Carolyn See Reviews ‘Waking Up in Eden' by Lucinda Fleeson

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 19, 2009


In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island

By Lucinda Fleeson

Algonquin. 310 pp. Paperback, $13.95

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 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 fundraiser, 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!

See can be reached at

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