Bellingham Visit One Stop of Many on Dogged Mission to Save Planet
Famed British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, 84, isn’t slowing down. She was in town in October for an appearance at the Mount Baker Theatre, through Western Washington University’s Fraser Lecture Series. When tickets went on sale this summer, the 1,519-seat venue sold out in a matter of hours.
Reached at her Hotel Bellwether room on a drizzly morning, she deflects an apology about the weather with a soft chuckle. “It’s all right,” she says by phone. “I have so much work to do I don’t have time to be in the weather anyway.” Her trip to Bellingham is one of 300 travel days she has every year. “It’s all horrible,” she says, in her even-keeled, British-accented lilt that makes a complaint sound not so bad. “I think it’s even more days (now), more crammed into the days.”
It’s a painful irony — the woman who found her life’s work in a faraway forest living among and studying wild chimpanzees can’t be with them because she’s on a worldwide quest to save them.
National Geographic’s documentary “Jane,” released this spring, showed highlights of 100 hours of newly discovered color footage from Goodall’s early years with the chimps in Tanzania’s Gombe forest. Shot in the 1960s, the film is a remarkable look at a freshfaced, thriving woman in her element — on her own, in a remote corner of the world, armed with little more than a notebook and a camera. “It’s the only one that’s been made that actually made me feel like I was back there being 26 years old again,” she says. “It was very special. (Director) Brett Morgen did an amazing job.”
In the film she wears low-cut canvas sneakers or sandals or goes barefoot. “They were the best days of my life, when I was out there with the chimps learning stuff all the time,” she says. “It was amazing… I was wishing I could be back in those days. But everything’s changed since then.”
Chimps and Tools: Changing Conventional Thinking
Her early studies were criticized because she had no scientific background at the time, yet she wound up carrying out groundbreaking research. One of her discoveries that revolutionized definitions of humans and evolution: chimps used tools, like a twig, to stick inside a log and “fish” for termites. Before that, toolmaking was considered the realm of humans only.
Tourists, of course, have descended upon Gombe, and most of the chimps she knew so well are no longer there. Twice a year, she manages to visit two surviving chimps, Melissa and Gremlin, for a few days. “Last time, Gremlin came down from her tree and walked up to me and stared into my eyes as though she were saying, `Ah, stranger.’”
Spreading the Word — and the Work
The Jane Goodall Institute has a presence in more than 100 countries around the globe. She is justifiably proud of Roots and Shoots, her youth program that has grown to involve thousands of young people, from kindergarten to college, in 80 countries, including the U.S., China, and the United Arab Emirates. She places much of her faith for the future in college students, who are conducting field studies like she did.
“We try to link the young people together face-to-face when possible but otherwise mostly through technology.” She can’t get to all the programs, she laughs, “but I get to as many as I can.”
Her reputation and star status spans generations, longer than scientist celebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, the Science Guy. She retains a sense of wonder.
Bigfoot? Goodall Hopes So
She hopes that Bigfoot exists (“I’m basically a romantic, so I hope that they’re there”) and believes modern zoos, with the right conditions, can be a better place than the wild for some species, though not whales or dolphins. “It’s just not right to keep them in pens. It’s really, really not. Elephants is another, probably wolves.”
Zoos still have a place in today’s conservation movement. Technology, in the form of virtual reality, can help bring awareness of creatures’ lives and is a “fabulous tool” Goodall says, but it’s nothing like the real thing. “It’s not the same for a small child as being able to look an animal in the eye and smell the smell. There’s a being-ness when you’re with an animal that can never come from virtual reality.”
A Reason to Hope
Before her talk, Goodall had spent the previous day on a SalishSea.org outing. It was arranged to bring together indigenous people whose lives are affected by the sea that encompasses local Canadian and U.S. waters. She said it was a “fascinating morning.”
“They were all hopeful… I don’t know enough about it. I do know there are many, many animal species that have been virtually extinct that have been brought back. There’s a growing awareness around the world of the importance of making safe areas for whales and dolphins and so on. Of course, the salmon are desperately important; they have nothing to eat. Contamination with factory-farmed salmon is a big problem.”
In these dire times, Goodall, a quiet force of nature, presses on. What else to expect from someone who carries a leaf from a tree that not only survived the atomic attack on Nagasaki, but blossomed?
Next for Goodall: “Just carrying on, doing this as long as I can, and then I hope, if my brain is still functioning, I can have time for writing again.” She has written 31 books, according to her website, including 14 for children. She wants to write at least another: “I expect if I have time, I can come up with several.”
Goodall, who has homes in Tanzania and England, wants to next write about extraordinary events in her life, an anthology of “things which people call coincidence but I’m not so sure.” Like the time a couple months ago while appearing before several thousand people in France. The topic turned to the threat of pollution and a vanishing water supply, and one of three glass water bottles on the table in front of her on stage inexplicably shattered. It was caught on video, she says. “Nobody can understand it. It was like a symbol.” Or other times, when twists of fate changed her life’s path.
How long can she keep this up? “My body will dictate that,” she says, in that measured voice that has helped connect her, like few others, to wild things. She laughs. “I know I can’t give up while I still can do it. Because it makes a difference, and I only say that because everybody tells me so. I have people come up and say, ‘Well, you’ve given me hope and now I’m going to do my best. I was apathetic, I felt I couldn’t make a difference, but now I realize I can.’”
Well into her eighth decade on this precious, vulnerable, breathtaking Earth, Goodall carries on, and carries others along too. In her wake, we are in her debt.