“What makes us human makes us fellow creatures, creeping things, fauna of a fragile terrestrial biosphere, neither more nor less. All lives are consequential.”
In 1957, young Jane Goodall landed in Africa and set out to turn her childhood dream into a reality. “I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood,” she wrote to her mother when she finally arrived in Nairobi on her twenty-third birthday.
In the groundbreaking work that ensued, Goodall overcame towering odds, facing dismissal and outright attack from the scientific establishment — she was ridiculed for insisting that chimpanzees have complex consciousness and accused of being unscientific for giving the chimps she studied names. But like Rachel Carson a generation before her, she persisted and, through her persistence, transformed our understanding of the natural world and our place in it — no scientist since Copernicus has done more to counter our anthropocentric delusions than Goodall. Her work paved the way for the paradigm-shifting Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which finally recognized — half a century after Goodall began her work in Tanzania — that non-human animals are also conscious beings.
Goodall was one of the scientists honored at The Universe in Verse, which I hosted at Brooklyn’s nonprofit cultural center Pioneer Works — the celebration of science through poetry that also gave us Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about the dawn of science and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s sublime performance of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy.
Playwright and actor Sarah Jones, beloved for her one-woman shows exploring various dimensions of social justice and human dignity with tremendous subtlety and insight, performed an excerpt from Campbell McGrath’s poem “Jane Goodall (1961),” found in his Pulitzer-nominated masterpiece XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century (public library) — a suite of gorgeous poems celebrating each year of the century through a particular person, event, or discovery that left an indelible mark on humanity.
Special thanks to photographer Allan Amato for the heroic feat of bringing Jones’s genius to life on camera on impossibly short notice and with immense generosity of spirit.
Our century, our life and times, will be remembered
not for its artistic glory or triumphs of technology
but for its incalculable losses, for rain-matted bodies
at makeshift markets on the road to Kisangani,
civets, dik-diks, monkeys, anteaters, elephants, apes,
dead animals, vanished species, the earth’s ravishment
by humankind, our kind, by you and by me.
Even as we recoil at the thought of ancient savagery,
cannibalism in some tribal past, medieval tortures,
our great-great-grandparents’ embrace of slavery,
so the future will hold us accountable for this holocaust
against our brothers and sisters. What makes us human
makes us fellow creatures, creeping things,
fauna of a fragile terrestrial biosphere,
neither more nor less. All lives are consequential,
there is no hierarchy of consciousness or intellect.
To feel the warm, oxygenated exhalation of the jungle
is to know life as the planet intended it,
morning fog above the forest is the earth’s imagination
made literal, hovering and nourishing. Great trees
are more humble and profound than we could ever be…
Chimps are our veiled reflection in time’s mirror,
rough drafts, pots drawn early from the kiln.
In a universe of vast unlikeness, a universe
of voids and atoms and protozoa, we are first cousins,
next of kin. What makes us human makes us
forked branches on evolution’s zygotic tree.
Of course giving them names was wrong […]
sentimental, anthropomorphic, unscientific,
but isn’t that what we do, name the world, create order
in our heart’s image? As surely they gave to me
a name composed of odor, posture, uncouth movements,
my skin of repetitive khaki cloth, my long pale hair,
a name composed of habits, and habitation,
She Who Lives in the Strange Hard Nest,
She of the Bananas and Eggs, She Who Swims,
She Who Watches from the Peak, who sees our life
in the forest as it has been for millions of years,
who bears witness to the abyss of its annihilation,
she who comes to write our epitaph, or to save us.
The full poem is found in the wholly fantastic XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, which includes poetic homages to such cultural revolutionaries as Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Frida Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, Bob Dylan, Georgia O’Keefe, Nelson Mandela, and more.
For more of Jones’s unparalleled genius, subscribe to her podcast, Playdate with Sarah Jones, in which Sarah and her characters probe the mysteries of art and life with some of the most interesting creative people of our time. For an intimate tour of the mind and spirit from which that genius springs, hear her Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman.
Other highlights from The Universe in Verse can be found here.
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