When I speak with Jane Goodall, she’s stationed in her childhood home in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, where she’s spent the last seven months since the start of the pandemic. “I’m up in a little room in the attic that we actually had converted,” she explains, wearing a coral-color sweater with a pendant of Africa hanging from a cord around her neck, her silver hair pulled back into its signature ponytail. “It used to be just an attic with spiders. Now we’ve made a little bit of place for me.”
Here, the famed ethologist and conservationist, who first stepped into Tanzania’s Gombe National Park to observe chimpanzees just more than 60 years ago, has been tucked away, hard at work, broadcasting her mission to millions of viewers across the globe, as well as putting the finishing touches on her new collaboration with the wellness brand Forest Remedies: a kit of four essential oils—ginger and ylang ylang from Madagascar, citronella from Togo, and frankincense from Somaliland—of which a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to the Jane Goodall Institute. “The more that we can provide people with products that they want to use that are produced in a sustainable way, the better,” she says.
Here, Goodall sounds off on the simple steps that we should all take to save the planet, as well as her signature hair accessory—and where to find it (well, sort of).
Tell me what life has been like for you since the start of the pandemic.
When I was first grounded, I was frustrated and angry because, you know, [I’m usually] traveling 300 days, going to different countries, meeting different people, trying to give them hope…and then suddenly I’m stuck here. But then together with my little team, we created a virtual Jane. The virtual Jane is about three times busier than the Jane who used to travel…giving a lecture to an auditorium with thousands of people, and a buzz and the excitement is very different. Now, I have to give a lecture looking at this stupid little spot of green on the top of my laptop, and it’s not the same, but we created this virtual Jane and the advantage is I’ve reached—I said hundreds of thousands the other day and someone corrected me and said, “No, no, no, no it’s millions”—millions more people, and managed to reach a message into many, many more countries from a spot here. That’s the silver lining.
In addition to being on your computer much more than you’re used to, how else have you been spending your time?
Well [I’m] mostly just up here with the laptop or writing articles, op-ed pieces…a few telephone calls, the old-fashioned kind, you know, you put a thing to your ear and speak into it—and it’s a landline, by the way. [One of] the two little breaks I get in the day is at lunchtime when I take the ancient dog for a short walk—he won’t go any further—and then I sit down at the tree I used to climb as a child that I called Beech. He’s a beech tree. He’s too big for me to climb now, but I eat my piece of toast, cheese, [and] a couple of tomatoes underneath Beech, and everyday I’m visited by a robin, the English robin. He sings to me, I sing to him…. Not always, but sometimes he’ll go up in the tree and really serenade.… It’s friendship. I love it.
And it sounds like you’ve been busy with your partnership with Forest Remedies as well. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It is very exciting. These four essential oils [frankincense, citronella, ginger, and ylang-ylang] were just sent to me in a biodegradable sustainable package. I’m fascinated by frankincense because it makes me think of Christmas. Frankincense do offer have I. Frankincense goes back, wow…I wrote about it when I did Seeds of Hope.… I haven’t really used them yet. My niece used them. She is so excited. She said, “Jane, I’m going to buy you.…” What is it? A dispenser or something that you put the oil in and it scents the room and gives you this peaceful feeling, or stimulates you. I imagine the ginger stimulates you. What I love about this—and the [forthcoming] hand sanitizer and toilet paper—is they’re environmentally sustainable, they aren’t harming the environment, and they’re bringing pleasure to many, many people, so it’s I think a very exciting relationship.
All the ingredients are sustainably sourced, as is the packaging. As a consumer, how important is that to you?
One of the main things that the Jane Goodall Institute is involved in is sustainable living. At the moment, we’re not living in a very sustainable way. It’s a bit of a disaster.… The more that we can provide people with products that they want to use that are produced in a sustainable way, the better. We’ve also got to realize that even now we are using up nature’s finite natural resources in some places faster than nature can replenish them, and we’ve got approximately 7.2 billion people on the planet. In 2050, we will have approximately, I’m told, 9.7 billion, so what’s going to happen? I don’t know.
In addition to making smarter buying choices, what can people do to help save the planet?
When you make a purchase, you ask yourself: Did this product and its manufacture harm the environment? Is it cheap because of child slave labor or inequitable wages paid to the people who produced it? Did it harm animals, like the terrible factory farms? And of course plant-based diets are very, very important. Plants are really coming into their own as our great saviors, like the forest that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Right, you’ve been a vegetarian since reading Animal Liberation in your 20s. What other changes have you made to your lifestyle to be more sustainable?
I’ve been trying to lead a sustainable life for a very long time. Of course, traveling 300 days a year on airplanes is not the most sustainable way of living, but the millions of trees that are being planted—[thanks to] our youth program, Roots & Shoots, which is now in 65 countries—I think have more than absorbed my little carbon footstep from flying. When I was traveling, I got put in expensive hotels, and you know these hotels are terribly unsustainable, so I developed my own little way of trying to counteract that. [For example] the products in these hotels are very seldom sustainable, so I don’t use them at all. I take my own little bar of soap and it goes around with me, and things like that.
Speaking of cosmetics that you bring along with you, in the 2017 documentary Jane there’s a great moment of you washing your hair and of your mother washing her face with a bar of soap in the stream. I’m sure products were the last thing on your mind, but what did you bring with you when you went to Gombe National Park?
When I first went, [it was] with so little money and mom came because the British authorities wouldn’t allow me on my own, so we shared a secondhand army tent. We took tins of food [and] we managed to find a village nearby where we could get fresh vegetables. Then, of course, as the economic situation in Tanzania deteriorated, we couldn’t buy tin food anymore.… What else did I take? I had two pairs of trousers, two shorts, a notebook, a pencil, a pair of secondhand binoculars. Well, that was it. Nothing else. It was a very, very sustainable lifestyle back then.
On a beauty note, you’ve become known for your signature ponytail—and it looks like you’re wearing one of the same circular clips you wore back then…
I always do.
Where do you buy them?
Oh, they’re very hard to get. They’re hardly making them anymore. I have a friend Henry in New York and he found one little shop and he went and he bought everything they had. They were quite angry, and he said, “Well, get some more.” They’re made in France apparently and you can easily get the bigger ones, but as you get older your hair gets thinner, so the big ones slide straight off. I had to thread cotton around the teeth so that they would grip. Henry found me these small ones. He occasionally goes to the shop, and if they have any more, he buys them for me.
Do you know which store?
Not a clue. But they look like this. [Goodall removes the clip from her hair and holds it up to the screen.]
Obviously, your ponytail has stayed the same, but has your self-care routine changed in any way over the years?
Well, it can’t really. I’ve never done anything. I’ve never thought about it. I’ve just washed my hair and that’s about all I’ve done. People say, “What do you do to keep looking young?” And I say, “Well, nothing.” I don’t do a thing. Nothing.
And what do you do to stay healthy and happy and centered?
I don’t eat much food. I eat vegetarian or vegan food. Now [that] I’m at home I can be virtually vegan. On the road, it can be a bit difficult, but definitely [I always eat] vegetarian.… My son said to me the other day, “Jane, I want somebody to study you because I don’t know anyone who eats so little with not the right foods and has as much energy as you.” So obviously somebody needs to study my diet.
I read that before COVID-19 you would take an annual trip to Nebraska to watch the spring migration of the sandhill cranes. Do you have any other rituals?
I told you about the robin at lunchtime sitting under the beech tree where it’s cool and green and having this friendship. It really is a friendship with this robin.… When I was traveling—going to Gombe or going into some forest, or I managed to get to Patagonia to get to see the whales—anywhere out in nature, preferably by myself, that was important. That’s what fills up my spirit: nature.
Even at home, it seems you bring nature inside. You have a lot of framed pictures of animals behind you…
I have this picture that’s a rather terrifying one that came from a dream my mother had: the last tree with the last chimpanzee hugging her little baby…. That was done ages ago, but how appropriate it is now with the fires [and] with climate change, so I keep that there. Underneath, there’s my dog Rusty who taught me that animals have personalities, minds, and emotions, so I could confront the professors at Cambridge who told me I couldn’t talk about chimpanzees having personalities, minds, or emotions because they were unique to us, and I knew they were wrong. On this side, [she points to a photo of her mother] well, we are animals. That’s my mother who supported me as a child. Above her is David Greybeard, the first chimpanzee to prove that in the wild they use and make tools. Then the dog—no dog could carry a tree trunk like that—but it’s to show the indomitable spirit where you don’t know what you can do till you try.
When borders reopen and we can all travel again, where are you going to head first?
It will be to Tanzania where my family is, where Gombe is, where the research is. We’re in our 60th year and I really need to get back there. I miss it more than I thought I would, sitting on the shore of Lake Tanganyika watching the sun set, going out in the forest by myself, learning about the interconnection of all the different species that live in the forest and together make up this tapestry of life. It is so beautiful.
What’s the number one action that people can take right now to further your mission?
Obviously, as an aside, I would love them to find out more about the Jane Goodall Institute, and especially the youth program. I push this Roots & Shoots program because it’s changing lives. Sixty-five countries, hundreds of thousands of young people…it’s all about making the world better for animals, for people, for the environment. The young people choose the projects that they’re interested in, so they discuss: What can we do about plastic? What can we do about animal trafficking? What can we do to reduce our environmental footprint? And then they roll up their sleeves and get out and take action, so it’s really helping the planet. As we speak, there are young people out there planting trees and volunteering in animal shelters and raising money for refugees.… It’s really changing the world, but for everybody.
Every single day [that] we live we make some impact on this planet, and we have a choice—at least unless we’re living in poverty—we have a choice as to what sort of impact we make. If we think about the consequences of just the little choices we make each day—What do we buy? Where did it come from? How is it made?—just small choices like that.… So if I pick up a piece of plastic litter, so what? What difference does it make? No, not if it’s just me. But I know now that it’s not just me. This is the thing about Roots & Shoot; the young people know it’s not just them cleaning a stream of trash, that there’s other groups cleaning streams, and this is cleaning up the rivers and that means the rivers are clean going into the oceans. So when you hear think globally, act locally, turn it around: Act locally, then you dare think globally.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Forest Remedies Jane Goodall Wonders of Africa Essential Oils