Everything about Africa seems outsized—the landscape, the beauty, the dangers, the passions. Wildflower, the story of some of the greatest African nature films and, more especially of those who made them, is outsized as well. The “wildflower,” Joan Root, herself beautiful as a Hollywood heroine, helped produce ground-breaking documentaries like The Year of the Wildebeest and Mysterious Castles of Clay (a 1978 Oscar nominee) in the 1970s. She was extraordinarily sensitive to the destructive times she lived in and uniquely gifted in her quiet ability to do everything possible to reverse, or at least, restrict the damage.
Born in 1936 to a white Kenyan settler, Joan grew up “in the arms of the wild.” (As a baby, she was kidnapped by a big red monkey who surrendered her for a banana.) After finishing school in Switzerland, she returned to Kenya to help her parents run a photo-safari business, where she met and married Alan Root, a free spirit whose daredevil dominance complemented Joan’s overly controlled inner depths.
Mark Seal’s empathetic account, expanded from an article in Vanity Fair, sees her as one of the world’s two “greatest wildlife filmmakers” of their time. The other was her husband, whom she enabled in all ways, good and bad. With Alan’s spark and physical hubris shepherded by Joan’s astounding ability to plan and participate in the filming without turning a hair, they produced film after film.
For 28 years they appeared to have the perfect marriage, except for the occasional dalliance on Alan’s part. Joan’s ability to live with this seems outsized too, but she put herself heart and soul into protecting the precious ecosystem in Kenya against the depredations of an international flower business.
Joan put her safety into the hands of a young local, which turned out to be a mistake. Shot to death by assailants who invaded her property, she died at the age of 69. This absorbing biography will assure her place in the list of individuals who deserve appreciation for their willingness to put themselves on the line (and in the line of fire) for the natural world and its treasures.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.