Wildflower is a compelling work of narrative nonfiction in which the shocking death of a dedicated environmentalist becomes a broader story of a beautiful, breathtaking country in peril.
In January 2006, Joan Root, a sixty-nine-year-old naturalist, Oscar-nominated wildlife filmmaker, and staunch conservationist, was murdered by two masked men armed with an AK-47 shortly after midnight in her bedroom on the shore of Kenya's beautiful Lake Naivasha. Was it a random robbery gone bad, as the local police seemed to think, or was it a cold-blooded contract killing carried out at the behest of enemies Root had made in her efforts to protect Kenya's wildlife? Veteran journalist Mark Seal set out to investigate this gripping real-life murder mystery-and instead found an unforgettable story not only of a tragic death but of the remarkable life that preceded it.
With compassion and an unswerving regard for the truth, Seal lays bare the deeply moving, inspirational history of Joan Root, covering her early days in Kenya as a shy young woman with an almost uncanny ability to connect to animals; her whirlwind courtship with the dashing Alan Root, their marriage, and the twenty years of nonstop adventure, passionate romance, and groundbreaking wildlife filmmaking that followed, both in Africa and around the world; the shattering disintegration of the marriage and partnership; and Joan's triumphant struggle to reinvent herself as the protector of her lakeshore community's fragile ecosystem-a struggle that would lead to her death.
Wildflower is also the story of Kenya itself. A country blessed with unmatched beauty that is one of the last repositories of rare wildlife on the African continent, Kenya has also been scarred by decades of colonization and a culture of corruption fueled by the frequently competing agendas of conservationists and business interests. Joan Root dreamed of a bright future for Kenya and spent her life fighting with quiet heroism and courage to make that dream a reality. Her life ended too soon, but her legacy lives on.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal expands on his August 2006 article for the magazine in this sweeping and atmospheric biography of the conservationist and wildlife filmmaker Joan Root, who was brutally murdered in her home on Lake Naivasha, Kenya, a region she was trying to save from poachers and environmental ruin. Intrigued by Root's suspicious death and cinematic life with husband and nature documentarian Alan Root, Seal mines Joan's diaries and writings to offer a lush love story set in the heyday of British colonialism in Nairobi, where amid the decadence and dilettantism, Alan fell in love with the lovely Joan Thorpe, an "Ingrid Bergman lookalike" and daughter of an English adventurer. Their partnership produced award-winning documentaries (their 1978 film on termite mounds, Mysterious Castles of Clay, was narrated by Orson Welles and nominated for an Oscar) and television specials. Their inability to have children was a source of constant sorrow for the couple, and despite the romance of their joint pursuits, their marriage unraveled. Seal's effort is a seamless story redolent with adventure, passion and heartbreak; its beauty nearly eclipses the tragedy of Root's untimely-and unsolved-death in 2006. Photos. (June)
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May 24, 2009
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Excerpt from Wildflower by Mark Seal
She always knew he would come back to her.
He would climb into his helicopter at first light one Nairobi morning
and rise above the screaming madhouse of the city, tilting west over
East Africa's largest slum, and flying out into wonder: out over the
Great Rift Valley, the cradle of civilization, a three- thousand- mile- long
seam in the earth that stretches from Syria to Mozambique but is at its
most glorious here in Kenya. As the floor of the world dropped away,
opening into endless sky and a breathtaking vista, he would follow this
corridor straight back to her.
There were things she longed to tell him, things only he would understand.
Everything she'd been too shy and self- effacing to say before
would now come pouring out, just as it had in all of the letters she had
written him, letters she never sent:
A lifetime has passed since we split, and yet some memories of
things we did together seem [as if they happened] only the other
day. There is so much I would like to say and share with you--now
I know I am not inferior to you.
She waited for him in her blue house beside the lake, which looked
so perfect and placid from the air. But this was merely another extreme
in a country where great beauty coexists with unimaginable brutality,
where the border between life and death is the thinnest of lines, where
nothing is ever as it seems.
Now in contact with others, I realize how knowledgeable I am
about the natural world. . . . People respect me nowadays. But the
only love of my life is one of the few people I cannot communicate
with, even as a friend.
She could leave all that pain behind as soon as he came back into her
life. Flying over the mountains and dormant volcanoes that form a natural
amphitheater around the lake, he would hover over the emeraldgreen
water, taking in its wide, verdant, wildlife- infested expanse.
When you flew over and saw the blue house you were probably
happy you didn't live here anymore, but I am really such a different
person, I hardly know myself. I have written you so many letters in
my head but when I try to write I go to pieces.
She imagined him buzzing the house, as playfully as he always had,
then touching down on the grass landing strip and stepping out, as if
returning from only a brief safari instead of half a lifetime. Then at last
she would impress him with her independence and accomplishments
and show him the abiding endurance of her love.
Finally, he did come back to her, flying in with the dawn on January
13, 2006. It was not, however, as she had dreamed for so long. He
hadn't come to reunite with the woman who had once been his wife,
partner, and best friend, the woman he'd left to live alone in Africa for
He had come to collect her remains.