Mark Seal, “Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa”

Yes, another Africa book, but a more contemporary one. When I was in the Kenyan town of Naivasha about a month ago, we drove past a long stretch of sturdy iron fencing that had the initials “JR” worked into the panels. I was told that this had been the property of Joan Root, a conservationist who had been murdered a few years earlier under very murky circumstances.

Lake Naivasha, February 2013.

Lake Naivasha, February 2013

That, it turns out, was putting things mildly. Wildflower originated as a Vanity Fair profile, researched and published shortly after Root’s death in 2006. The reporter/author, Mark Seal, found a lot of great sources, including Joan’s letters and diaries provided by her former husband Alan Root, a pioneering nature filmmaker. Wildflower doesn’t aspire to literature but it’s thorough, fast-paced and apparently even-handed. (Though the more I read, the less I suppose I understand about anything in Africa.)

Joan Root was, as one source says, “a real Kenya girl” which is to say pretty, smart, practical, and adventurous. She was married to the charismatic, risk-taking Alan Root, whose wildlife movies introduced thousands of viewers in the 1960s to the spectacles offered by Africa. Seal spends a lot of time in Wildflower discussing the Kenya of those days, and the Roots’ intense love of the country and its animals, as well as the strenuous process of producing their films. Joan served as a de factor producer, organizing the staff, providing the meals, and patching Alan together when he crashed the hot-air balloon or got mauled by a hippo. The two worked together seamlessly and very productively, but Alan’s eye eventually strayed and they ended up divorcing in 1981.

Joan settled in a property on the shore of Lake Naivasha, west of Nairobi, and was soon involved in attempts to preserve the lake itself. One threat came from poachers who decimated fish stocks; another from the massive international flower farms which were reputed to pollute the lake with their chemical fertilizers. Finally, the entire area surrounding the lake became a magnet for black Kenyans looking for work at the flower farms. Population rose, slums grew, and so did criminal behavior. Joan Root became involved in funding and organizing an anti-poaching group made up of former poachers. Meanwhile, as an older white woman living alone on a big tract of lakeside land, she was more and more vulnerable. The wild animals she nurtured on the land were under threat and soon, so was she. The gun of choice for criminals in Naivasha, Seal tells us, is the AK-47 and Root was finally killed by a storm of bullets in her steel-lined bedroom. The men who were charged with her murder were acquitted. Naivasha was one of the flashpoints for violence following Kenya’s 2007 election. I’m hoping we don’t see it in the news soon.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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One Response to Mark Seal, “Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa”

  1. Patrick Thyne says:

    Becky and I felt the same way about Africa. We’d read a lot before and during Jesse’s tenure there. Then we spent three weeks with him, in a city, a town and mostly in his village. By then we were completely flummoxed; our reading and our letters from Jesse had not prepared us for the foreignness, the complexity, the different natural smells and foods and tribal identities and habits that we were dunked in for three weeks. I still read every day the Africa section of the NY Times news of the day; it continues to confound me. Thanks for the fresh reminder.

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