While other boys in my elementary school used to discuss how one day they might marry Farrah Fawcett-Majors or Chris Evert, my fantasies usually involved Jane Goodall. I was never sure whether Goodall was the person I wanted to marry or the one I wanted to become, but the intelligent, nurturing compassion she exhibited on National Geographic television specials about her work with chimpanzees helped to inspire in me a lifelong love affair with nature.
Now, at 78, the primatologist, environmental activist, author, and lecturer continues at a pace that rivals that of a secretary of state, heading up the Jane Goodall Institute and leading its “Roots and Shoots” program for young people, while also maintaining a 300 day a year travel schedule. Goodall seems to view her latest book, “Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants,” co-written with Gail Hudson and featuring a foreword by Michael Pollan, as something of a departure from her previous work (“Jane Goodall has written a book about plants? Surely not,” she imagines a reader saying). But in fact, the book seems like a perfectly logical outgrowth of her career.
Part reminiscence, part natural history, and part plea on behalf of the natural world, “Seeds of Hope” begins with Goodall’s childhood in Bournemouth, England, where she recalls spending hours in her favorite tree doing her homework, reading “Tarzan,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and “The Secret Garden,” and eating cake. Goodall takes the reader on a guided tour through key episodes of her life while relating stories about favorite plants and naturalist pioneers and speaking out for some of her favorite environmental causes.
In general, Goodall is more of an inspiring human being than an inspired writer; at times one can have the impression that one is reading the author’s lecture notes, and Goodall’s heartfelt jeremiads against deforestation, genetic modification, corporate exploitation, and the like, can seem like preaching to the long-since-converted. Nevertheless, the author’s passion and conviction are palpable and, along the way, she relates some fascinating tales about some fascinating beings, both plant-based and carbon-based. Of particular interest are Goodall’s stories of daredevil plant hunters, such as David Douglas (for whom the Douglas fir is named) and John Bartram, the so-called “Father of American Botany,” both of which will likely lead readers to seek out more detailed information about these individuals elsewhere.
Goodall also offers tantalizing yet all-too-brief sections about orchids, cotton, cacao, trees that survived the atomic bombings of Japan and the attacks of 9/11, and even the plants that have been named after the author herself (e.g. the orchid known as Spathoglottis Jane Goodall). Goodall details stories of plants with medicinal and hallucinogenic properties, the latter of which she says she’s never tried. And she offers a fascinating passage about how humans have learned healing practices from watching how animals consume particular plants. But by far the most intriguing character to emerge from these pages is Goodall herself, the indefatigable, seemingly beatific conservationist who seems little changed from the charming, optimistic Bournemouth girl she describes in the book’s early pages.
“The peace of the forest has become part of my being,” she writes. “Indeed, if I close my eyes, I can sometimes transform the noise of loud talking or traffic in the street into the shouting of baboons or chimpanzees, the roaring of the wind through the branches or of the waves crashing onto the shore.”
It is this voice — calm, self-assured, spiritual yet grounded — that has captivated us for decades and is likely to do so for generations to come. The other night, my 7-year-old daughter couldn’t sleep and asked me to read aloud. I began by reading some passages about Goodall’s childhood — the nature notebook she kept as a child, the “Alligator Club” she started for nature lovers, the books she read in her favorite tree.
“Keep reading — I like it,” my daughter said.
“What do you like about it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It just sounds so nice and peaceful.”
Adam Langer, who has written five books, will publish his next novel, “The Salinger Contract,” in the fall. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.