The Gift of the Forrest: Jane Goodall at 80

jane & WillJane Goodall’s vision for her life began to form at the age of five when she hid in a chicken coop to see if she could discover “where on a chicken was there an opening big enough for an egg to come out.”  She still recalls tumbling out of the hen house in excitement to tell her mother her discovery.

Shortly thereafter — by the age of eight — she had fallen in love with Tarzan and decided she wanted to live in Africa.  “I knew that, somehow, I would go to Africa and live with the animals,” she says.  “I don’t think I spent too much time wondering exactly how I would do it.  I just felt sure the right opportunity would somehow come.”

At the age of twenty-three, her dream came true.  She was invited to visit a friend whose family had bought a farm in Kenya.  While she was there, she met Louis Leakey — the man who, more than anyone else, shaped the direction of her life.

The renowned anthropologist offered her a job on the spot, at first working as his secretary, then in the fields of Olduvai Gorge.  But Jane wanted more.  She wanted to find a way to watch wild animals living undisturbed lives.  She wanted to bridge the distance between man and beast and move among them without fear.  She wanted to return to the hen house and discover the secrets of the natural world.

She was twenty-six when she first set foot on Gombe National Park.  On her sixty-second birthday, 18 years ago today, we met in Washington.  The thirty-minute morning meeting we had scheduled turned into lunch, dinner, and then a bit of scotch as we talked into the night about the state of the world, the gift of the forest, and the “fuzzy line” between man and beast.

“Chimpanzees are so like us,” she said. “Their blood and their response to disease are like ours.  A lot of their behavior is like ours.  They learn by watching one another, then imitating.  Most important, they feel pain, sorrow, and fear just like we do.”

She illustrated the closeness of the connection by telling the story of Old Man, a chimpanzee brought to a zoo in North America when he was an adolescent.  ”We still don’t know what happened to him there,” Jane said, “but whatever it was, he came to hate people.”

When Old Man was rescued, he was put on an island with three females.  A young man named Marc Casano was given the job of looking after them.  He was told how dangerous these animals were and instructed not to go on the island with their food.  Instead, he was told to paddle a boat toward the island until he was close enough to throw the food on the shore and then leave.

Marc did as he was told but as he watched the animals he couldn’t help noticing how affectionate they were with each other.  He decided he wanted to have a better relationship with them and tried to make friends.  He came closer and closer to shore until he could actually hand Old Man a banana.  Soon the two were playing together.   Eventually, Old Man would even let Marc groom him — an act of complete trust.

One day, Marc slipped and fell, startling an infant nearby.  The mother heard the cry and charged protectively, leaping on Marc’s back and biting his neck.  Before Marc could get up, the other two females joined the attack.  He felt his arm go numb and blood running down his neck.  He looked up to see Old Man flying toward him.

But instead of joining the attack and finishing him off, as Marc feared, Old Man seized the females, pulling them off and hurling them away. He stayed close as Marc dragged himself to the boat, threatening the females every time they tried to attack again.

“Old Man saved Marc’s life,” Jane said.  ”There is no doubt about it.  The chimps could easily have killed him.”

“I tell this story a lot,” she went on to say, “because it says so much about our relationship with chimps and other animals.  If a chimpanzee can reach out to help a human, then surely humans can reach out and try to help chimps and other living creatures.”

Jane’s understanding of nature — the gift of the forest — and her resulting reverence for life has led her to campaign for compassion.  The woman who yearned for the jungle at the age of eight and spent 36 years living in solitude and solidarity with wild animals, now spends most of her time on airplanes, traveling from one urban area to another, never spending more than two weeks in one place at a time.

“I hate my suitcases, packing, unpacking.  Ironing — I hate ironing,” she says.  ”But it is all made worthwhile when I think of the forest and what it has given me.  It makes me sad that I can only get back there for short visits, but then I think of how lucky I have been.  I have spent years doing what I wanted to do most of all – being with wild, free chimpanzees in the forest.  Now is my paying back time.”

Her central message is the unity of life.  “It is not one thing to save man and another to save the animals,” Jane says.  ”Together, we can make the world a better place for all living things.”

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Don’t Chase Anything You Don’t Want To Catch

imagesMany people, myself included, have pursued happiness and pleasure in places where we know it will not be found.  It is tempting to seek the comfort of material things and indulge yourself, pursue appetites and the satisfactions of the flesh.

When I was young, my mother watched my pursuit of pleasure with sadness at the thought that I could be so consumed by such superficial interests.  While I always suspected her displeasure, nothing was said until she found the proper occasion – a neighbor’s dog injured while chasing a car.

When I commented on this sad incident, my mother took the opportunity.   “Let that be a lesson to you,” she said.  “Don’t chase anything you don’t want to catch.”

Her comment gave me pause – then and now.  If you think about it, it has a broad as well as a specific application.  It makes you question your priorities and the way you spend your time.

What do you chase and why?  Is what you are chasing – the object of your activities and desires – something you really want, something worth keeping?

Who among us would prefer a series of superficial relationships to true love?  Who would want great wealth if it came with the condition it could not be shared?  Would anyone knowingly choose a life of ease and comfort over a life of meaning and purpose?  If not, why do we do so much of what we do?

“If any organism fails to fulfill its potentialities, it becomes sick,” Rollo May observed, “just as your legs would wither if you never walked.”  Much of this sickness is evident in the world despite our attempts to camouflage our failings with the pursuit of meaningless things.

The greatest regret we can have is not that our lives shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.  To be what we are, and to become what are capable of becoming, is the noblest end in life.  Our duty is to become useful, not according to our desires but according to our powers.

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Hard Times

images-4Becky Simpson remembers watching her little brother die of pneumonia when she was five.  Two years later her sister almost followed him.  The house was so cold, she recalls, it was warmer outside.  She also remembers making, at that tender age, a promise that she would never ever watch someone die without trying to help.

Ten years after their marriage, her husband, Bobby, lost his sight and could no longer and work.  Hard times got harder.

“We nearly starved to death,” Bobby remembers.  “What we had to live on was what we raised ourselves – garden stuff.”

What saved them was an even bigger catastrophe.  One summer, when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse, the skies opened up.  It rained seemingly without end for days and their valley was hit with a series of floods.  The damage done by the deluge was complicated by the ecological damage caused by strip mining in the mountains above them.  Soon, there wasn’t a bridge left in the county.

The way Bobby remembers it, “There were maybe three good cars left in the whole valley.  We lost all of our wells and the water in our house was four feet deep.”

What Becky remembers is the hopelessness of standing on a crate near the bank of the river crying in frustration the third time her brother was flooded out.  While she cried, she remembered her promise to herself and in the back of her mind a thought formed.  What came to her was the knowledge that she had friends she hadn’t met yet.

Acting on that thought, Becky got on the phone and got to work.  She organized, cajoled and testified.  She arranged meetings, put together petitions, and testified at hearings.  Before she was done, she had obtained a million dollars to dredge the silt out of the creek.  Then she went to work looking for money for reclamation of the mountains.  Surprising even herself, she was able to raise $940,000 to stabilize the mountains and restore their ecological base.

From that success and her new understanding emerged the purpose and direction of her life.  Though they live on nothing more than Bobby’s disability pay, the Simpsons founded the Cranks Creek Survival Center, which sees to those in need in a dozen counties in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.

“Human suffering has always moved me,” Becky said, “but I had no idea that any one person could really do anything about it.”

Becky and Bobby do whatever needs to be done.  Thousands of volunteers – Becky’s unknown friends – have come to help.  They have come from the entire east coast and more than a dozen foreign nations, including India, China, Africa, and Brazil.   It is a testimony to the depth of poverty in Appalachia that residents of countries we tend to think of as poor have traveled halfway around the world to aid Americans who are even poorer.

Bobby supervises their building projects and directs the gathering of supplies.  Though sightless, he has learned the highways by heart, navigating his driver with a collection of audio and visual cues he has stored up in his mind.

“A lot of handicapped people just sit down and don’t try to do nothing,” he explains, “but there is always something you can do if you try.”

“Somebody once said it was my work,” Becky concludes.  “I said, no, it ain’t my work.  It’s my life.  I had a dream since I was a child that someday I was going to help needy people and now I can do it.  It has to be a miracle.  That’s the only way I can explain it.

Everyone is needed.  As the Simpsons demonstrate, everyone can contribute.  No one needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

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The Power of “Yes”

ahI was late to marry.  As soon as I approached puberty, my father began drumming into me the notion that marriage was most important decision of my life.  He told me to wait until I finished my education and warned me not to pick the wrong woman for the wrong reason.

He said I should find a good woman and suggested I look in the churches rather than in the clubs and bars.  My sense of humor was such that I told him I would do as he said and wait for them outside the confession booth – the theory being the longer they were in there the more likely they were to be worth waiting for.

My mother advised me to follow my heart.  She said I would know when I found the right person.  When I asked her how I would know, she always had the same infuriating response – “You’ll just know.”

As a result, I thought long and hard about marriage and the kind of person I wanted to share my life.  In law school, I even went so far as to make a list on a legal pad of all the attributes I wanted.  I compared every woman I met to that ideal.

Through the years, I found a number of women who met all my criteria.  They had all the qualities I thought I was looking for – and more.  I couldn’t find fault with them; still, something held me back.  It just didn’t feel right.

My friends – many of them married for years – watched from the sidelines with amusement.  Some, like Henri Landwirth, doubted I would ever marry.  Finally, he was bold enough to press the issue.

“Stop all this running around,” Henri said, “and just pick one.  It doesn’t matter whether it is this one or that one.  Just pick one and get it over with.  Pretty soon no one will have you.”

When I told him I had no intention of marrying until I was sure I had found the right person, he laughed and told me to stop kidding myself.  “You don’t even know what you are looking for,” he said.

When I said I did and began to describe the woman I hoped to find, Henri stopped short.  Something I said brought to mind a girl who worked with him at Give Kids the World.  It was one of the few times I have seen Henri at a loss for words.

Henri made the connection a month later.  He asked her to pick me up from the airport in Orlando the next time and I came to visit him and gave her $20 to buy me a drink.

One drink was all it took.  The connection was natural and immediate.  Neither one of us said anything about it for a while, but we both knew we were meant to be together.

When Angie accepted my proposal, twenty-one years ago today, I called Senator Moss to tell him the news.  Senator Moss was responsible for bringing me to Washington and through the years had become a friend, mentor, and second father.  I told him how wonderful she was and began listing her many attributes.  When I took a breath, he reminded me he had met her once.

“You know the package isn’t bad either,” he said.  He was in his eighties by then but there was nothing wrong with his eyesight.

They were all right – my mother and father, Henri and Senator Moss.  My life changed when she said, “Yes.”  Asking her to marry me was the best decision I have ever made.

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If You Lead, Others Will Follow

images-2When you are a boy playing soccer, probably the last thing you are thinking about is being safe.  For twelve-year-old Sead Bekric it nearly was when artillery shells blew up the ground beneath his feet in Bosnia.

The last memory Sead has before the darkness closed his eyes was watching a friend’s head being blown off.   He has no memory of the shrapnel that struck his eyes or the helicopter that would later come to fly him to Tuzla.

All he remembers is the pain.  He screamed in agony, seemingly forever, until he heard his younger brother’s voice.  Summing up his courage, he said, “I’m all right.  Don’t be afraid.”

A CNN crew passing by caught this touching exchange.  Within hours the image of this brave blind boy was broadcast around the world.  Millions of people saw the story.  Many undoubtedly wished they could do something to help.

One man did.

Bob Macauley, founder of AmeriCares, was watching from his office in Connecticut.  He told his assistant, Terry Tarnowski, “Let’s go get him.”

“Most of us can be terribly moved by something and even say within ourselves – ‘Oh, I wish I could do something.’  Bob never stopped there,” Terry recalls.  “With Bob that was just the beginning. The desire was just the first step and for him it was never a big step.   For Bob, it was as simple as I want to respond.  I will respond.  The best way to respond was the next step.”

At that time, Tuzla airport was not open for humanitarian relief flights, but somehow Bob persuaded the UN to let AmeriCares land long enough to collect the boy and bring him out.  Less than 24 hours after the boy lost his sight, a rescue team was en route.

The trip was harrowing.  Going in, the helicopter had to refuel at Split before the final leg to Tuzla.  Fighting was so fierce, the helicopter had to touch down, gas up, and leave in less than ten minutes; but two hours later, they were in Tuzla.

Sead lost his sight on Monday.  By Friday of the same week, he was in California being treated by the Jules Stein Eye Institute.

“It seems your approach is total commitment,” I told Bob when I heard this story.  “You decided you were going to get this kid one way or another and just went for it.”

“That’s right,” Bob said.  “If you know what the right thing to do is you just do it.  And if you explain to people what you are trying to do, they will want to help.  People love to get aboard.  They get a lot of satisfaction out of being part of it.  In Saed’s case, when we got him to the Netherlands the people at KLM had all seen his picture and wanted to help.  They put him on a plane and flew him to LA free of charge.”

“When you see an opportunity like that, go for it.  Don’t weigh it back and forth, up and down, or go half way.   Don’t think of all the reasons why it won’t work, or second-guess yourself.  Just do it.  Make your mind up you are going to go and go.”

“If you are doing it for someone else, that’s almost a guarantee of success.  If you are doing it for yourself, that’s almost always a guarantee of failure.  If you don’t go for it when the window is open, it will never open again.  If you lead, others will follow.”

(Taken from “His Name Is Today,” the story of Bob Macauley)

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