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Digging Up The Roots

By Dr. Jane Goodall

When we lose something that was very precious to us, whatever its nature, we grieve. Our grief may be short-lived sorrow or lead to a lengthy period of mourning. The depth of our grief depends on the nature of the relationship that we had with what we have lost, not on who or what that person or thing actually was. We might grieve more for the loss of a dog or cat than a person — it simply depends on the relative contributions made by each to our physical and spiritual well-being.

I have deeply loved several dogs and grieved correspondingly deeply when they died. Just a few weeks ago at our family home in the UK we lost Cider, the dog who has shared our lives for the past thirteen years. I hate the thought of walking where she and I walked together.

When I sit on “her” couch I feel a lump in my throat, and when the doorbell rings, and there are no fierce barks, it is not easy to go and let the caller in. I miss her snoring beside my bed at night. I am not ashamed to weep for her, as I wept for the other dogs who gave me so much.

The nature of my relationship with the Gombe chimpanzees is very different from that with my dogs. For one thing, dogs are utterly dependent on humans; for another, they become part of the household. From them I receive comfort when sad, and I can give comfort in return. With them I can share joy and excitement. With the chimpanzees it is different. They are free and independent. It is true that I have impinged on their lives, but only as an observer. (I speak here of the wild chimpanzees — relations can be very different with captive individuals.) The wild apes tolerate my presence. But they show no pleasure when they see me after an absence — they accept my goings and comings without comment. And this is as it should be since we are trying to study their natural lives. Moreover, the chimpanzees, unlike my dogs, do not depend on me for food or comfort. My relationship with them can best be described as one of mutual trust.

Nevertheless, there have been Gombe chimpanzees who I have most truly loved — even though they did not reciprocate that love. One of these was old Flo. I shall never forget seeing her body as it lay at the edge of the fast-flowing Kakombe stream. I stayed close by for the better part of three days, to record the reactions of the other chimps. As I sat there I thought back over the hours we had spent together, that old female and I. I thought of all I had learned from her about maternal behavior, and family relationships. I thought of her fearless, indomitable character. And I mourned her passing. Just as I grieved for old McGregor, whom we had to shoot after polio paralyzed both legs and he dislocated one arm as he dragged his body up a tree. And I was devastated when little Getty died. He had been everyone’s favorite, loved by humans and even, I would swear, by the chimpanzees themselves. It was a long time before I could watch other infants without resentment, without asking the meaningless question: Why did it have to be him?

Of course, I was also very close to David Greybeard, the first chimpanzee who ever let me approach. And I missed him very much when we finally realized he must have died. But we never knew exactly when this was, for we never found his body. Thus there was no sudden realization of his passing, no moment in time when grieving could begin.

Of all the Gombe chimpanzees I have known over the years, it was Melissa whose death affected me the most, for I was there at the very end. I wrote about it in my last book, Through a Window:

By evening, Melissa was alone. One foot hung down from her nest and every so often her toes moved. I stayed there, sitting on the forest floor. . . . Occasionally I spoke. I don’t know if she knew I was there or, if she did, whether it made any difference. But I wanted to be with her as night fell: I didn’t want her to be completely alone. . . . There was a distant pant-hoot far across the valley, but Melissa was silent. Never again would I hear her distinctive hoarse call. Never again would I wander with her from one patch of food to the next, waiting, at one with the life of the forest, as she rested or groomed with one of her offspring. The stars were suddenly blurred and I wept for the passing of an old friend. Even now, seven years later, when I pass the tree where she died, I pause for a moment to remember her.

The nature of the grief I feel when a loved dog dies has one component that is lacking from the sorrow caused by the death of one of my wild chimpanzee friends. Because dogs depend on us for food and comfort and help in sickness, there has always been an element of guilt in my grief for their passing. In their dog minds, did I not let them down — however hard I tried to help? And could I, perhaps, have done more than I did? This nagging guilt, which we usually feel when a loved human companion passes away, has no place in my grieving for chimpanzee friends who have died. For they had no expectations of help.

The emotions triggered by the death of a chimpanzee I have loved are different again from those that overwhelm me whenever I think of the vanishing wildlife of the world, of animals shot by hunters, snared by poachers, starved by the encroachment of farmers into their feeding grounds. I am angered, as well as saddened, when I think of their suffering, depressed when I think how hard it is to help them. The sight of a rhino killed for his horn is horribly distressing. It brings tears to my eyes, but the tears are part rage because we seem unable to stop the slaughter. True mourning, I believe, can only follow the death of an individual we have known and loved, whose life for a while has been linked with ours.

I have always had a great passion for trees, for woods and forests. Often I lay my hand on the trunk of a tree, feeling the texture of its bark and imagining the sap coursing up the trunk, taking life to the leaves far above. Some trees seem to have a character of their own: the slim and elegant individual, rustling soft songs in the breeze; the helpful one, with wide branches and dense foliage, providing shade; and the strong and comforting tree with a friendly overhanging trunk to protect one from the rain. When I was a child I used sometimes to lie looking up at the blue sky through the leaves of a birch tree in the garden. I especially loved that tree in the moonlight, when the white trunk was bright and ghostly and the leaves were black with glinting silver where the soft light caught them. And when it died, like so many other birch trees in the drought of 1977, when no leaves burst out in the spring, I felt great sadness, and also a sense of nostalgia. In sorrowing for the tree, was I also grieving for my lost youth?

A little while ago I drove along a road in Tanzania that once ran through miles of forest. Twenty years ago there were lions and elephants, leopards and wild dogs, and a myriad of birds. But now the trees are gone and the road guided us relentlessly, mile after mile, through hot, dusty country where crops were withered under the glare of the sun and there was no shade. I felt a great melancholy, and also anger. This anger was not directed against the poor farmers who were trying to eke out a livelihood from the now inhospitable land, but against mankind in general. We multiply and we destroy, chopping and killing. Now, in this desecrated area, the women searching for firewood must dig up the roots of the trees they have long since cut down to make space for crops.

Gombe National Park is, today, like an island of forest and wildlife set in a desert of human habitation. During a recent visit I climbed to the top of the rift escarpment and looked to the east, the north, the south. In 1980 I could look out from the same place, and there was chimpanzee habitat stretched as far as I could see. Now the steep slopes are bare of trees and have become increasingly barren and rocky, more and more of the precious topsoil washed away with every heavy rain. And the chimpanzees, along with most of the other wild animals, have gone. But at least the little oasis of the park is safe, and in its ancient forests I can for a while take refuge from the problems of the world outside. If Gombe was destroyed I should know inconsolable grief. For Gombe, with all its vivid and unique chimpanzee characters, with all its tumbling memories, has been an integral part of my life for more than thirty years. It is, I have always said, paradise on earth. And who would not mourn expulsion from paradise?

“Digging up the Roots” by Jane Goodall originally appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Orion. Reprinted by permission of Orion. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE, is Founder, the Jane Goodall Institute; and UN Messenger of Peace. To learn more about Jane Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute, visit janegoodall.org.

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