouches low, purrs its veneration? Can the orchid sense it? Does it know it has been seen? I think it might. When its whole being seems bent to the one task – Be Seen – is it so implausible to think it might feel the warmth of a witness?

I’m almost at the lookout when a fierce little insect body zooms past my head. There is a whirring of quick wings. I smile to myself.


Of all the mimics in the natural world, there may be none so masterful as the orchid.

Some orchids will dress themselves as a female wasp and they’ll be pollinated when the male wasp tries to copulate with them. Some dress to provoke, doing everything in their power to resemble an insect’s adversary: they’re fertilised via interspecies biffo. Some will physically mimic a nearby plant, even flowering simultaneously in the hope of luring the competitor’s pollinator.

Orchid mimicry does not rest on visual cues alone. Some orchids emit a chemical mix called a kairomone, a parallel pheromone that mimics the chemicals emitted by the pollinator. The orchid literally makes itself smell like the insect. And here’s where things get really tricky: not all orchids of the same species will emit the same kairomone; rather, they will tailor the chemical compound to their immediate surroundings. In other words, the orchid will supply what’s locally in demand. That kairos means “advantage” suddenly makes a lot of sense.

When I come across an orchid, I can’t shake the feeling it’s sizing me up. Perhaps we are suspicious of orchids because their behaviour is at once alien and strikingly familiar – seductive, devious, self-interested, alert. Observing floral deception in action, do we sense a sharp intelligence, a code of attention? Rather than indifference, do we see cold calculation? Are we looking at orchid agency?

Recognising the elegant opportunism of orchids can be a real spanner in the works of human–plant relations because we can no longer place ourselves with any confidence atop the hierarchy of intelligence. Our material relationships with plants tend to be exploitative, and exploitation really relies on that trusty, top-down approach. But when the damn plant will only grow in the very specific place where the seed lands, when the thing withers away if you dig it up, there is no avenue for exploitation. Orchids have an agenda. They know what they want, and most of the time we can’t provide it. Best leave it where it is.

This thought repositions the orchid as something to behold without being seized. Their capacity for manipulation might even mean acknowledging desires and interests as exacting as our own.

That orchids have an agenda might also go some way to explaining the watchfulness of these plants. To become the kind of mimic upon which one’s survival depends means watching your subject with a keen eye – studying their behaviour and aesthetic, their smells, their spells of infatuation. And it follows that if orchids have become the masters of mimicry, they must have been watching their world for a very long time.

How might we fare under the glare of this long gaze?


May 2182, Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

They were so different. You could tell just by looking. Like night and day. We hardly knew what to do with them.

Fidgety. That’s how they came across. Always tracking tangents and swerving at bright things. Restless as a spring wind. We couldn’t imagine how they’d get anything done. Couldn’t determine their function, let alone if they’d be of use. Maybe that’s why we were drawn to them. Curiosity. Isn’t that how most relationships start?

After some time, we realised there was more to them than meets the eye. That skittish regard, more glance than gaze, was not a sign of indifference as we’d first assumed. It was hunger. They wanted to taste everything, were chronic samplers. Incredibly, this hunger didn’t weaken them but made them bold, as if caught in an endless rutting season. They took great pleasure in bending the world to their will, and when the world wouldn’t bend, they were quick to adapt.

Their sway was impressive. Their penchant for exploitation was familiar. Finally, we had to admit, there was much we had in common.

Of course, there were certain behaviours that made no sense. They moved with the bluster of self-reliance but were so far from achieving it – were, in fact, riddled with lifegiving others. Their support system was as diverse and vital as our own, but it was a contract they seemed determined to forget. We saw how this might make them vulnerable. Might even be a fatal forgetting. Why wouldn’t they acknowledge the lives that held them up? We understood the art of deception – it had always been for us a source of nourishment – but to turn it on oneself was baffling.

We continued to observe. Logged moments that seemed odd or alluring. Watched for things that gave them pause or made their eyes go wide, things that made them cry out, whisper or bend over, and we discovered that many of their motivations appeared to be aesthetic. They wanted to be close to beautiful things. It was not the sum of them, but at times the craving for visual pleasure was so overwhelming they would neglect their own fitness.

That could work for us, we thought.

We found they were extremely malleable. They were quick to adapt: might they be easy to tame? Their hungry awe could be channelled. We were happy to oblige. They didn’t like to lose, and their dogged ­ambition became our most valuable tool.

We put them to work.

The light is stretching tight and soon they will arrive. One will open the door with a jangling appendage, then they will stream into our bright little home where the weather is trained and the sun falls freely in. Focused as drone flies and chirping sweetly, they will lay shiny tools on shiny surfaces and slip on their second skins. Then we will get to work growing numbers.

When did it happen, this crossing into companionship? When did our relationship change from blunt exchange to productive play? From domestication to company? Maybe we once viewed our differences in a purely utilitarian sense, then over time, we found they could be sustaining, even joyful. Or maybe we saw a mirror of ourselves in the other. Waggish, calculating, driven. It’s hard to say. Generations of our kind have passed into the world beyond these walls. Put roots down elsewhere. Too many to trace. What matters is that we continue to smooth the feral out of each other. Continue to make room. Us and them. Plant and human. They forgive us our fussiness. We humour their hot breath and heavy step, tolerate the strange names they use for us: Caladenia saggicola, the sagg spider orchid.

For now, we wait. Magnificent and irrepressible. We stand in swaying hordes, dreaming of the penetrable earth beyond these walls, anticipating the things their hands will do. The dexterity. The compulsive care. We will give ourselves over to it. Again and again.

 

This essay will appear in the forthcoming Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s book Breathing Space, a collection of essays, stories and poems about Tasmanians’ changing relationship with nature.

Keely Jobe

Keely Jobe is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania. She lives by the sea on lutruwita/Tasmania’s east coast.

Corunastylis morrisii (Bearded midge orchid), Coles Bay, Tasmania. © Garth Smith

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