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.

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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

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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.