Small Miracles

My wife is a Principal at a York Region school.  She is a very good, hard working, dedicated and thoroughly professional educator. What she wants, more than anything, is for her students and staff to be successful in their teaching and learning. A principal, though, gets caught up in the administration cycle of putting out fires, and soothing ruffled feathers, and dealing with all the "stuff" that comes with managing and leading any large organization.

There are days when all she wants to do is teach again, to be that inspirational library teacher who fired up the passion in students to be excited about learning, and inspired teachers to grow through ongoing professional development. So this week she was overjoyed when she got to do that once again, in the form of a tiny insect egg case.

Every spring, when I work at Kortright Conservation Centre in Woodbridge, Ontario, I scour the dry grasses for praying mantis egg cases. Once you find one, you never forget the pattern of what you are looking for – a beige, oblong object about as big as an adult's thumb from the knuckle up. I describe it to students as looking for a little foam peanut in the grass.

The female mates in the late summer, eats the male for nutrition (nothing personal, it's all for the kids), lays her egg case on a plant stem, and dies. The little egg case lays unseen through the fall, and the winter snow, and, in the warmth of late spring, stirs to life. The young nymphs, dozens of them, chew their way out of the egg case and emerge as perfect tiny models of the adult. The young mantids will hang around the egg case for a while, often preying on each other, before moving out into the great meadow to live and die.

I bring home one egg case every spring, and put it in a ventilated insect container with a magnifier lid and wait. The other day, my wife heard her kindergarten students choral reading a poem about a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, and she told the students that she had a praying mantis egg case at home. Of course, they all wanted to see it, so that night she asked me if she could take it in to her school. As fate would have it, when we went to the back porch to check on it, the first nymphs were just emerging. Perfect timing!

The next day she took the egg case and container and magnifier into her school, and four classes of wide-eyed kindergarten children watched the miracle of life unfold as the tiny nymphs emerged. They were absolutely intrigued by the little mantids climbing up and falling off the stems and climbing up and falling off again, just like little toddlers learning to walk. One child commented, "I can't believe they look just like their mother!" Others just thought it was all so cool. All were mesmerized by these tiny insects and a new respect for ife emerged.

Like Barry Lopez once wrote, it's not the role of an adult to know it all. It's the role of an adult to affirm in the eyes of a child that this life around us in all its forms is all so cool. To see that look in the eyes of a child that says, "I did not know until now that I needed someone much older to confirm this, the feeling I have of life here. I can now grow older, knowing it need never be lost."

Well done, my love.

Skid Crease, Caledon

p.s. The nymphs are safely back home exploring our garden. Life is good.

The Rosy Periwinkle of Madagascar

In 1989, Skid launched Global Perspectives: the Periwinkle Project. Dr. Milton McClaren, Simon Fraser University, described Skid’s presentation as “one of the most powerful educational change catalysts in Canada.”  This is the story that began it all…

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I have been asked many times why I chose The Periwinkle Project for the title of the Global Perspectives Conference. In August of 1988, at the Choices for the Future Symposium in Denver, Colorado, Dr, Jay Hair, then president of the National Wildlife Federation, shared this moving and very personal story with his audience.  It is burned into my memory, like a heartbeat, and I remember every word like taking a breath. 

Jay had been delivering a passionate and humourous keynote to the conference delegates, when he suddenly stopped, became very quiet and took a deep breath. He looked up at the audience with tears in his eyes and said: I am going to share something that I have not shared in public before, but it is what drives me to do what I do to take care of this planet.

This is my retelling of Jay's story…

Just before school began in September of 1984, Jay's daughter, then nine years old, came to her father complaining about a painful growth in her groin area.  She was taken to the doctor who examined her and reported that there appeared to be no major concern; the growth was surgically removed. Jay's daughter did not get better, however, and was rushed to the hospital a short time later. She spent the next forty days, severely ill, under the care of Duke University's highly respected children's medical team. After another operation to take lung tissue samples for analysis, Jay was informed by the pediatric oncologist that they couldn't find any cancer related problems. On the next Monday in October, the doctors told Jay that his daughter had four days to live.

I remember his voice cracking as he said: You have no idea what it is like to hear those words spoken about your own daughter. And so for the next four days he kept vigil by her bedside, suddenly realizing what the most important thing in the world was to him, wondering how often he had been away from home campaigning to save the world when a little girl just wanted her daddy at home to say goodnight.

On Friday of that same week, the Duke medical team finally discovered the source of his daughter's illness – she had a very rare childhood blood cancer, T-cell lymphoma (at that time only two other cases had been reported in the U.S.A.). They told Jay they had been researching an experimental drug that might work on this cancer, and at the eleventh hour Jay gave them the go-ahead.

In 1988, Jays' daughter entered high school as a healthy young freshman. The drug that put her diseasse into remission was one of the cancer fighting alkaloids developed from the Rosy Periwinkle of Madagascar – a vincristine/vinblastine distillate. At the time Jay told his story, over 90% of the tropical rainforests of Madagascar had been destroyed, devastating the native habitat of the Rosy Periwinkle.

*****

When I first heard this story, I was struck by the paradox of the human condition. Just as that one tiny plant is now dependent on wise human stewardship for its survival, so are we dependent on that plant to save our lives. All things are truly connected, like the ripple of a butterflies wing through the universe. A species claiming such high levels of intelligence, yet bound on a course of global suicide makes absolutely no sense. Viewed from outer space, we must appear a parasitic growth on the surface of a once healthy cell in the cosmic bloodstream. Natural Earth cycles of greenhouse and ice-age, of biological explosions and extinctions are acceptable; deliberate acceleraton of these processes by a species claiming intelligent choice is unacceptable.

We desperately need to move beyond our anthropcentric view of the Earth, and develop a deep ethic through which we recognize the intrinsic value of all organisms on this planet regardless of the specific benefits to humankind. It is absolutely natural for humans to view this planet and its systems in terms of their own survival. While we can philosophize about spiritual planetary eco-relationships, in crisis we return to our basic needs as animals. We must come to terms with the fact that we need a healthy planet to survive. This planet, with all its wonderfully interconnected systems, will continue far beyond the abuses of humanity – but an enlightened and environmentally literate society will leave behind a much healthier planet, rich in biological and elemental diversity, to the generations of living things yet to come.

Thus, the selection of The Periwinkle Project as the title of my conferences and presentations. It reflects the fact that we cannot escape our humanity and our responsibility; it also acknowledges that we are interconnected and intedependent. Every system on this planet moves together into the third millenium. We alone have choices to make.

Skid Crease, Canada 1989

*****

I first wrote this 23 years ago, inspired by a wonderful educator named William Hammond. I would not change a word today. I remember after I printed off the first copy, I took out my Bruce Cockburn tape – I knew Bill would probably play Cat Stevens "Peace Train – and put on "If I had a Rocket Launcher."  Play it again, Sam.

Skid Crease, Caledon, 2012

Poscript: Dr. Jay Hair passed away in 2002 at the age of 56 from bone-marrow cancer. We accept the torch, and will carry on.

My Polar Bear

Yes, that is MY polar bear. I like to think of him as living out his life wild and free in the Arctic, but I know his fate has already been decided, and it will not be a pleasant ending.

My bear and I first met on an amazing summer Arctic expedition with Students on Ice. It was a fourteen day journey by sea on the S.S. Discovery, now resting forever in the icy waters of the Antarctic, with a team of seventy-five students and twenty-five scientists and educators to study the impact of climate change in the Arctic.  We traveled from Iceland to Greenland to Nunavut following the route of the early Viking explorers. It was a life changing experience for me.

One day, our incredible expedition leader, Geoff Green, motioned for me and Trevor Lush, one of our expedition photographers, to join him in a zodiac. The three of us snuck off to a remote bay where a polar bear had been sighted by one of the other zodiacs as they were returning to the ship. We kept our fingers crossed that the bear would still be there as we headed out to the bay.  It was a crystal clear day, a photographer's dream of primordial elementals fused together under a crystal arctic light.

The bear was asleep on the rocks when we approached, engine off, and drifted in. We stopped only a few metres away, cameras up and and ready. Not a sound, not a breath – this was probably as close as I would ever be to a polar bear in the wild, unless I was about to be ingested. The bear slowly pushed up onto his haunches and regarded us calmly, almost detached. Then he got up on all fours and moved to the water. He looked straight at each of us, looked around at the surrounding rock slopes, then put his head right under the water to check out the zodiac. My heart was pounding.

He pulled his head up and sat down, glanced at us again, and then turned and looked away, out to the open water. It was the most moving look I had ever seen in the eyes of an animal, almost meditative.  It was a look that seemed to say, "Listen to me. I am waiting for ice, I am waiting for seal, and I do not understand. I do not understand why home is changing so quickly, so I need you to understand for me.  I will not die here without my story being told. You are the storytellers – use your voices." It was a request whispered through the roots and the rhythms of life, a reminder of the connections that unite us all.

We backed away in silence and I was haunted. We left him alone on the shore still gazing off across the bay. Geoff explained on the way back to the boat that he was a young male, probably on a starvation fast. With the ice out so early and returning so late, there were no seals for him to hunt. He was too young to take on a walrus, and if he wandered into human habitation searching for garbage he would be shot.  Either way he was doomed, forced to wait until the late summer ice returned, and hope he had enough fat reserves to last him through the fast.  If the bay stayed ice free much longer, he would be another fur draped skeleton on the rocks by wintertime.

"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." Who speaks for bear, Dr. Seuss?

That is why my bear sits at the top of my webpage.  To remind me to use my voice.  To remind us that climate change is not a theory, that it is impacting our Arctic faster than anywhere else on Earth, and that the consequences of ignoring its rapid acceleration are the extinction of species. That is why I am so angry at our current governments for their absolute abdication of environmental responsibility in developing policies to deal adequately with accelerated climate change. My bear is our canary in the coal mine, and he is asking us for help.  To paraphrase my favourite story, "Unless people like us care a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not."

Come on Canada and the U.S.A., bear is waiting. What will it take to wake us up? Perhaps it's as simple as rediscovering our place in the universe. As the wonderful eco-theolgian Thomas Berry says in The Dream of the Earth:

"In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries. Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth's demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe."

Amen.

Skid Crease, Caledon

Photography by Skid Crease, Nunavut, 2005

FRACK OFF!

Just received an interesting e-mail from my “brotha from another motha” in California. My good friend Fritz expressed a concern over the fact that California’s drinking water is burning – not everywhere, but even a little drinking water that can be set on fire seems to be a focus point for concern.

It turns out that certain oil and gas companies have been fracking around with the ground water with impunity since 2005 in the U.S.A.  For those of us who aren’t famliar with fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, it involves forcing millions of gallons of water and a witches brew of chemicals into a natural gas well under high pressure. The pressure cracks open the surrounding shale and releases more natural gas.

The problem occurs when natural gas and fracking chemicals leak into drinking water aquifers above the shale beds. Now, previously all of this was covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. But not being a team to let anything slow down the profits for their buddies in the oil and gas industry, George and Dick went to work to bypass that pesky assurance that all Americans were entitled to clean drinking water free from contaminates.

And so they passed the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill in 2005, which basically exempted natual gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act and neutered the Environmental Protection Agency. (Canadians take note – this is exactly what the Harper government has just done with its changes to the Fisheries Act and the 2012 budget that gave the PM and cabinet retrocative veto powers over environmental audits that would slow down economic growth.) This bill, in honour of a really big Dick, is also known as the Halliburton Loophole.  Between this, and the reconstruction of Iraq, Halliburton made billions, and the U.S.A. ended up with a crushing debt load and bad drinking water.

So, my good friends and relatives to the south of my border (my mom was born in Jacksonville, Florida), if you value the rights and responsibilites that go along with access to clean, uncontaminated drinking water, I’d suggest you get out of the wagon and push for the immediate passage of the FRAC Act. This is a House bill designed to overturn the Halliburton Loophole, reinstate the powers of the EPA, and require responsible disclosure from the natural gas industry.

This is an issue that sweeps across the U.S.A. and Canada, and it is time to tell irresponsible politicians and industrialists to frack off – sort of like Peter Finch with his famous, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”   Take that, Dick!

 

Skid Crease, Canada

with thanks to Fritz Schautz, U.S.A.  – united we stand.