It might never have happened if a kind soul hadn’t bothered to return her passport.
So begins the story of how Jane Goodall almost didn’t make it to Africa. On a London dock in March 1957, poised to visit a friend in Kenya, she realized she had lost or dropped her passport along the way. But a benevolent stranger returned it just in time, and from that point forward, her life is a story of paying forward that kindness, by first paying attention to the world around her.
In the New York Times Magazine, Paul Tullis crafts a mesmerizing tale of Goodall’s work in Africa from 1957 to today, weaving in her own words when others’ would fall short.
Goodall poetically describes the water off the prow of the ship as she made her month long sojourn around the Cape of Good Hope:
“The sea is dark inky blue, then it rises up a clear transparent blue green, and then it breaks in white and sky blue foam. But best of all, some of this foam is forced back under the wave from which it broke, and this spreads out under the surface like the palest blue milk, all soft and hazy at the edge.”
Goodall is nothing if not a keen observer of her surroundings. She came to Africa to visit a friend and see the animals of Africa; she ended up spending her life there. Within months of living in the small British community of Nairobi, Goodall encountered the famous paleontologist Louis Leakey and his wife Mary, who was responsible for establishing that all homo sapiens share a common provenance in Africa. Louis Leakey was interested in Darwin’s idea that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestry, and Goodall proved an interested student of his. Leakey suggested she go to the remote and uninhabited Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, in the British colony of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania). It was here that she spent much of her life away from ‘civilization,’ conducting groundbreaking research into the complex social habits of chimpanzees.
But Goodall’s time among chimpanzees was anything but uncivilizing. Decades of distance did not, in the end, cut her off from the world, but drew her closer to it. Now Goodall, 81 going on 18, travels the world familiarizing her species-mates with the need for ecological conservation, for the good of humans and chimps alike. She devotes herself to calling people out of urban(e) distractibility to consider the twin refuges of nature and solitude. One senses from Tullis’s article that in her meetings with movers-and-shakers, she conveys urgency without anxiety; devotion without division. Her zeal is fed by a capacious fascination of what is around her, and in her: “It never ceases to amaze me that there’s this person who travels around and does all these things. And it’s me. It doesn’t seem like me at all.”
Tullis draws us to consider a paradox: how could a woman who spent decades studying chimps in remote solitude now move so effortlessly among government officials and international benefactors? The question is resolved not in a clever theory, but in a keen observer: “the skill sets are not so different: patience, purpose, perception. It took her only a few months of observing chimps before Goodall noticed that some of their behaviors were remarkably similar to those of humans.” As the naturalist John Muir wrote, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
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It might never have happened if a kind soul hadn’t bothered to return her passport. She writes, “When I look back over my life it’s almost as if there was a plan laid out for me – from the little girl who was so passionate about animals who longed to go to Africa and whose family couldn’t afford to put her through college. Everyone laughed at my dreams. I was supposed to be a secretary.” No one is laughing at Goodall’s dreams today…but they are paying attention to her. Have a look at her remarkable story.