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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Save The Planet, Save Your Ass (Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2012

The March issue of Men’s Health features my article on why guys should care more about the natural world.  My working title was “Biodiversity for Guys,” and then, “Manhood, Naturally.”  But I think MH writes better headlines (above) than me.  I’ll post the article in sections over the next few days.  Here’s the opener:

Hahn

David Hahn was a couple of years out of college, working gigs as a piano player and dreaming about someday making it to Broadway, when he noticed the first ten pounds come off his waistline.  “I was working out, and it was suddenly like I was doing all the right things.  I started giving people dietary advice.”  But the weight kept dropping away.  “When you lose 30 pounds and you’re not trying that hard, you start to think, ‘Wait a minute, something’s going on here.’”

Doctors diagnosed everything from allergies to tropical infection.   Then a CAT scan brought the problem into terrifying focus:  “I had a giant tumor in the middle of my chest, wrapped around my aorta, my heart, spine, and lungs.  They showed me the picture, and I thought, ‘Damn.’”  Lymphoma.  “I was 24.  Nobody gets cancer at 24.”

Though he did not know it at the time, his survival now depended on “this little pink flower” from halfway around the world.  Doctors started him on six months of chemotherapy, and it felt like there was nothing on God’s green earth remotely natural about it.

His regime was called ABVD, with the D standing, he says, for “I forget, something nasty.”  But A and B are both drugs derived directly from bacteria in the natural world.  (One strain was developed from a soil sample taken from the grounds of a thirteenth century Italian castle.)  The V is vinblastine, from that little pink flower.   Sometime in the 1950s, researchers from the drug company Eli Lilly began studying the rosy periwinkle in Madagascar, where it is endangered in the wild because of massive deforestation.  It led to two drugs, vincristine and vinblastine, and they gave life back to people facing diseases that until then were routinely fatal–leukemia and lymphoma.

Hahn was like a lot of guys I talked with in the course of researching this story:  They ate healthy, they worked out, they thought happy thoughts.  Then one day they woke up with nightsweats, a lump, a cough that wouldn’t go away.  If they were lucky enough to survive, they tended to thank their doctors or the drug companies.  Hardly any of them thought, “Whoa, that’s weird:  The natural world just saved my life.”

Maybe nobody thinks it because we take the natural world for granted.  Plants and animals do great things for us all the time, even when we are perfectly healthy:   The very air we breathe depends on biodiversity:  Prochlorococcus, an ocean-dwelling bacteria that was completely unknown until the 1980s, produces about 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen.  Trees and other plants do the rest.

And when we’re sick?  That flower didn’t just save Hahn’s life.  It also turned around his career:  “I kind of wanted to make a go of the Broadway thing before cancer, but I just didn’t have the guts to do it,” he says.  Then, in chemo, “I was like–you know what, man?–if I’m going through all this to save my life, I’m going to have a life that’s worthwhile.”   He’s now on Broadway, playing piano for Harry Connick Jr., in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”

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