A Night with Jane Goodall

Naples, FloridaFeb. 25, 2006
Naples, Florida Feb. 25, 2006

Last night I had the privilege and opportunity to have been invited by a friend to the Jane Goodall Institute’s benefit dinner in Buenos Aires. The dinner was organized to celebrate Goodall’s visit to Argentina and raise funds for Institute’s local branch.

To my right sat a veterinarian who works at the Buenos Aires Zoo. Across from me I had a yoga instructor/elephants’ right activist. To my left, an event organizer whose company’s slogan is “Happiness is also sustainable energy.” I could not have been in a better place.

All of the women at the table are volunteers for  JGI Argentina. As we ate our vegetarian meal at a table adorned with a succulent centerpiece that will be recycled for future events, the young women described to me the projects that the Institute heads in this country. Programs to educate kids about conservation. An initiative to protect the dozen elephants living in country today. Peace Day campaigns. Central to the Foundation’s educational efforts is a program called Roots & Shoots.

On each plate there was a card with a photo of young Jane reaching a hand out to touch the finger of a baby chimpanzee. On the back, one of her signature quotes: “We have the choice to use the gift of our life to make the world a better place—or not to bother.”

NGS Picture ID:130937
Tanzania, 1964. A touching moment between primatolgist and National Geographic grantee Jane Goodall and young chimpanzee Flint at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve. Photo by Hugo van Lawick. Taken in celebration of National Geographic’s “125 Years.” Copyright National Geographic.

Towards the end of the night, Goodall takes the stage. Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and slacks, she is the vision of modesty. When she takes the microphone, she speaks in a soft and clear voice when describing her life’s mission.

On her childhood dream of living in Africa with the animals: “People said, ‘Jane, dream about something that you can achieve, forget this nonsense about Africa,’” she begins. “But not my mother. She said to me, if you really want something, you’re going to have to work very hard.”

Of her time living in the wild with a chimpanzee community in Tanzania: “Those days when I was in Gombe living with the chimpanzees out in the forest on my own, finding out new things all the time….They were the most amazing days of my life.” She tells a story of one of her encounters with a group of chimpanzees and summarizes her conclusions: “There is no sharp line dividing we human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

But tonight, she wants to focus on her evolution from scientist to activist.

Decades into her research Goodall realized that in order for chimpanzees and other endangered species to survive, the issues affecting the human populations living around them had to be addressed first. Poverty. Destruction of natural resources. Hunger. War. She turned her attention from the animals to the humans.

From 1986 onward, she began to travel the world to address the human issues affecting the environment and to advocate for conservation. Her main concern was to educate people, especially children. Through her foundation, Jane began to take her message to different parts of the world.

She began to discuss different ideas in her talks and meetings: “How does a decision that we make today affect our people in future generations?”

“How is it possible that the most intellectual creature to ever walk this planet is destroying it?”

She began to draw observations from her interactions: “It seems that there’s a disconnect between the incredibly clever brain and our human heart and compassion.”

The message that she crafted was interlaced with hope in human communication: “We can talk about the past and learn lessons from it. We can make plans for the future. The most important thing is that we can sit down and discuss problems.”

Today, at 81 years of age, Goodall travels the world 300 days a year to spread her message of conservation and ecology. Her Foundation has 30 offices and programs in more than 100 countries around the world.

Jane and team
Jane and the team of volunteers that comprise the Jane Goodall Institute in Argentina

Listening to Jane Goodall speak last night filled me with motivation. Mere hours after returning from the dinner, I woke up still feeling the effects of the inspiration she had so beautifully cultivated. The inspiration that a person like Jane Goodall transmits through her life’s evolution and message to mankind. That spark that rips you out of the microcosm you are submerged in and transports you to a wider understanding of life.

Listening to Jane Goodall, you believe and adopt her hope for a positive change in the world: “I think there’s a small window of time and if we get together and each do our part, we can truly change the future.”

I will take with me a story she told about a meeting she had with biologist and whale activist Roger Payne. They were both asked to respond the same question: “If you had to describe what you’ve learned from the animals in what word, would it be?” They both responded, simultaneously and without prior discussion: humility.


A bookstore in the wall

Paseo de las Artes is a tiny bohemian enclave that has surged back to life in a very old, run-down section of Cordoba, a provincial capital in Argentina.  This part of Barrio Guemes is all turn-of-the-century one-floor houses with interior patios and flourishes that have been carved on the one-meter-thick walls.  The old houses have been painted in bright colors and transformed into antique shops and restaurants.  On the weekends, an arts and crafts fair stretches its tentacles, as twining plant, through the cobblestone streets. Stalls and tables of old trinkets, hippie ware, paintings, antique lanterns, jewelry, phones, typewriters, modern accessories, plastic knick-knacks and anything and everything else are put on sale.

Across from the Cañada, the stream that runs through the city, a row of stone buildings crumbles over its sidewalks.  Most are missing parts of their infrastructure—ceilings have disappeared, whole sections of walls, missing doors have been replaced by rusted wooden gates and twisted metals.  In one of these structures, there is a bookstore.

It is no more than a hole in a wall adorned with books.  Eduardo Montibello is the owner.  He began selling his family’s surplus books on sidewalk tables.  Pretty soon, he was purchasing books at flea markets and looking for more space.  He found it here, at this weekend fair, and his business has expanded from a next-door antiques dealership-cum-variety house to this small, dark room.

Eduardo first had to knock down part of the floor, which was about a foot higher than the sidewalk.  A century ago, these houses were built higher than today’s street level, to avoid being flooded by waters of the Cañada during swells.  The walls were coal black because the space had been previously used by a fast-food salesman who sold choripanes (a local sandwich of sausage and bread).  Eduardo placed boards with shelves over the black walls.  In came the books, and presto–one of the most unique bookstores in Cordoba.


by Stephanie Martin
Photo credit: Stephanie Martin

The farm is still.

Only the wind makes sound as it

flusters the trees and rattles loose pieces of

metal in the empty sheds.

The dogs are the only inhabitants of this homestead.

As you near the house from the dirt road,

it is their black ears that you see,

poking out over the tall, white grasses,

eyes fixed on the horizon. They move,

slowly, from sun to shade and back,

in the endless monotony of long days

and still longer nights.

A welcome parentheses

An elusive Borges poem greets you at the main entrance, and then, wall-to-wall windows draw in the profundity of the sea.

You step in, hesitantly, lured into the spaces that exist between human words. Whispers navigate sturdy silences as visitors drift between displays. You listen to the haunting language of whales; wander through exhibits that straddle the wavering border that separates air from water.

There is a flurry of the transcendent here, in this place called, succinctly, Ecocenter.

Perched over the plunging cliffs of the Valdes Peninsula, in Argentina, this marine learning center has the feel of a Buddhist temple and the spacious levity of a modern art museum. Its reverent white walls hold histories not of painters or sculptors but of whales and seals and other beings of the sea. Ample wooden decks reach out into the ocean in a final attempt to merge with the ocean.

During six glorious months of the year, schools of Southern Right Whales swim past these coasts during their yearly breeding migrations. Century after century, the whales follow the same route for reasons only just gleaned by man. The knowledge of this migration is carried on within their bodies over generations. We, humans, flock in thousands from all of the world, to see them pass by, content to just catch a glimpse of the mystery, one which we will never fully comprehend.

Amid the tourist frenzy, this building stands as an emblem of the mystic and serene. We walk in tranquility here. Windows of all shapes draw in the profundity of the sea.



The Sea (El Mar) by Jorge Luis Borges


Before dream (or terror) wove
Mythologies and cosmogonies.
Before time was coined into days.
The sea. The ever sea, existed and was there.
Who is the sea? Who is that violent
And ancient being that gnawed the pillars
Of the earth and is one and many seas
And abyss and brilliance and fate and wind?
Whoso watches, sees it for first time.
Always with the amazement that the
Elemental things leave behind. The beautiful
Afternoons. The moon. The blaze of a bonfire.
Who is the sea, who am I? I will know the day
Beyond that follows agony.


(My translation.)



For more info on the Ecocentro, go to: http://www.ecocentro.org.ar.

First pages: Possession by A.S. Byatt

These things are there.  The garden and the tree
The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
The woman in the shadow of the boughs
The running water and the grassy space.
They are and were there.  At the old world’s rim,
In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest
Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth
And dozed and waited through eternity
Until the tricksy hero, Herakles,
Came to his dispossession and the theft.
from The Garden of Proserpina, 1861



The book was thick and black and covered with dust.  Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time.  Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded form amongst the leaves like a bulky marker.  It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.  The librarian handed it to Roland Mitchell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library.  It had been…
by A.S.Byatt
Vintage International Edition
October 1990
Owned and revered (and water splashed) since: