The front cover of Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa, shows a supermodel in a 1950s frock, holding a milk bottle and being nuzzled by a baby elephant.
At first, I thought this photograph was a prop to sell the book. Not so. This gorgeous creature and her playmate are very real. They are world renowned naturalist and film maker Joan Root and her friend Bundu – an elephant she would soon lose amongst a long succession of animals that would leave her life. A life that also witnessed the loss of the true wilds of Africa.
Writer Mark Seal has penned a biography on an extraordinary life indeed, but what’s even more extraordinary is how he came to write it. As a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Seal happened upon a news report about a conservationist who was gunned down in her farmhouse, shot to death by two assailants. This quiet, dedicated 69 year-old-woman was killed in cold blood and Seal was both horrified and intrigued. He knew he had to learn more.
The wife of Alan Root, one of the greatest wildlife film makers of all time, Joan Root spent her life documenting the wildlife of her beloved Africa – and beyond. While Alan was the creative genius and talent behind such groundbreaking films as Mysterious Castles of Clay and Year of the Wildebeest, Joan was the backbone to the couple’s success, selflessly supporting and masterminding each film’s creation, even to the point of endangering her own life.
When biographer, Seal, first began researching more on Joan’s life, it was for a feature article for Vanity Fair. After emailing everyone he knew in an attempt to find Alan Root, Seal was stunned to receive an email from Alan only days later – with the single line “I hear you are looking for me.”
Within days, after an invitation from Alan, Seal was on his way to Kenya to a memorial service for Joan. Held less than two months after her death, on the beautiful Lake Naivasha property where she was brutally murdered, Seal indeed discovered an extraordinary life. He wrote the Vanity Fair article, which was published in August 2006, and from there, the story took on a life of its own.
After Working Title Films optioned the movie rights for Joan’s story, Seal felt compelled to reveal more about her life in a book, yet despite Alan Root’s support, the material for a biography just didn’t seem to be there. Until, miraculously, Joan began to speak… in a serious of meticulously detailed journals, notes and letters to friends from all over the world. With this material in hand, Wildflower was born.
The story of this extraordinary woman’s life is as detailed as the drama surrounding her death. Born in Nairobi in 1936, Joan Wells-Thorpe was the daughter of Edmund Thorpe, a British banker who immigrated to Kenya on a major sea change – to begin a successful coffee plantation.
Young Joan’s life was steeped in the land; she developed a deep love for Africa and its wildlife. A painfully shy person, she was at her best when dealing with the animals she loved so much. Brave, dedicated and calm to fault, when she later met and married the dashing and dynamic Alan Root, an excruciating scorpion bite on their wedding night did little more than to elicit a small “oh!”.
Alan, on the other hand, was ‘out there’. A loud and avid adventurer, he fell into film by chance. Part creative genius, part life-risking wildman, Alan was the yang to Joan’s yin.
The couple’s entire marriage was dedicated to film making – a balancing act that worked perfectly for decades, taking them from Syria to Mozambique, in hot air balloons over Mt Kilimanjaro, into mountains hunting gorillas or rivers slithering with crocodiles. The couple were maimed, gored, bitten, chased and stung by any manner of African creature, yet never ceased to give up their passion for documenting one of the world’s last standing pristine areas – a wilderness captured in their many films, from termites to hippos.
Seal’s biography features a well-paced journey on a subject he is clearly intrigued and moved by. Joan Root’s story is triple-bound in that it tells the life of an extraordinary person, yet it also opens the lid on a fast disappearing Africa – a place Joan saw evaporating before her very eyes. The third and unexpected prong to this book is the love story between Joan and her husband – one Alan graciously reveals to the author, despite the perceived ‘abandonment’ of his wife.
Wildflower is a thought-provoking and fascinating read in itself – the descriptions of the couple’s film making journeys are unbelievable – but the compassion and anger the reader feels at the injustices and hopelessness experienced by Joan and by the Kenyan people is palpable, and tips this biography into impressive ground. The subject matter is well researched but the myriad of quotes from acquaintances pale into comparison to Joan’s moving diary entries – a coup that makes for an intimate read – something that would have been impossible to achieve without them.
Although Joan’s murderers have never been caught, many who knew Joan believe it was a hired killing – particularly after the conservation efforts she undertook in the final years of her life – a time stricken with desperation to protect her beloved Lake Naivasha from destruction. This lake was not only the place she was conceived as a baby, it was also the place she and Alan found home – a large property right on the shores of the lake which became a haven to wildlife and has remained the last un-gated estate on the lake’s shores.
Now almost totally overrun with flower farms and poachers (of both fish and other wildlife), Joan ran an almost single-handed operation to protect Lake Naivasha – both by standing up against poachers and the pollution of the lake, and by her contradictory but conciliatory efforts to aid the people put out of work by her conservation efforts.
But Joan fought a losing battle. Coupling with a savvy yet controversial poacher named David Chege (who later became one of the accused in her murder), Joan’s attempts at making positive change were failing and the pain was devastating for her. Nonetheless, she refused to give up hope and likewise refused to leave her land despite the increasing danger surrounding her. Shortly before her death, Joan finally installed security and protective devices in her home, but they failed to stop a murderous duo intent on taking her life.
In the wee hours of 13 January 2006, Joan was slain, and with her went almost seventy years of dedication and love for a country still in serious decline. With continued reports that corruption is the only thing holding the Kenyan government together, and with the rapid decline of its magnificent land and wildlife, perhaps Joan’s death was already imminent… not by decrepit murders, but by a terminally broken heart.