Jane Goodall: Modern Prophet for a Modern Age

 “In 1957, Dr. Louis Leakey applied for a grant to embark on a six-month study of chimpanzees in the wild  He believed that the study might lead to new insights about the behavior of early man.  Suspicious of prevailing attitudes in the scientific community, Leaky sought a researcher who could go into the field with a mind unbiased by scientific theory.  Impressed by her lifelong passion for animals, Leakey selected his 26-year-od British secretary, Jane Goodall, for the mission.  She had no training or scientific degree.”

White words on a black backdrop, birds chirping in the background: thus opens Jane, National Geographic’s 2017 documentary.  The film focuses on the first fifteen or twenty years of Goodall’s career, with stunning, original and rare (in fact, thought lost until 2014) footage captured by her former husband and renowned nature photographer Hugo Van Lawick.  Powerful storytelling, narrated by Goodall herself, spectacular photography—in stills and live action—as well as some brilliant editing to aid in the telling of that narrative, make this a compelling documentary, and a fantastic place to start for those unfamiliar with Goodall’s body of work.  Though, the message of this carefully crafted narrative is not simply that Goodall was a trailblazer for women, though she was, nor about an explorer discovering something new about our world, that too, nor even about one woman’s passion, though yes, certainly that as well; the documentary does something quite extraordinary in that it positions Goodall in such a way as to suggest that she is a prophet for these ecologically catastrophic times. 

The film never explicitly calls Goodall a prophet, nor, through her own narration, does Goodall procure that moniker for herself.  Rather, National Geographic uses the chronology of events and clever editing to suggest this to its viewers.  Given that the word prophet, in the west, is almost certainly and primarily associated with Biblical figures, this may seem scandalously exaggerated at the very least and brazenly bold at best, and.  However, the term prophet has been expanded in modern times and no longer only signifies biblical figures preaching doom and destruction. From, “A divinely inspired interpreter, revealer, or teacher of the will or thought of God or of a god”, to, more generally, “a prominent proponent of or spokesperson for a particular cause, movement, principle, etc.; a visionary leader or representative” (OED).  In fact, Charles Mann titles his most recent book, The Wizard and the Prophet, about Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, precisely with this latter definition in mind.  Vogt is the prophet, and represents “‘apocalyptic environmentalism’—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems”—while Borlaug is the wizard, standing for “’techno optimism’ … the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament” (Mann 6-7).  It is interesting to note that both the wizard and the prophet acknowledge the seriousness of a looming ecological catastrophe.  They differ only in their solutions.  Goodall, in this sense of the word, is undoubtedly a prophet.

Although, that is not to say that the modern environmental movement shuns a religious mindset.  On the contrary.  For those who keep abreast of current issues and the language associated with environmental sustainability, it is not uncommon to come across the term or concept of “stewardship”.  This concept directly appeals to a more conservative minded audience (especially the religious right in the U.S.) suggesting a sort of caretaker role on the part of humanity in which it—environmentalism— interprets Genesis 1:26-28—explicitly or otherwise—in that fashion: human’s subduing of or dominion over the Earth does not mean we can do whatever we want with the resources given us; it means that we must care for and pass on those resources, leaving a better world for those who follow.  Goodall embodies this stewardship mindset: “I knew that the chimpanzees across Africa were disappearing, so that’s when I realized that I had to raise awareness about the plight of chimps in Africa.  And the role that I must play is to make sure that the next generation are better stewards than we’ve been.  And I needed to take that message to the world”.  Unlike biblical prophets, however, and like the expanded definition thereof, the message is not to the chosen few or a chosen people, but to all humanity.     

Both Goodall’s personal and professional life were an uphill battle.  She was raised, essentially, by a single mother.  Her father was called off to war when she was five, and, while she “hugely admired him”, responding to a direct question about this relationship, “he didn’t really care about children.  So, [she] couldn’t really say [she] had a relationship with him”.  Additionally, Goodall had to overcome (cough, cough) being a woman conducting groundbreaking research in the 1950s and 60s.  “In those days it was not thought at all safe for a young, single girl to go into the wilds of Africa”, Goodall recalls.  She therefore had to choose a companion.  Her mother volunteered, went along, and started a clinic in which she cared for local fisherman who would often walk “miles” for treatment.  Then there was sexism in the press and from the public, from articles referring first to her looks: “Young, Blonde and Beautiful”, “Swan-necked Beauty”: to Goodall scoffing at people saying her fame was due to her legs, which she writes off as being stupid.  In the end, like all those who are the first to do something great, she used all the negativity to her advantage.  After all, she was the National Geographic “Covergirl”—her terminology—and her research was running low on funding.  Any press is good press, and she was getting a lot of it.

It’s hard to overestimate just how groundbreaking Goodall and her work have been, not only, in the long run, to sustainability, but also to primate research.  No one, let me stress that again: No.  One.  Before Goodall had gone into the field to study chimp behavior.  She was not the first woman to do so, but the first human to do so.  And her research changed everything.  The reason we think of primates, and perhaps other species as well, as having personalities and emotions: Goodall.  The reason we know that primates use tools: Goodall.  Why we know chimps engage in warfare: Goodall.  Seen a film or documentary where chimps or other primates accept a human into their tribe: Goodall again.  Perhaps one day, she will pass into myth and legend. 

In the documentary, Goodall tends to brush off any trauma or negativity like lint on a t-shirt, a minor inconvenience.  But the truth is, like many before her following a path, she had her “dark night of the soul”.  A series of events come together in rapid succession where it almost seems like Jane may not make it through.  Her marriage was slowly falling apart, and eventually did: “Grub”, her five year old, was approaching school age and she was attempting, without a husband, to home-school him: she was also trying to carry on her research while doing all this.  Goodall began to experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, and were it not for the support of her research students, from whom she says she received much needed emotional support… She leaves it at that.  She doesn’t delve into the darkness, but it’s there. 

One way the Nat Geo documentary highlights or emphasizes the darker aspect of this part of Goodall’s story is in the editing.  Following her commentary on isolation, the documentary goes silent, showing footage from Hugo’s career on the savannah.  The footage is of a pair of lions taking down an African Buffalo.  A female stands astride at the rear, fangs and claws dug in, while a male clamps down on the buffalo’s maw, attempting to suffocate it.  It begins to falter, giving in, accepting the inevitability of life on the savannah.   But suddenly, the herd begins to gather; they eventually charge the lions, saving their comrade in the process.  The Buffalo emerges scarred, and bloody, but alive.  Thanks to a community that came to its aid in a its moment of greatest need.  It’s hard to miss the parallel in Goodall’s personal and professional narrative.  Does Nat Geo take a little artistic license here?  I think, without question.  And yet, it reflects the heart of what Goodall comes so close to saying, but doesn’t in her own words.  Even at the height of her fame and success in Gombe, it was not all lollipops and rainbows.  Jane shows Goodall to be every bit as human as the rest of us. 

What emerges in National Geographic’s 2017 Jane is the story of woman with a dream, who overcame incredible odds, ignored and persevered through social pariahism, sexism, a divorce and, what certainly sounds like, depression and intense loneliness.  There are many other moments in this work that make it a worthwhile viewing experience: the bond she with the apes: the loss she feels when a polio epidemic breaks out among them, disabling several in the : the loss she feels when Flo (a mama chimp) dies, and then only weeks later, her child seems to just give up on life: stunning wildlife footage: and, above all, an interesting narrative that inspires humans to become better people by recognizing that we are one part of a very large system of life forms on Earth; and that while there are certainly differences, obvious enough even to little babes, we are connected in ways that we have yet, perhaps, to understand or imagine. 

Get out there everyone.  And Happy Earth Day 2020!


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