The Mad Ones

February 28, 2015

She left her home in July of 1960, when the world viewed women better off as secretaries than scientists. And a secretary she had been, right up until the point that tapping out documents, other people’s documents, became less appealing than traveling to a farm in Kenya, and then to a museum in Nairobi, and then to dig up fossils at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. In fact, when she finally arrived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to establish a base camp and set out after a group of wild chimpanzees, it was so alien that a young lady should wish to journey alone that the British government demanded she have a companion, and so, for her first few months at Gombe, her mother Vanne sat on the beach while she trekked off through trees with nothing but a notepad and a pair of binoculars.

Now Jane sits on that same beach, flanked on either side by young women who have chosen to follow in her footsteps, to trace the same paths her soles first laid across the forest floor fifty-five years ago. Together they watch the sun set across the lake until it hides behind mountains and disappears into the Congo. They pick up pebbles, turning them over once or twice in their hands, tossing them into the water before sipping from glasses of whiskey. A man, his wife and daughter come by and ask for a picture with Jane, and after learning that he works as a pediatrician in southern Tanzania, Jane says softly “there are so many good people in the world.” She knows this because only for three nights each year does she sit on this beach; the other three hundred and sixty-two are spent speaking at podiums, fundraisers, or colleges, shaking hands with dignitaries, politicians and students, working to protect a landscape that she is too busy to enjoy for more than a few precious moments.

Even in these moments she is generous with her time, and shares her personal sanctuary with the newest generation of researchers. But the space is still hers, for as the young women who sit before her live at Gombe and follow the same animals, they are not the pioneers. They are the settlers, the latter half of a sequence of events that were put in motion before their time. It is this way because when Jane was a child and she told her mother she loved animals, and that she would follow them and write down all of their stories, her mother said, “Yes, if you work very hard perhaps you can.” When the three women were young and falling in love with animals and the world around them, their mothers gave them copies of In the Shadow of Man and said “Of course you can do this. I know of a woman who did this.” So they took her path, and made it their own, knowing all the while that they could because Jane had proven years ago that some women really weren’t better off as secretaries.

And as they gathered together, talking and laughing and sharing stories from the field, Jane reminded them of the rich history of the chimpanzees, and that while each were data points in two-year dissertations, they were also colorful personalities, shaped by the generations that had preceded them. She said that the greatest findings are not always systematic, and the most interesting information does not always fall between the gridlines of a data sheet designed to capture trends within a standardized sample, meant to represent a larger population. In fact, the most compelling cases are the anomalies: an orphan who survived, a male who was castrated and remained playful well into adulthood, or a grandmother who stole her daughter’s babies. After all, the world around us cannot always fit a line or curve, and models with their predictions pale in comparison to a forest that teems with life and networks unseen. The eyes and the pen are valuable tools, and the narratives of the natural world a lost art.

Beneath the stars they fall silent, the three young women, thinking to themselves as they sit on a beach next to Jane Goodall, miles from home, without a typewriter or pencil skirt in sight, that perhaps they, too, are a bit anomalous. Perhaps they have something to discover, to understand, to share, that from within the confines of an office or laboratory others cannot. Perhaps their stories are among some of the stranger ones, but perhaps once they are written, years from now, all of the oddity, the solitude, the triumphs and the pitfalls will yield insights for a new generation, and years from now, whiskeys in hand, the three young women will sit and laugh on that same beach, several years older and, perhaps, some the wiser.

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