Jane Goodall is telling me a story from her childhood. One day, as a toddler, she brought earthworms from her family’s garden into her bedroom. Her mother came in to find her observing them intently. She was “wondering how they got around without legs”, Goodall told her mother. “While most mothers would get angry, my mother said to me, ‘Jane, these poor little worms, if we leave them here, they’ll die. They need to be in the garden’. So we took them back.”
This memory is interrupted when Goodall’s phone rings. Excusing herself, she picks up the call and tells the person on the other line, “I’ll call you back. I’m on a Zoom call,” straining her voice as she draws out the word “zoom”. “Sorry,” she says, “that was John Hare—or the man I call my camel man. His organisation is working to save the last of the wild Bactrian Camels in China and Mongolia.”
Digital correspondence isn’t her preferred method of communication, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic, video conferencing has become the new normal. Even late-night television has had to reinvent back-and-forth banter with slightly awkward Skype calls between hosts and celebrities. As writers, being in rare positions where we’re able to meet our heroes—Goodall being one of mine—we always prefer to speak face-to-face. I make a comment to Goodall that, despite a near-global lockdown, at least technology allows us to carry on with our work and stay in touch with loved ones. She sighs, “Yes, I suppose so.”
The Nature of Resilience
Goodall is a woman of action who, at age 86, continues to travel the globe advocating for a better world. In fact, she’s meant to be on a tour across North America, but instead, she’s on lockdown in her home in England—the home she grew up in, which once belonged to her grandmother. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, getting my voice, and our message, out there on Zoom calls, videos and blogs,” she says, adding that she’s no stranger to the importance of adaptability in nature.
In her lifelong career as a conservationist, Goodall has spent 60 years observing and researching wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania and, in 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute, a leader in running conservation-and-community-centred programmes across Africa. During this time, she has had a front row seat watching the natural world change, and watching humankind demolish and then rebuild entire ecosystems.
“I’ve seen places that have been utterly destroyed but, given time and some help, can once again support nature. Animals on the very brink of extinction have been given another chance,” she says, crediting nature itself for instilling an unshakable resilience that has been the driving force behind her life’s work. It’s a kind of resilience that the world could learn from at a time like this. Goodall also lived through World War II as a child, during which she recalls rationing two squares of chocolate and an egg for a week. It was an experience that, she says, taught her never to take anything for granted. “I’ve been through the darkest of times and nevertheless, we survived. We emerged.”