In 1960, the world’s foremost primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist got her start observing apes in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. Now 80, she’s Mother Nature’s greatest champion, and she still has a few lessons for the rest of us.
Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration André Carrilho
There was a time when the idea of the scientist-adventurer captivated the public imagination—when young men and women boarded ships with their binoculars and logbooks and risked everything for a chance to attain a place in the scientific pantheon. Dame Jane Goodall is in a sense the last of these swashbucklers, who needed as much backbone as brains to trek to the undiscovered bits of the earth and uncover their mysteries for the rest of us.
Goodall’s life reads like Dr. Dolittle by way of Pygmalion. In 1956, at 23 years old and without so much as a college degree, she traveled to Africa to work as a secretary for famed anthropologist Louis Leakey. Four years later, she was alone in the jungle in what is now Tanzania, developing a strategy for interacting with the local chimps so that she could study and film them. When she observed that the chimps were hunting and using sticks as tools, the entire scientific community was forced to reconsider the difference between man and the great apes. Goodall has been a household name ever since, and is among only a handful of scientists to have obtained the status of pop culture icon. She has been referenced in the comic “The Far Side” and even on an episode of “The Simpsons.”
Though at the age of 80 Goodall has reached the emeritus stage of her career, she is as busy as ever acting as a spokeswoman for Mother Nature. She still travels the world as a UN Messenger of Peace, and she encourages human beings to be better stewards of the earth through the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots, her international children’s program. Her latest book, Seeds of Hope, expresses both fears and wishes for the planet that has hosted her and her animal companions all these years.
Hemispheres recently reached Goodall by phone at her family home in Bournemouth, England, where she was relaxing before a quick trip to Belgium, Holland, Spain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya.
Hemispheres: You’ve got quite a trip coming up. What will you be doing?
Jane Goodall: I’ll be doing events for Roots & Shoots, talking to children, helping them raise money to keep their own institutes going through 2018. And they’ll want to give me birthday parties.
Hemispheres: Oh yes, happy birthday! Eighty is quite a milestone. And you’re still so busy! How is Roots & Shoots doing?
Goodall: The program began with 12 high school students in Tanzania in 1991, and it’s now in 136 countries with about 150,000 to 160,000 active groups. Now the kids are all ages. The main message is “Every individual makes a difference every day. And we have a choice.” So every group chooses, between them, three projects. One to help people, one to help other animals and one to help the environment that we all share. What they do depends on where they are, how old they are, what their passions are and what the problems are.
Hemispheres: It seems as though you’re encouraging kids to have the same excitement about the environment that you do.
Goodall: Yeah, about the environment and about social issues, too. It’s empowering young people, because they talk about what they care about, and then they work out what they can do about it, and then they roll up their sleeves and take action.
Hemispheres: So I have to ask the obvious question: After a lifetime spent working with great apes and other animals, why write Seeds of Hope, a book about plants?
Goodall: It started because the last book I wrote before this was Hope for Animals and Their World, and it was about animals rescued from the brink of extinction. I had a section on plants rescued from the brink of extinction, because that’s equally exciting, but the publishers thought the book was too long, and they chopped it. I felt very sad for all the botanists who had been so excited to be in a book by Jane. So I thought, Well, I’ll just pull together what I know about plants and boost it up a little bit, and publish a very slim book, which maybe a botanical garden would publish. And then it was as though the plants put little roots in my head and said, “Hey Jane, you spent all your life helping animals. It’s our turn now. You wouldn’t be here but for us.”
Hemispheres: Some of those plants that made it back from the precipice were pretty inspiring, like the ones that survived the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s almost as if they have personalities.
Goodall: They do, and with the knowledge that we now have that they can communicate through chemical signals in the breeze, or through their roots—who knows what their secret life really is like?
Hemispheres: Now I’m concerned that my desk plants are talking to each other about how bad a caretaker I am.
Goodall: I’m sure they do! [laughs] You know, there was research done about 20 years ago where a man walked down a row of plants that was near another row of plants, slashing the first row. Then if that man appeared again—not another man, but the same one—the plants who hadn’t been slashed put out all these strange electrical signals.
Hemispheres: It would be like the Greek earth goddess, Gaia, if all the plants are actually talking to each other about us.
Goodall: It would be back to Dr. Dolittle, wouldn’t it? I don’t know if you read Dr. Dolittle in the Moon, but when he goes up to the moon, the plants talk to each other.
Hemispheres: I don’t think I’ve read that one.
Goodall: Oh, I did. I’ve read them all.
Hemispheres: According to Seeds of Hope, Mother Nature isn’t doing very well. You talk about deforestation, superweeds and irresponsible farming practices. The situation seems so dire.
Goodall: It’s dreadfully dire! We should be ashamed of ourselves!
Hemispheres: Is there anything we’re doing right for the environment?
Goodall: Well, there’s a growing awareness. More and more people are understanding that climate change is real. Mother Nature’s been telling us, hasn’t she? So what’s going right is that more people are aware, but the problem is that they become aware but they don’t actually change their behavior. And I think the reason people don’t change their behavior is that they feel they couldn’t make any difference. They feel helpless.
Hemispheres: I keep reading studies about how much happier and healthier humans are if they have regular access to green spaces and plants. It would be such a shame to lose that. And it’s almost surprising that it needs to be said.
Goodall: There are so many people that have no access to it—in the inner cities, where there are high crime rates and hopelessness and gangs.
Hemispheres: How much of your life would you say you’ve spent outside?
Goodall: I couldn’t give a percentage, but an awful lot. [laughs]
Hemispheres: And at 80, you seem pretty happy and healthy—do you credit your connection with nature for that?
Goodall: I suppose I credit a lot of different things. The way I was brought up, the connection with nature. The inspirational people that I meet as I travel around the world. The fact that I feel that the message I’m giving is making a difference.
Hemispheres: Speaking of that, there aren’t many modern scientists that resonate in popular culture the way you do. It’s pretty much you, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and now Neil deGrasse Tyson that everyone knows—even if they don’t really follow science. Do you have a theory about why that is?
Goodall: I think people were really fascinated by the chimpanzees, because they’re our closest living relatives. I was one of the first to actually write popular books about them. And we had all the documentaries. So I’m all tied up with this fascinating species.
Hemispheres: And then there’s being one of the only people to be accepted into chimpanzee society. That’s pretty memorable. Were you ever afraid?
Goodall: Eh. Sometimes. Dian Fossey was accepted by the gorillas, and she took it to the extreme. She would sit on the alpha male’s lap and she would make their sounds to them. I never did that. I didn’t want to. I wanted to be accepted in that they didn’t run away from me. I wanted to learn about them by watching them from my human perspective, to understand them. If you start being part of their group, then you’re influencing their behavior, I think. And also you can’t watch animals if they’re coming up and poking you and pulling you.
Hemispheres: How are things at the Gombe reserve these days? Is the chimp population doing well?
Goodall: Yes, they’re just about hanging in there. And now we’ve got this program with the nearby villagers so that they’ve become our partners. We’ve been helping them to improve their own lives, so they’ve put land aside as a buffer between Gombe and the village. Some other villages that aren’t on Gombe’s border have put land aside to make a forest corridor [leading into the reserve]. We’ve had at least one chimp, possibly two, who’ve used that corridor and come into Gombe. There are fewer chimps than when I arrived in 1960, but they have more forest for their potential use than they had
10 years ago.
Hemispheres: You talk so much about your garden in your new book. Do you do the gardening yourself, or are you too busy?
Goodall: No, my sister Judy and her daughter do the gardening. I mean,
I sit in it. But my rose is growing—the Jane Goodall rose. We have two of them growing here. Horticulturists in France named it for me. They said they wanted to develop a rose that had the most exquisite scent, and it climbed, because they see my spirit as climbing up. So
it’s a climber. It took seven years to develop it.
Hemispheres: I really can’t think of a better reward than having a rose named after you.
Goodall: I have an orchid, too, in Singapore. It’s very beautiful. There’s a picture in the book. It’s yellow and sort of red. Lots of small flowers.
If you’re reading this, Mother Nature, Popular Mechanics senior editor Jacqueline Detwiler promises to water the plants on her desk. Occasionally.
Volunteer hours contributed by Roots & Shoots groups
Chimps at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Sanctuary
Days per year Goodall spends on the road
Adult and children’s books written by Goodall
Number of those books that are at least partly about animals
Percent of DNA shared between humans and chimps