I reviewed Jane Goodall’s wonderful book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey years ago in my monthly book column in Washington Woman magazine, but only recently watched the tie-in 1999 public TV special. Just as with the book, I was moved deeply by this extraordinary woman’s intellect and heart and how she applies both to serve the world.
The world’s leading primatologist is best known for her work with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Her six-month stint in Africa beginning at age 26 turned into about four decades; she started there with no degree as secretary to Louis Leakey but soon earned a doctoral degree from Cambridge University. She had and has an unparalleled, deep relationship with the natural world and from the twin branches of science and spirituality advocates for the environment.
Part of the absorbing film looks back at Jane’s childhood, which she commented on from her childhood home. She grew up in a family of strong women, in a house in England that has been their home for three generations. I was struck by how many aspects of her childhood set her path in adulthood, or perhaps more accurately by what an early age she began demonstrating the traits that shaped the personality and achievements of her adulthood.
Her teacher about animals having feelings, she said, was her dog. (This little girl would later shake the scientific community with her radical belief that study subject chimps should be named, not numbered.) Her favorite friend was Jubilee, a monkey stuffed animal her father gave her when she was one year old to commemorate the birth of a chimp in the London Zoo. She loved Dr. Doolittle. She was an avid reader of Tarzan books, though she was jealous of Jane, who she thought was a wimp.
Walking around her childhood yard, in her 60s, she introduces viewers to Birch, the tree she climbed when she was upset, the tree she climbed to do homework, to view the world. She tells of putting her hands on trees and how she would “get a sense of sap rising and the life of the tree,” and sometimes would say hello to them.
Goodall was deeply impacted by pictures of the Holocaust coming out when she was a child and she became fascinated, she says, with the nature of evil. She used to think that chimps were less violent than humans, though later when warfare broke out for years among the chimps she followed she was painfully disabused of that notion.
The documentary, like the book, reveals the very spiritual side of a noted scientist, and her exploration of the big questions of life. Her message: Each of us can make a difference. She believes that we are moving away from times of cruelty to a more compassionate time, but we must push and push to reach that destiny.
Goodall speaks of the blur between the lives of humans and non-humans. We watch her watch the chimps performing special swaying and swinging displays when they come across gorgeous waterfalls, which she interprets as awe. She rejects some scientists’ ideas that one day we’ll know all there is to know, for she doesn’t want to lose awe and mystery. Bless her for that never-ending sense of wonder she holds side by side with her scientific training.
The time alone in Gombe she calls the most “perfect” of her life, and she continues to experience there a fierce sense of belonging. Much of the documentary she talks from that same jungle. Of course the Africa on all sides of that original spot where she sat for hours watching chimps is filled with civil wars and genocides, and she does not gloss over that.
In 1986, Goodall was, she says, “galvanized” at a conference where she and other scientists learned how the chimpanzee habitat was being destroyed by the clear-cutting timber industry, chimps were being eaten as bush meat and chimps were being used in scientific experimentation. Since then, she hasn’t stayed more than three weeks in one place, traveling the world lecturing on a grueling schedule. In what she calls her “crusade,” Goodall works to change the minds of the African people to become stewards of animal life, when once they regarded animals as enemies, and to introduce socioeconomic development so families don’t have to cut down all their trees for fuel. In part, her role now is spreading the good word: “I hear what others are doing and offer inspiration.”
Goodall’s work soon expanded to giving hope to the next generation. A great part of her mission is assuring young people that there will still be some chimpanzees swinging in the jungles of Africa and birds singing for their grandchildren. As one young woman after hearing her speak puts it, “I get so tired of hearing the horror stories of the world, and she was actually giving us hope.”
In 1991, Goodall started an organization for children and youth called Roots and Shoots, which by 2010 is active in 100 countries, teaching kids that they can help animals, the environment and the world. The film shows the absolute joy and pride of a group of high school kids who’ve reclaimed a stream in one California town, a scene that plays out over and over around the globe thanks to this one amazing woman’s vision.
Powerfully and poignantly, Goodall collects what she calls “symbols of hope.” A leaf from a sapling that survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, where the green came back much more quickly than expected. A little piece of the Berlin Wall. A chunk of limestone from Robben Island prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela labored for 17 of the 22 years he was incarcerated. And her mascot is a stuffed animal called Mr. H., given her by a friend who lost his sight in his 20s, who’s overcome great odds and has a great spirit. At the time of the documentary she said Mr. H. had been touched by maybe 150,000 people. By 2010 that number has risen to 2.5 million people in 60 countries, but of course what that number really represents is the number of people whose lives have been “touched” by Goodall herself.
Now 76, she hasn’t given up her punishing schedule--she travels about 300 days of the year, dresses simply, barely sleeps and eats and is not rooted in material possessions--and she loves her life. “When I speak it’s like taking some of this great spirit of God and sharing it, tossing it out, and the energy comes back from the people when I know that they’ve heard the message and understood it and most important been moved by it.”
Goodall returns to her beloved chimps at Gombe for several weeks a year, and to the “quiet and agelessness” of the forest. She is as excited by the birth of rare twin chimps while she’s there filming this documentary as if they were her own grandchildren, and she happily ponders names for them (they become Golden and Glitter, or affectionately, Goldi and Glitta). The rest of the year, says Goodall, she carries the peace of the forest as her inner peace.
At the film’s end she emphasizes our responsibility as stewards of the planet, and says, “I just hope we have time.” As activists and “ordinary people” around the world work to make ensure that is the case and show that one by one we can make a difference, Jane Goodall, herself, is reason for hope.