04/21/2012 11:37 EDT | Updated 06/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Chanelling Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall's voice barely registers above a whisper. But there is an enviable insistence in the way she talks, a kind of quality that forces you to lean in and listen. Lean in and listen is exactly what I do on a warm-enough-for-sandals Spring day at the Delta Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto, where I'm pouring tea for the 78-year-old superstar primatologist. She's most famous for her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, but her contribution to science is so vast that the only place I could think of to begin is with this: If you were at a cocktail party and nobody knew who you were, what would your answer be to the question, what do you do for a living?

"I would probably say that for a living, I'm trying to wake people up to the fact that our planet is in peril," she answers, "helping people to respect other living things including each other. There isn't a word for what I am or what I do." There she goes again, quiet words delivered with the force of hurricane winds.

Everything you need to know about Jane Goodall's career can be found in the documentary she's screening that evening at the Ontario Science Centre, Jane's Journey. But I wanted to know, what makes a Jane Goodall. In a world where there is so much pressure to earn huge sums of money or acquire mega-watts of fame, how do you pursue a meaningful career that can't be encapsulated in a label: "If you just wait and keep your ears open, suddenly you will think this is it, this is what I want to do."

Goodall is, of course, speaking from experience. She was only 10 years old when she read a tiny book bought from a second hand bookshop called Tarzan of the Apes. And in that sudden moment, she knew she wanted to go to Africa, work with animals and write books about them. "That was it, I was madly in love with Tarzan and he went on and married that stupid, wimpy Jane. That's when my dream began," she says, laughing at the thought of her smittened younger self.

The rest of the story is well documented in her books, talks and films. This Jane, far from stupid and wimpy, saves up enough money from waitressing to travel to Kenya by boat at the age of 23. She impresses the famous British archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey so much, he hires her on as an assistant. "I couldn't go to college because we didn't have enough money. And I was a girl so I couldn't go to Africa and do exciting things, that's what I was told by everybody. Except my mother who said if you really want something, work hard, take advantage of opportunity and you'll find a way. "

Goodall didn't just find a way, she blazed a trail. She introduced us to the world of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania. When that world was threatened, she became a conservationist, setting up an education program, Roots and Shoots, for young people all over the world, including right here in Canada. "If we can just get a critical mass of young people going out into the next adult generation, who do understand that we need money to live, but shouldn't live for money, who do respect life, who learn ways of dealing with conflict other than with guns and stones," she says.

It is this message that keeps her traveling about 300 days a year. She describes herself as a bird of passage to a home she co-owns with her sister in London, England: "If we don't do this, it's going to be too late, I'm serious."

A planet in peril. A consumeristic society. It's enough to weigh on the most optimistic of hearts.

Even Goodall admits that she sometimes loses sleep over such dire circumstances. But in the same way that there was never a voice to talk her out of getting on that boat to Kenya, there is no doubt in her mind that her work must continue. "The goals are so high that I won't reach them in my lifetime. But I always say, if you reach for the stars, you might get to the moon, if you reach for the moon, you might get to the top of Everest. You'll never quite reach your goals."