One woman's bid to save LAKE NAIVASHA
Wildlife researchers Joan and Alan Root in Naivasha. The two had a sense that the haven they inhabited after they married in 1961 was doomed, thus there was a terrible urgency about their attempts to immortalise it for posterity.
By Betty Caplan (email the author)
Posted Monday, October 25 2010 at 20:53
Mark Seal’s biography of the woman who lost her life in a futile bid to save Lake Naivasha is welcome, though deeply depressing.
Seal originally wrote the story for Vanity Fair and later decided to make it into a book. It is story of someone whose life was so bound up with a love of Kenya and its magnificent wildlife — a love which in the end ensnared her in the complicated web of corruption and conflicting interests that have come to characterise any enterprise that has money-making potential in this country.
Having been herself actually conceived on the shores of the lake in 1926, its survival formed the lynchpin of her existence.
When she met Alan Root, who had arrived in Kenya at the age of 10, she found her soulmate, a man whose mission was to “capture the essence of Africa on film.”
The two had a sense that the haven they inhabited after they married in 1961 was doomed, thus there was a terrible urgency about their attempts to immortalise it for posterity.
Those who have seen the masterpieces they produced together will know that these were the greatest of the wildlife filmmakers; others have followed, but they were the first.
Because they inhabited the territory without making any human mark on it, they were able to capture, for instance, the life of the termite in Castles of Clay, the abiding mystery of how these tiny creatures make such large and well-designed structures, all at the behest of the queen who lays 30,000 eggs a day.
“Four inches long and as thick as a man’s thumb, this grotesque creature looms over the workers that attend her. Beside their queen, the workers look like a ground crew handling a half-inflated airship.”
This small extract underlines what was so special about their films — not just the photography, but the poetic script, which always helped to illuminate the images.
The film about the seasons covers just one small area of land and shows in minute detail how it changes as the rains come and go, and how the wildlife adapts.
Alan was mostly credited for the success their work achieved, but he always maintained that he couldn’t have done it without Joan, that she was his right hand.
The book is full of those marvellous brushes with death that are so common in Kenya — escaping puff adder bites (which cost Alan a finger nevertheless), stray hippos or falling out of hot air balloons.
Theirs was a true “marriage of minds” though, eventually, Joan’s health and eventually her life were sacrificed.
They survived their early years through sheer determination and dedication to their mission, but slowly things began to unravel.
Because of the punishment she had dealt her body, she developed myasthenia and, at the age of 36, suffered an early menopause.
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