Jane Goodall: Slow-Walking Realms of Gold — Paris and Gombe



The Miracle of Naked Existence

David Greybeard

     People “fall in love.”  It’s also possible to “fall in nature.”  That’s when you’ve been slow-walking your neighborhood enveloped in the realms of gold, marveling at what’s all around you, and then you feel yourself slipping out of the time-distance realm and entering a timeless now.  Sometimes,  when everything falls in place, a magical exponent kicks in.  In such moments, there is no barrier between the mind and the world it contemplates. The separation dissolves. In the manuscript of Realms of Gold, there are  numerous accounts of people falling in nature. One is Jane Goodall’s description of such moments in Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey.  Here’s an overview of her experience.

     One of those moments happened on  an afternoon in the hills of Gombe on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.  She had been lying on her back in the forest and looking up at the green canopy above her. She  had been several months alone in those hills. She had spent those months getting more and more in tune with a spiritual power she felt all around her. There had been almost mystical timeless moments of beauty and awareness. But even in the midst of such beauty,  moments of true awareness were rare, and when they came, they came suddenly and unexpected.

     Cessation of Inner Noise

     As she lay there, she felt the old mystery stir again, and felt the cessation of inner noise. “It was like getting back into a beautiful dream.”  She described a magical enhancement of sound, a keen awareness of the soft movements of the trees, a squirrel skittering around the trunk of a tree, a great velvet black bumblebee visiting tiny purple flowers, his abdomen glowing rich orange red each time he flew through one of the patches of sunlight that dappled the forest.   Such words as Goodall chose to describe this experience can be found again and again in the writings of people who have experienced such “an intense vision of the facts,” as William Carlos Williams put it.

     The Soul Lying Down in the Grass

     Rumi, the 13th century poet, described this intensification  as the soul lying down in the grass.  When the soul lies down in that grass, he wrote, the world is too full to talk about. In such moments the world is wordless and experienced directly.  In such a state of  awareness, looking up into the green canopy above her, Jane could see David Greybeard — the first chimpanzee who had accepted her presence in the forest — moving about eating figs in the tree above her. In Reason for Hope, she goes on to describe the powerful occurrence that followed.  David Greybeard  swung from branch to branch down to the ground, moved a few paces toward her, sat down, groomed himself, and then lay back, one hand under his head and gazed up at the leafy dome above. Then he moved off and Jane followed him along a  trail and then through undergrowth till she caught up with him sitting on the bank of a stream — as if he were waiting for her. What happened next was still within her forty years later when she wrote about it in  Reason for Hope.

     She sat down close to David Greybeard and looked into his large lustrous eyes, eyes that seemed to her to express his entire personality, his serene self-assurance, his inherent dignity. She had learned he did not mind her looking into his eyes so long as it was without arrogance. That day he seemed to look back. What a miracle it would be, she had often thought, to be able to look out at the world through the eyes and mind of a chimpanzee — like the longing of many human beings to experience the interiority of some very different being — what it’s like to be a parrot, how the family fox terrier views her world.

     The Analogy Is Not the Territory

    Of course we can’t really imagine what it’s like to be a bat, Thomas Nagel wrote in 1974, , at best only what it’s like to behave like one. That is, the analogy is not the territory. And like is still one removed. To see through a bat’s eyes we have to get beyond analogy. What happened next for Jane Goodall was such a transcendence: As she sat there, she noticed a ripe red fruit lying on the ground. She picked it up and held it toward David Greybeard in the palm of her hand.

     David glanced at me and reached to take the nut. He dropped it, but gently held my   hand. I needed no words to understand his message of reassurance: He didn’t want the nut, but he understood my motivation, he knew I meant well. To this day I remember the soft pressure of his fingers. We had communicated in a language far more ancient than words, a language we shared with our prehistoric ancestor, a language bridging our two  worlds. And I was deeply moved.

     The Path With a Heart

     What’s the path that leads to a language “far more ancient than words,” that leads to realms of gold where there is no language chip, where nature and one’s own self are of a piece, and where no bridge is needed?  There is no one path. Some travelers, like Melville’s Ahab, never arrive. Some, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, travel a hard road till, finally, they experience their kinship with all living things and “bless them unaware.” Jane Goodall’s path had always been guided by a sense that she was within some great unifying power. She writes that her absorption in the natural world and her love of all living things dated back to her earliest memories that still caused feelings of “such profound happiness” that tears would come to her eyes.

     This is the path Jane Goodall followed: She was a young woman in her mid-twenties little more than a year out of England and with no academic degrees and no scientific training when Louis Leaky picked her to go to Gombe and study the chimpanzees, but  he knew she had exactly what was needed. What he wanted was someone to go into the field uncompromised by expertise, a person with a child-like sense of wonder, in love with the natural world – and what came with it, the most important quality of all, monumental patience.

      The person Leaky chose  was a grown woman who had never grown up.  When she was just four years old, so the family story went, she spent more than four hours one afternoon hidden behind a hen’s nest so that she could find out how an egg was laid.  And there was Jubilee.  The child who would become world-famous for her pioneering work with wild chimpanzees met her first member of the species even earlier when she was given for her first birthday a large stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee after the first chimpanzee born in a London zoo.  Jubilee remained Jane’s constant companion throughout her life.

     She was just what  Leaky needed, of course,  someone with the staying power to be for long periods away from civilization, to carry on work that might take several years.”When he put it like that, of course,” Goodall wrote, “I had to admit I was the perfect choice.” She had been preparing for it all her life. (When you think about it, we are all preparing all our lives for whatever it is we are up to at the moment.)  Her childhood had been filled with pets, a black mongrel named Rusty, “who taught me so much about the true nature of animals,” cats, guinea pigs, a golden hamster, tortoises, a terrapin and a canary. There had been earthworms and sea snails. Even the trees were living beings.

     In the Sea of Intelligence

     When Louis Leaky met the twenty-three-year-old Jane Goodall, it would have been hard to miss all that.  He made her his personal secretary on the spot and after she had spent a year working with him  and his wife  at the  Coryndon Museum of Natural History and at Olduvai Gorge, he offered her the chance to study the long-haired chimpanzees in the mountainous country on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.  A year later with a small boat, a tent, and necessities for six months in the wild, Jane, a ranger named David Anstey who stayed a few days to get them started, and her mother Vanne – who has easily been persuaded to accompany her adventurous daughter – stepped ashore on the sand and pebble beach.

     While Vanne and David Anstey set up camp, Jane climbed the forested slope. Sitting on a rock, looking out over the valley and up into the blue sky, she wrote that she hoped that was what it might be like in heaven. Baboons barked at her, she heard a variety of birds, breathed the sun-dried grass and the heavy scent of ripe fruit.

     Where I Was Meant to Be

        By the time I lay down to sleep on my camp bed under the twinkling stars, with the wind rustling softly through the fronds of the oil nut palm above, I already felt that I belonged to this new forest world, that this was where I was meant to be.

     Follow Your Bliss

     It was her bliss.  Joseph Campbell would sometimes be asked by his students at Sarah Lawrence College for his advice on what careers they should pursue. His answer was, “Follow your bliss.”  Jane Goodall followed her bliss to the forests of Gombe, “where I was meant to be.”  Of course, a “career” was not what Campbell had in mind for his students.  When we follow our bliss, we are responding to a calling – that is, to a vocation, a very different way of living than pursuing a career.  A career does not have deep-set lustrous eyes and does not gently hold your hand.

     Organ Music of Notre Dame


     Jane Goodall’s glimpses into unfiltered life, glimpses into the force of the universe in ordinary things, was not the result of  academic degrees. So years later in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, it was her years in Gombe and the life of the forest that opened her senses to the force of organ music that she heard reverberating in the soaring arches of the cathedral.  A career might have provided the name of the piece (Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), but not the soul-searing experience.

     In the cathedral, filling the entire vastness, it seemed to enter and possess my whole self.  It was as though the music itself was alive.  That moment, a suddenly captured moment of eternity, was perhaps the closest I have ever come to experiencing ecstasy, the ecstasy of the mystic


     There are different paths and different words for such moments of acute awareness:  Sometime in the early 1950s, looking into a vase of flowers – “a full-blown Bell of Portugal rose, shell-pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris” – Aldous Huxley, in a state of altered consciousness as part of an experiment testing the effects of mescaline, was seeing, he later wrote, “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”  Someone asked, he wrote, “Is it agreeable?”  “Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” he answered.  “It just is.”  Jacob  Boehme – who had seen all heaven in the sunlight reflected off a pewter bowl – had used the word istigkeit for such a moment, “is-ness.”  In Notre Dame Cathedral, and in moments along the way, Jan Goodall’s world, too, was too full to talk about, too full for opinion, too full for judgment.  There was all the time in the world and all the space.  Is-ness required no kibitzing.

7 thoughts on “Jane Goodall: Slow-Walking Realms of Gold — Paris and Gombe

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