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Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

  • Mark Seal
  • biography
  • environmentalism

Book Description
For readers of the bestselling White Mischief and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Seal tells the mesmerizing story of the captivating life and shocking death of world-renowned naturalist Joan Root.

From her passion for animals to her storybook love affair to her hard-fought crusade to save Kenya?s beautiful Lake Naivasha, Wildflower is naturalist, filmmaker, and lifelong conservationist Joan Root?s gripping life story--a stunning and moving tale featuring a remarkable modern-day heroine.

After twenty years of spectacular, unparalleled wildlife filmmaking together, Joan and Alan Root divorced and a fascinating woman found her own voice. Renowned journalist Mark Seal offers this breathtaking, culturally relevant portrait of a strong woman discovering herself and fighting for her beliefs before her mysterious and brutal murder. With a cast of characters as wild, wondrous, and unpredictable as Africa itself, Wildflower is a real-life adventure tale set in the world?s fast-disappearing wilderness. Rife with personal revelation, intrigue, corruption, and murder, readers will remember Joan Root?s extraordinary journey long after they turn the last page of this utterly compelling book.

Mark Seal on Wildflower

The report was chillingly brief:

Conservationist Killed
Joan Root, animal lover and conservationist who collaborated with her husband, Alan, on wildlife documentaries in the 1970?s, was killed on Jan. 13 in Naivasha, Kenya. Root was shot to death by assailants who invaded her farmhouse, the police said. Two men were arrested, officials said. One of the couple?s films, Mysterious Castles of Clay, narrated by Orson Welles, showed the inner workings of a termite mound. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1978.

As a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine, I am always in search of great stories, and this one seemed to have plenty of the right ingredients: conservationist and wildlife filmmaker, nominated for an Oscar for a film narrated by the legendary Orson Welles, murdered for unknown reasons in Africa.

As soon as I began to research her, I quickly realized that Joan Root wasn?t just another wildlife filmmaker. She and her husband, Alan Root, were, for a time in the 1970s and 1980s, the world?s greatest wildlife filmmakers, mythical figures to nature lovers of all ages. You didn?t merely watch Joan and Alan on television and on flickering classroom screens across Africa and Great Britain, you traveled with them, whether they were sporting with ferocious crocodiles and hippos in exotic lakes, sailing over Mount Kilimanjaro in a hot air balloon, or being chased, mauled, bitten, gored, and stung by every conceivable creature as they drove, flew, ran, and swam across Africa, determined to capture the continent and its wonders on film before this wild world was lost forever. They were pioneers, filming animal behavior without human interference decades before films such as Winged Migration and March of the Penguins were made. Their movies were often narrated by top movie stars, including David Niven, James Mason, and Ian Holm, and in 1967 one of their films had a royal premiere in London, where the couple was presented to the Queen.

They introduced the American zoologist Dian Fossey to the gorillas she would later die trying to save, took Jacqueline Kennedy up in their hot air balloon, and covered much of Africa in their single-engine Cessna and their amphibious car. Then, for reasons the public never really knew, they suddenly vanished from the screen as mysteriously as some of the endangered species they had documented. They separated and later divorced. Alan, the more outspoken of the couple, went on to become a wildlife-filmmaking icon, winner of awards, tributes, and accolades. Meanwhile, blonde, bronzed, beautiful Joan, who was intensely shy and always in the background, both as her husband?s capable backup and the unheralded producer of their films, dropped out of filmmaking altogether, retreating to live alone on 88 acres in Naivasha, Kenya, where she devoted herself to saving the ecologically imperiled lake on which her land stood. It was there, in her bedroom at 1:30 A.M. on January 13, 2006, that she was brutally murdered by assailants with an AK-47 automatic rifle. Screaming in Swahili that they would fill her with so many holes she?d ?look like a sieve,? they pumped bullets through the glass and the bars of her bedroom windows until Joan--who, at 69, had become one of the most indomitable conservationists in the world--lay dead in a pool of her own blood.

Within a week of reading the paragraph in the Times Digest, I had an assignment to write an article about Joan Root for Vanity Fair. After landing in Nairobi, I drove 55 miles west to Joan Root?s home on Lake Naivasha for her memorial service.

Thus began a three-year journey into the incredible life--and brutal murder--of Joan Root, a sweet and gentle woman, who rarely spoke above a whisper and had spent decades passionately helping the desperately poor and needy of Kenya. Some, including the police, were convinced that her murder was the result of a simple robbery attempt. But if robbery was the motive, others asked, why was nothing stolen from her house? And why the barrage of bullets, when the threat of one would have persuaded most people in crime-ridden Naivasha or nearby Nairobi (which is known familiarly these days as ?Nairobbery?) to surrender their cash? The likely explanation, many of her friends felt, was that Joan had been the target of a contract killing--easily arranged in Kenya for about $100 a hit--because of her conservation activities around the lake.

The article I wrote, which was published in the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, was just one more dispatch in the deepening mystery of a fascinating woman. Yet, like the chilling paragraph that had galvanized me in the beginning, the article seemed to make a visceral connection with readers. People would stop me on the street to discuss this indomitable individual. A dozen feature filmmakers expressed interest in obtaining rights to the article. Several publishers urged me to expand it into a book.

Most magazine stories tend to come and go, but this one wouldn?t die after the next issue hit the stands. It seemed to have a life of its own. Working Title Films optioned the rights to the article for a feature film, with Julia Roberts set to co-produce and star as Joan Root, all of which was announced to great fanfare at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, making international headlines. Still, I thought the story was over, at least for me. Joan Root was dead, and because she had rarely expressed her feelings, much less verbalized them, even to her closest friends, most of her personal story was presumably buried with her.

Then something incredible happened. Joan Root began speaking, through hundreds of letters she had written to her mother, and a meticulously kept diary, in which she recorded her activities over the years. With these documents as my source materials, as well as interviews with those who knew, loved and worked with Joan Root, I was able to assemble the incredible story of not only her life, but also the cause she died for, trying to save the land and the animals that she so loved.

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and An Untimely Death in Africa is a book I couldn?t have imagined in the beginning of my research: the story of a brave and fearless woman who stood up for what she believed in at whatever cost that stand entailed. --Mark Seal

A Look Inside Wildflower

Click on thumbnails for larger images

Joan Root
Joan with a baby elephant
Joan with an antelope

(Photo Alan Root)

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     Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa