In the Shadow of Man (AKA Jane Goodall’s Remarkable Influence)

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love or feel like Jane Goodall influenced their lives, so I don’t pretend to be a bigger Goodall fan than the next person. ‘At least one person at every book signing tells me that In the Shadow of Man [hereafter referred to as Shadow] was instrumental in their deciding on a career with animals,’ Goodall writes in the book’s preface. ‘Usually there are several people in the same line who want to thank me for influencing their lives in some way or other.’

Her work had, for instance, an undoubtable impact on, and was a precursor to, one of my favourite books, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. That award-winning book concentrates on Canadian primatologist turned writer Andrew Westoll’s time working in a sanctuary for chimps rescued and retired from medical research.

Like the people who queue up at Goodall’s book signings, I too would like to say that I’m ever so grateful that she has done what she’s done in this world. Because for me, as for so many others, Goodall’s been a particularly powerful role model. That is, one who did what no one thought could be done and most thought was outright crazy. I’m particularly impressed that she wasn’t contained by the traditions of the time that expected her as a woman to focus not on obtaining knowledge and sharing it, but on settling down in suburbia and raising a family.

As someone who has spent their entire life feeling round-peg-square-hole about their desire to have an animals- and environment-focused career, there are few women to I’ve been able to look up to and—in my own feeble way—attempt to learn from or emulate.

It seems I’m not alone after all, as Goodall notes this a few pars later in her preface: ‘Shadow, I think, has been especially significant for women. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—have been inspired to attempt things that they had only dreamed about.’

Shadow, which documents Goodall’s first and ground-breaking forays into chimpanzee observations, has been around for quite a while. I hadn’t read it for complex reasons even I don’t entirely understand: I doubted it could tell me much more about Goodall that wider popular culture and articles, which highlighted key elements, already had. I simultaneously worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my altogether-too-high expectations.

I’m glad I did finally get round to reading it. It’s given me a more holistic understanding of Goodall and her successes, as well as her stumblings on the way to them. Those include that the chimps were terrified and wary of her for months and months and months, and that she contracted malaria and did not have any medication to treat it because a doctor had misadvised her that there was no malaria in the region. Then there are the wrenching moments, such as when the chimps contracted polio. That’s not something I’ve heard a lot of pop culture discussion about.

The book also helped me marvel at the intelligence of the chimps, not least at Figan cunningly leading other chimps away from food so he could double back and score himself an unshared feast. Or how a juvenile chimp kidnapping a younger sibling was an ingenious way of getting their mother to leave a termites nest at which they had otherwise decided to stay.

Goodall quotes her then husband Hugo as describing observing chimps in remote wilderness in Africa as ‘…like being spectators of life in some village. Endless fascination, endless enjoyment, endless work.’ For me, it sums up perfectly what a career involved in studying and caring for animals entails. But I’m sure most other people knew that. I just wish I’d stumped up and read Shadow earlier. Suffice to say, I’ll be delving into Goodall’s subsequent books soon.

Save

Save

Book Two Vs Book One

The RiverbonesBook two is normally writers’ downfall, but in the case of Andrew Westoll, it was when he found his form. The problem is that I started—and fell completely, rabbit-ravingly in love—with Westoll’s second first. Then I did was any logical obsessive would do upon discovering an incredible author: I ordered up and cracked the spine of his oeuvre.

Westoll’s first book’s title, The Riverbones: Stumbling after Eden in the jungles of Suriname, hints at the issue I uncovered within. That is, that while Westoll is an undeniably talented writer, in this book he staggers about trying to find the story.

That’s in part the point—he returns to Suriname, a place where he spent an entire year researching monkeys during his primatology studies, to find meaning, to get things straight in his head about a place that completely got under his skin. The problem is that that necessarily involves a lot of chapters in which he’s kind of lost—literally and/or figuratively.

The other problem is that I had, having just finished his exquisite book about chimps rescued from drug testing laboratories, over-the-top expectations heightened by a desire to read more about primates. In short, I thought The Riverbones would be about Westoll returning to the monkeys.

And maybe he does. I just didn’t make it that far into the book. I tried, honestly. I really, really tried. But after many stuttering false starts and perseverance, I fell over roughly halfway through the book (at page 191 to be precise). If Westoll visits the monkeys or if something ground-shatteringly, life-changingly important happens after that, please let me know which pages and I’ll carry on. Or at least skip to and read those.

That’s not to say there weren’t some stellar moments in those first 200-odd pages, not least the following quote that still puzzles me: How will we feel the end of nature? (Bill McKibben)

Another is when Westoll visits a mine being carved out of the resource-rich, spectacularly forested landscape. The most economical way to extract ore is to expose it to a ‘complexant’. The issue, of course, is that said complexant is cynanide, which is highly toxic.

The most depressing part is that the PR-driven tour guide puts a perpetually positive spin on this:

‘You would have to drink four litres of this stuff to have a 40 per cent chance of dying!’ our tour guide bellows. The group goes quiet. Kevin leans over and asks me if eight litres would do the trick. I laugh and megaphone-man frowns at me. Trying to justify a lake of cyanide in the middle of pristine rainforest must be a mining engineer’s worst nightmare.

‘A rabbit is not going to drink four litres of something like this,’ he shouts over the roar of the pipe. ‘And I don’t say this as a Cambior employee. I say this as a Suriname man!’ He laughs heartily and stares me down. The bankers chuckle. There are no rabbits in Suriname.

A breeze picks up and I feel a cool mist on my skin. I take a few steps back from the gushing pipe. Our guide continues, ‘When exposed to sunlight, oxygen, and water, cyanide breaks down completely in three days. It disappears without a trace!’

‘But you’re always pumping new cyanide in, right?’ I say.

Silence. A few of the bankers ease away from me.

‘Like I said,’ yells our guide, ‘I’ve seen ducks swimming on this pond!’

The rest of the tour is conducted in Dutch.

Westoll is masterful at plucking out the lies in these moments and planting them in his story. And it’s moments like these that I was simultaneously depressed and inspired—depressed because of the entirely f%&ked up-ness of our world, but inspired by people such as Westoll who highlight the issues in order to help us tackle them. The problem is that I needed a few less of the ‘stumbling’ in between.

By virtue of its single location, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary provided the focus as well as the book’s protagonists. Suriname, on the other hand, was large and provided an impossible-to-whittle-down cast of thousands. You don’t know who’s important and, even if they are, you don’t spend long enough getting to know them.

I haven’t cheated and jumped ahead to read The Riverbones’ final chapter. I suspect Westoll finishes with something profound. I don’t want to ruin it for myself because my hope is that I will make it back to read the rest of the book. I think Westoll’s story and his storytelling skills warrant that. I just need a bit more time away from his second book so my criticisms of his first-book stumbles aren’t so great.