The good news about Jane Goodall is that, at 89, she seems more popular than ever. The Chicago Theater, which has a seating capacity of 3,600, was packed on March 19 with an audience of all ages, who gave her a standing ovation before she even began her talk on “Inspiring Hope Through Action.”
And they continued applauding at regular intervals. Dame Jane looks very much the prim and proper Englishwoman that she isn’t. After pointing out a distinguished colleague in the audience, she cut us off. “Oh don’t applaud yet,” she said. “Wait till you hear everything he’s done!”
I always assumed Goodall came from a privileged background, but she was raised by her mother after her father left for good, though he did give her a stuffed chimpanzee (in lieu of a teddy bear), which Jane prized dearly. She said she also inherited her “toughness” from him.
From her mother, she received remarkable support. When, at a young age, Jane piled soil on her bed in order to study earthworms, Mom, instead of freaking out, gently told her she might crush the little buggers if she slept on them, so she helped her move them out to the yard where they would be safer. When the young scientist decided to find out how chickens produced eggs, she hid in the henhouse on the family farm, and remained perfectly still until a hen came in and laid one, right in front of her wondering eyes.
Stephen Cope tells that story in his book, “The Great Work of Your Life – A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling,” which includes a chapter on Jane, among many individuals who found their true calling and acted on it. He titled the Goodall chapter “Trust in the Gift.”
That first act of field observation lasted four hours, at which point her mom was frantic. Here’s how Goodall described it in her autobiography:
“Despite her worry, when Vanne saw the excited little girl rushing toward the house, she did not scold me. She noticed my shining eyes and sat down to listen to the story of how a hen lays an egg: the wonder of that moment when the egg finally fell to the ground.”
A child doesn’t understand that she has “The Gift,” Cope writes. “They can only feel their spirit leap up toward their object of interest — can only feel the delightful energy of fascination and enthusiasm. … Trust in The Gift needs to be nurtured by parents, teachers, friends. The moment must not pass by unnoticed. We must be encouraged to identify with our gifts.”
Goodall told the crowd in Chicago that when she announced her plan to study animals in Africa, the adults in her life were dismissive — except for her mom, who gave her important advice: You will have to work very hard, learn as much as you can in preparation, and take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.
Jane did just that when a family friend who had a farm in Kenya invited her to visit. That led to meeting and working for renowned archaeologist/paleontologist Louis Leakey, which led to three decades studying chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park.
As a result of her efforts, Goodall revolutionized our view of chimps and other animals, revealing how closely related we really are and how much we have in common. She showed a video clip that made the case in fewer words. Jane and her colleagues rescued a captive chimp trapped in a tiny cage. After realizing she was free, our primate cousin threw her arms around Goodall’s neck and gave her a long, heartfelt hug.
Goodall has a powerful, compelling story to tell about our connection to the animal world and their connection to us. She is not a spellbinding speaker, but she’s been doing this for the past 20 years, 300 days a year, and I suspect she’ll keep doing it till she can’t. What’s good for Goodall is good for all and good for the Earth.
What she lacks in oratorical flourish, she makes up for in authenticity. She was clearly energized by Sunday’s audience, and noted that she feels a particular affection for Chicago, where the local Academy of Science hosted an “Understanding Chimpanzees” conference in 1986, which became a turning point in her life, starting her on this second career as a global conservation phenomenon.
The Jane Goodall Institute is the organization that leads those efforts, which include its widespread Roots & Shoots program for youth in over 100 countries.
She also has an Oak Park connection. In her youth, she came across Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, some of which he wrote while living here. She said they fed her fascination with the jungles of Africa. Her only disappointment, she said, was that “Tarzan married the wrong Jane.”
There was no disappointment a week ago Sunday, however, only hope, instilled by the enthusiastic response to this aging, yet tough, activist, still a primatologist, only now she’s studying us.
“I always have this feeling,” she wrote in her book, Reason for Hope, “that I am being used as a messenger … to tap into the spiritual power that is always there, providing strength and courage, if only we reach out.”
We all need to keep reaching.