Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

by Mark Seal
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


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.

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.

Editorial Reviews

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Joan Root was English by heritage, African by birth, and a lover of Kenya, its animals, and its people. Her home on the banks of Lake Vainasha was a veritable Eden to a menagerie of recuperating and orphaned animals. A visitor once mistook for a waterbed Joan's pet hippo, Sally, who was napping in a corner of the room.

So shy that her only response to a scorpion's sting was a soft "oh," Joan became, through quiet determination, one of East Africa's most respected voices for conservation. With her former husband, Alan, she'd made some of the most celebrated wildlife films ever produced. When poachers and massive flower farms began to destroy the region's delicate ecosystem, she worked with the poachers rather than sending them to jail, hoping to instill a love of conservation in native Kenyans.

By the time a small group of African gunmen opened fire through the bars in her bedroom window, killing the 69-year-old Root, she'd lived at the lake for 25 years. Hers was a gentle but stalwart voice that spoke for patience and knowledge. Her death came from a lifetime of understanding animals better than people and forgetting that among living creatures on earth, one alone has the capacity for evil. Seal's biography is an illuminating yet troubling tribute. (Fall 2009 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

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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Library Journal

Seal, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a journalist for 34 years, expands on his portrait of British naturalist and filmmaker Joan Root, which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair following her brutal murder at her Kenyan farmhouse. Seal gives us the sad details up front and then leads us, gently and sensitively, through the story of this shy yet remarkable woman. The films she made with husband Alan Root became international hits, and one, Mysterious Castles of Clay, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1978. After her divorce, Joan Root became an ardent conservationist who fought poaching and illegal fishing on Lake Navaisha, a passion that may have led to her death. This is a great story built from many interviews of friends and family and from Root's extensive diaries and letters. What an adventure! What an example! Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/09; film rights were sold to Julia Roberts.-Ed.]
—Margaret F. Dominy

Kirkus Reviews
Zesty biography of wildlife documentarian and conservationist Joan Root (1937-2006). By the time Alan and Joan Root's marriage ended in 1981, they had gained renown as documentary filmmakers of Africa's fauna-or rather Alan had, as Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal makes clear. Spouting ideas and exuding reckless energy, Alan was the kind of gentleman who tended to hog all the oxygen, while shy, retiring Joan sturdily managed their affairs and the support side of the operation. ("You were the wind beneath my wings," he admitted in a letter after their divorce.) But she would involuntarily steal the headlines in 2006 when she was shot to death in her home in Kenya, perhaps by robbers, perhaps by people angered by her strong stand against poaching and pollution. To make sense of that unsolved crime, Seal offers a detailed look at Root's life. The author talked extensively with her former husband and had access to a trove of Joan's diaries and letters (many unsent to Alan). Limning the Roots' marriage and professional collaboration, Seal captures both the extraordinary quality of their work and Joan's personality-specifically her attraction to her emotional opposite in Alan and her depression when he left. Seal expertly draws out the drama of the Roots' days afield, "being chased, mauled, bitten, gored, and stung by every conceivable creature as they drove, flew, ran, and swam across Africa," filming as they went. Even more compelling is the author's portrait of the years Joan spent alone on the shores of Kenya's Lake Naivasha, her fortitude in trying to protect the ecologically fragile area from poaching and illegal fishing and the fallout of the flower industry that sprang up on itsshore. These were complex issues that braided social, economic and cultural factors, further fraught by Joan's relationship with a poacher. Transports readers into the midst of an incandescent, doomed life.

Product Details

George Weidenfeld & Nicholson
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Read an Excerpt


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 sixteen years.

He had come to collect her remains.

Meet the Author

Mark Seal has been a journalist for more than thirty years. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he has written for many major magazines and served as a collaborator on almost twenty nonfiction books. Although he has written thousands of stories, Seal says none has struck a chord with readers more than the story of the incredible life and brutal death of Joan Root, which he originally reported in the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. He lives in Aspen, Colorado.

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