Saturday, April 05, 2014

Lost in the wilderness

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants

By Jane Goodall with Gail Hudson
Grand Central Publishing, 420 pages, $33

In 1960, 24-year-old Jane Goodall arrived in Tanzania to study chimpanzees.

Sent by British scientist Louis Leakey, the former secretary initially had to be chaperoned by her mother. Goodall later obtained a PhD from Cambridge University in ethology, a branch of zoology that studies animal behaviour, based on the her work at the Gombe Stream National Park.

Goodall began by studying our closest relatives, discovering their propensity for using tools and hunting small mammals for meat. These were startling revelations in their day, since it was believed that using tools was a human trait and that chimpanzees were vegetarian.

More than five decades later, Goodall is still far from home, and still part of the conversation about what it means to be human.

The octogenarian spends 300 days a year on the road, lecturing on conservation and raising funds for both the Jane Goodall Institute, which funds ongoing research at Gombe, as well as Roots and Shoots, a global youth-education program.

This spring sees the publication of her 25th book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, the third book she's co-written with journalist and former spirituality editor for, Gail Hudson.

Refreshingly, Goodall is upfront about her credentials: "Of course I am best known... for the study of the Gombe chimpanzees... But there would be no chimpanzees without plants - not human beings either, for that matter. And the chimpanzee might never have materialized for me had I not been obsessed, as a child, with stories of the wilderness areas of the planet and, most especially, the forests of Africa."

And so, in Seeds of Hope Goodall (and her co-writer) describes her specific history while also presenting a brief history of the different kinds of plants and trees, and how they have been cultivated over time. Goodall relies heavily on stories from the environmental and community groups she works with.

She also delivers a handful of big ideas with her anecdotes: Organic food is healthiest, the effects of GMOs on humans aren't fully known, mono-cultures aren't sustainable over the long term, we need our forests to be fully human.

All these big ideas bear repeating; the problem with Goodall's approach to these issues, however, is that readers aren't left with a big picture. The material hopscotches geographically between England and Africa, the two poles of Goodall's life, with stops nearly everywhere her tour bus has paused in between - but there's very little cohesion.

Also, although Goodall is reliably charming, the sections that include material outside of her first-hand experience and/or limited areas of expertise feel like they were written by an inexperienced speechwriter.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Goodall and her collaborators were accused of plagiarism last year by the Washington Post after the American edition was released.

Goodall subsequently apologized and pledged to work with editors to correct future editions. Potential readers will be glad to hear the Canadian edition has received a relatively thorough going-over.

But even that last-minute tinkering wasn't enough to save Seeds of Hope; though its authors are earnest, the book isn't half as compelling as it should be.

Those looking for a local equivalent should dip into The Global Forest by Ontario-based botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who is also interested in working with storytelling and environmental advocacy.

J.B. MacKinnon's The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, shortlisted for this year's Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction, is also worth a read as it digs into the archeological record and challenges some of the assumptions underlying the main tenets of conservation.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer who once considered a career in science journalism.

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