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Wildflower

Now in paperback, the story of Joan Root’s trajectory from documentarian to conservationist to murder victim makes a captivating summer read.

By Leslie Rieder / July 28, 2010

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa by Mark Seal Random House 272 pp., $15.00

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Filmmaker, safari guide, adventurer, and conservationist – Joan Root plunged eagerly into more adventures by age 25 than most of us do in a lifetime. Born Joan Wells-Thorpe to an English father and a South African mother on a Kenyan coffee farm in 1936, Root was “in the arms of the wild” ever since the family monkey tried to kidnap her when she was just an infant.

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In 2006, Mark Seal, a longtime journalist and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, learned that Root had been murdered in her home in Kenya by men carrying AK-47s. A week later he was assigned the story and Nairobi-bound, eager to meet with her friends and neighbors at her memorial service. What resulted wasn’t just an article for Vanity Fair, but a lengthy research project that produced an in-depth narrative of Root’s career.

Now available in paperback, Seal’s Wildflower makes the perfect summer read, chronicling her transformation from a shy, behind-the-scenes documentarian to a dynamic participant in local conservation.

Root’s parents never coddled her; in fact, she received so little attention as a child that she grew into a quiet and hardworking woman who spent her days aiding her father as he led Africa’s first photo safaris. On one particular safari in the early 1960s Joan met Alan Root, an ambitious young wildlife filmmaker, who “was always the center of attention – which meant that she didn’t have to be.” Their complementary personalities led to a pairing that was unbeatable in the bush, and they married in 1961. As Joan put it, their honeymoon was “a safari that would last twenty years.”

For the next two decades of marriage, Joan would soar over Kilimanjaro in a hot-air balloon, swim with seals off of the Galapagos Islands, and serve as Alan Root’s backbone throughout all of his filmmaking endeavors. While he began to stray into other romantic relationships after several years of marriage, she remained unshaken and completely dedicated to him. They had an unspoken connection in the wilderness, and they each contributed crucial expertise to their filmmaking.

But while their careers flourished (their 1979 documentary “Mysterious Castles of Clay” was nominated for an Academy Award and they hobnobbed with celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Dian Fossey), their relationship continued to deteriorate. When Joan was 36 she learned that she would never be able to bear children, a lingering effect from an illness she had suffered years prior. Alan was torn between his desires to be a father and his love of Joan and filmmaking. In 1982 Alan left Joan for good, decided to put his filmmaking on the back burner and focus more on family.

This separation catalyzed the transformation that Seal really wants to focus on. Root wrote in her diary: “We limit ourselves only because of our shields of fear, our shields against love.” She was ready to move on, ready to take risks, as she wrote, “The non-risker does not grow, you just get older.... Let go of negative thoughts.” No longer would Root be a behind-the-scenes coordinator.

This is where Seal shifts the story from “Joan Root, adventurer” to “Joan Root, conservationist,” and takes a step back to examine Africa’s fast-fading wildlife. The second half of the book focuses on Root’s attempts to save the land surrounding her home, Lake Naivasha, from trespassers, poachers, and pesticides. As the flower industry boomed around the lake, “an exodus of poverty-driven refugees from across Africa, headed to Naivasha.” With illegal fishing at a new high, Root sought numerous solutions to protect her beloved lake. Along the way she aligned herself with questionable characters, and she built up security around her compound as crime continued to escalate.

Seal doesn’t overload the reader with wordy or poetic sentences but, rather, lets Root’s story tell itself, relying heavily on Root’s letters and diary entries, and interviews with her friends and co-workers. The first half of the book is action-packed. The second half moves much more slowly, but Root’s thoughtful correspondence, and Seal’s detailed and candid writing are engaging enough to keep the story moving.

Seal does an excellent job of capturing the fearless, determined Joan Root as she comes to terms with her life without Alan, and her identity as a powerful voice in her community. Although her murder remains a mystery, Seal’s analysis of that night in 2006 is fascinating and thorough. “Wildflower” will engross any adventurous soul or lover of the natural world.

Leslie Rieder is a Monitor intern.

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