Over the course of 45 years studying the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Jane Goodall revolutionized our understanding of our closest primate relatives. A champion of animal conservation and the author of 26 books, she turns her attention for the first time to plants with Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, to be published April 2 and excerpted in the March issue of Smithsonian.
As one of the world’s most renowned animal researchers, what made you decide to write a book about plants?
For my last book about saving endangered animals from extinction, I wrote a long section about plants, but my publisher said the book was way too long, so apart from one or two examples, the plants got left out. I was particularly upset because the botanists and horticulturalists had been so cooperative and excited that their stuff was going to get into my book, and I thought it’d be really mean to leave it out. So my first idea was just to add a bit to that section and put it out as a slim volume. But the plants seemed to think otherwise. It was almost as though they put their roots into my brain saying, “Look, Jane, you’ve spent all your life talking about animals, and now it’s our turn.”
So it morphed. It started simple, just about rescuing endangered plants from extinction, but then that needed some kind of introduction to answer this question you ask. And then I’ve always loved trees and forests, so they decided that they wanted a prominent place, and so one thing led to another.
Do you have any particular memories from your life in which you felt close to plants?
The tree I had in the garden as a child, my beech tree, I used to climb up there and spend hours. I took my homework up there, my books, I went up there if I was sad, and it just felt very good to be up there among the green leaves and the birds and the sky. All around our home in Bournemouth, [England], there were wild cliffs with trees, and pines, and I just came to really love trees. Of course, reading books about Tarzan, I fell in love with the jungle—as we called it then—and that was part of my dream of wanting to go to Africa, to be out in the forest.
Ecologically, when people think about endangered species, they mostly consider animals. Why should we be concerned about plants?
For one thing, without plants, we wouldn’t exist—everything eats plants, or it eats animals that live on plants. So for the entire ecosystem, plants are the underpinning. If you start to restore an area, you start with the plants, and then the insects appear, and then the birds follow, and mammals come along. Also, plants are fantastic at removing impurities from the soil. And the forests play this incredibly important role in sequestering carbon dioxide.
But it’s also more than that. It’s been proven by quite a few studies that plants are good for our psychological development. If you green an area, the rate of crime goes down. Torture victims begin to recover when they spend time outside in a garden with flowers. So we need them, in some deep psychological sense, which I don’t suppose anybody really understands yet.
You’re most well known for your work with chimps. Should we be just as concerned about their future? How endangered are they right now, compared to when you first started working with them?