With Binoculars and Persistence

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For more than ten minutes David Graybeard and Goliath sat grooming each other, and then, just before the sun vanished over the horizon behind me, David got up and stood staring at me. And it so happened that my elongated evening shadow fell across him. -Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man.

Jane Goodall was 26 years old when she undertook her landmark study of chimpanzees, armed – as New York Times writer John Corry put it – "mostly with binoculars and persistence". Her book and Hugo Van Lawick's beautiful photos tell the amazing stories of David and Goliath; Fifi, Flo and Flint; the old Mr. McGregor and the orphaned Merlin – among a rainbow of chimpanzee personalities that opened the way to a deeper understanding of man.

Goodall's quiet enthusiasm in her research is inspiring: she mentions, rather casually at the book's beginning, that soon after setting up a rudimentary camp in Gombe, she spent three nights at a lookout spot, with two reluctant African companions and a campfire. I fell to thinking what the dangers must have been for a somewhat untrained Englishwoman new to the African wild, what stubborn persistence Goodall must have possessed, what invisible force must have pulled her to the forests of Africa. Her mentor Louis Leakey wanted a person untainted by previous research and preconceptions, who could start by feeling her way into the study of the Gombe chimpanzees. Besides ensuring a fresh, more intuitive and less technical perspective on animal behavior, this might have had a hidden advantage for Goodall. In research, there comes very often some big barrier which takes one to the frontier of one's expertise; which needs a large amount of mental patience to tide over. It is a leap that many seasoned researchers cannot bring themselves to make, something that I dread everyday. I wonder if Jane Goodall, drawn by her love for nature but comparatively innocent in the ways of technical research, was helped by the fact that she could not have known how difficult the barriers were that she had to cross. Or was her passion so strong, that big problems – of which there were undoubtedly many – did not appear so big to her? I am curious of course about the specifics of her chimpanzee studies, but I know what the results are in the broad sense. It is the opportunity of seeing Goodall as a researcher that makes me want to read this.

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