For Love of Nature: Q&A with Jane Goodall

Andrea Miller talks with celebrated environmental and animal activist Jane Goodall, about the compassion that exists in our natural world.

Andrea Miller
28 March 2024
Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar / World Bank

Wanting to know where eggs came from, the five-year-old Jane Goodall ensconced herself for hours in a henhouse, oblivious to the fact that her family was worriedly looking for her. But the little girl didn’t get scolded when she got home. Her mother saw how excited she was, so she simply listened to the details of the discovery.

The years passed, and Goodall’s passion and patience for observing wildlife only grew. In 1960, she began her study of chimpanzees and soon rocked the scientific community with what she learned: chimpanzees make and use tools. Prior to this, it was believed only humans had this skill. On hearing of Goodall’s observation, the anthropologist and paleontologist Louis S.B. Leakey famously said: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” Goodall went on to make further groundbreaking discoveries that helped solidify the evolutionary link between chimpanzees and humans.

Today Goodall travels the world to spread the word on environmental issues. I spoke to her via phone when she was spending a rare day at her home in the United Kingdom. She talked about the compassion of animals, the power of trees, and what we can all do to effect positive change in the world.

Andrea Miller: For decades, you’ve championed wildlife and the environment. How do you maintain hope?

My reason for hope is—first of all—my youth program, Roots and Shoots. This is the way I explain why it’s called that: children are like plants. They start out as a tiny seed. Then wee roots and shoots appear. They’re weak at first, but the power within the seed is so magical that the little roots reach water and the little shoots reach the sun. Eventually, they can push rocks aside and work through cracks in a brick wall. They can even knock a wall down. The rocks and the walls are the problems we’ve inflicted on the planet—environmental and social—but roots and shoots surround the world. Plants can change the world; they can undo a spot of the damage we’ve created. And young people are definitely going to change the world. As I travel around, I meet the youth. They’re filled with hope and enthusiasm and innovative ideas, and that’s very inspiring. Roots and Shoots is now in 132 countries.

Secondly, my reason for hope is the resilience of nature. The places that we’ve destroyed can become beautiful again. And then there’s the human brain, which is utterly amazing. I think of the scientists who drilled down into the permafrost and brought up the remains of an Ice Age squirrel’s nest. In the plant material, they found three living cells and from those living cells they managed to recreate the plant, which was a meadow’s wheat. It’s 32,000 years old, but it’s now growing and seeding and reproducing. That’s the resilience of nature, the incredible human brain, and the indomitable human spirit. Sometimes people say that something won’t work, but there are other people—like the scientists who recreated this Ice Age plant—who don’t give up. They overcome tremendous obstacles, and that’s very inspiring. It gives me hope.

In your book, Seeds of Hope, you talk about the reverence people tend to feel when they’re with trees. Why do you think trees engender these feelings?

They engender these feelings for me because—rooted in the ground—they can be so strong. They can withstand wind. They even withstand fire sometimes. It’s difficult for me to stand by a tree with my hand on its bark and not feel that it has a spiritual value as well as a materialistic one. There is the whole symbolism of the roots going into the ground and finding water deep, deep down, and the leaves reaching up. There’s the fact that they’re purifying our air and removing the Co2.

You use the word spiritual. How would you define spirituality?

It’s the opposite of being materialistic. Some people believe that everything is just there for its material value, or just as a thing. And then other people believe there’s something more than that, which I happen to believe. I don’t know if I can define spirituality—I’m not sure anybody really has—but it’s something that you either feel or you don’t. It’s an awareness of life that’s more than just the physical presence.

In your work as a primatologist and an ethologist, what anecdotal evidence have you discovered that demonstrates animals can feel compassion or love?

I’ll give you one story. There was an infant chimpanzee named Mel. He was three and should still have been riding on his mother’s back, sleeping with her at night, and suckling. but his mother died. If he’d had an older brother or sister, he would have been adopted by that individual, but he didn’t, so he was on his own and we thought he’d die. Then he was adopted by Spindle, an unrelated male who was twelve, which is about like being a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old human. Spindle let little Mel ride on his back. If it was cold or Mel was frightened, he let him cling to his belly as a mother would. If Mel crept up to his nest at night and made whimpering sounds, Spindle reached out and drew him in. They slept curled up together. When Mel begged, whimpering with his hand out, Spindle would share his food. And most dramatic of all, Spindle protected Mel. Adolescent males tend to be scapegoats. If one male is being dominated by another, he takes it out on somebody lower ranking, so the adolescents keep out of the way in times of social excitement. And the mother’s job is to keep her infant away, but of course, Little Mel didn’t have a mother, so Spindle took that job on, even though it meant that he himself often got bashed by the adult male. There is no question that Spindle saved Mel’s life.

What do you see as the most important thing individuals can do to effect positive change for the environment?

The most important thing we can do is remember that every single day every single one of us makes a difference. And we all can choose the kind of difference we’re going to make. It does require becoming a little aware about what we buy. Where does it come from? how was it grown? Did it involve the use of child slave labor or chemical pesticides? And then there’s all the little ways in which you interact with the environment. Do you bother to help a sick dog? Do you respond to appeals for help when somebody is in trouble?

The big problem today is that so many people feel insignificant. They feel that the problems facing the world are so huge that there’s nothing they can do, so they do nothing. And as an individual maybe there really isn’t that much, but when you get thousands, and then millions, of individuals all doing the best they can every day for the environment and for other beings, then you get huge change.

Can you give Lion’s Roar readers some concrete examples of taking small steps to effect change?

There’s one man who moved to Japan, where he likes to walk in the woods. But sometimes there are violent storms and these little tiny tree orchids get blown down. Wanting to save them, he began taking the blown-down orchids home and looking after them. Now when the season is right, he gets as far up a tree as he can and staples them there with a stapler and they grow back. It’s a simple thing, but it’s rather charming.

Another example, I went into a radio station in Canada and in the studio waiting room I saw there were about six potted plants dotted around. They were all dying because they hadn’t been watered. So I made a huge thing about it. Then when I went back a year later, all the plants were very healthy. So little things like that make a difference. Just never blame somebody. I mean, I didn’t say to the people at the radio station, “Who’s responsible for this monstrous behavior toward the plants?” I just said, “Oh, these poor little plants. Please can you find me some water? I want to look after them.” It’s all a question of how you go about trying to create change.

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.