TELLURIDE – A new documentary about Hunter S. Thompson was shown last weekend at Mountainfilm at Telluride, and I suppose I should have gone. His writing had influenced me, and even if he didn’t necessarily know my name, I think my writings influenced him.
You see, I had a role in his suicide three years ago. Once he was sure that his life had lost purpose and meaning, he decided to kill himself. The only question was when.
Then he saw something I had written about the long-ago suicide of Ernest Hemingway, one of his heroes. That story, from Ketchum, Idaho, tripped Thompson’s trigger – literally. Do I have any evidence of this? Only circumstantial. Some things in life you accept on faith. For me, this is one of them.
I didn’t see the Thompson movie in Telluride. I did, however, see many people who influence me now, as I try to chart my path from middle age forward. One of those quietly stirring speakers was a woman, Sylvia Earle. She has been called “her highness of the deep.” She has always been fascinated by oceans – which, she pointed out, have seas of mountains, nearly all of them uncharted.
Earle caused me to think of this alien world of deep water very differently. Spending time at depth, she said, you come to realize that no two creatures – no two jellyfish, no two sponges, no two tuna – are alike. No two spots are alike, no two sets of eyes. They are, like all of us, different.
Seeing creatures with such intimate detail makes you care more deeply about their continued survival as a species. The oceans, said Earle, are being overfished.
Then came her rear-end kicker: You should not, she said, eat orange roughy, or tuna.
“We think that just because there’s no law against it, that it’s OK. You want other people to do your thinking for you. But it doesn’t always happen. You are responsible for your own actions.”
That message was a chorus this year at Mountainfilm. Maybe it was always there and this is the first time I heard it. But none said it in such galvanizing fashion as this hunch-shouldered woman – apparently the victim of osteoporosis – who is now 72, or five years older than when Thompson committed suicide.
That message was inherent in the story told by John Francis that same evening at the Sheridan Opera House. Francis was in San Francisco in 1971 when a huge oil spill jarred his world. That misfortune caused him to realize own complicity in environmental degradation. And so he began walking – first in his neighborhood, then across the country to his native Philadelphia, but also first to a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and Ph.D. For 17 years, he got about only by walking, refusing offers of rides.
More alien yet, he did not talk for 22 years. He wanted, he told us, to learn how to listen.
Being a large black man walking across a nation mostly of white people, he stood out anyway. Then, not talking…
One step at a time, he said.
The most famous step of all may be the giant one on Mt. Everest, just short of the summit, handhold steep and exposed to a glacier 10,000 feet below. It’s called the Hillary Step, after Sir Edmund, who died in January. A short film honoring Hillary was shown before many sessions, and IMAX cinematographer and two-time Everest climber David Breashears presided over a special remembrance. Hillary, he said, achieved distinction, then used his considerable fame during the rest of his life to enhance the lives of the Sherpa people who lived at the mountain’s base.
The Sherpas – a group of people, only some of whom were porters – in turn called Hillary the Great One.
Two of Hillary’s quotes resonated: “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things – to compete,” he said. “You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated.”
Thus, even an ordinary beekeeper from New Zealand could become, with Tenzing Norgay (whose son spoke at Mountainfilm), the first human to climb the world’s highest mountain.
And, “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.”
The Dalai Lama deserves mention in any discussion of extraordinary. He is, by some of his followers, believed to be a deity from birth. Yet he is also above all a pragmatist. Helping lend insight into the Dalai Lama at Mountainfilm was Pico Iyer, a travel writer who, by quirk of family connections, has known the Dalai Lama since the early 1950s when the young Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Their relationship is such that Iyer had, on at least one occasion, turned to the religious leader for advice about family relations. Imagine having the Dalai Lama as your own personal Dear Abby.
What was striking about the Dalai Lama is his measured response. He is not an ideological purist, even in regards to his own Tibet. He sees the future of Tibet being not aloof to China, any more than a left arm is apart from the right. All those “Free Tibet” bumper stickers that you see? You get the sense that the Dalai Lama would smile indulgently – but then question your real work, your real goal.
He exhorts followers to work hard, with vision and self-confidence. Prayer alone is not enough. Life is of action, of engagement, of doing.
But some times are better for action than others. Iyer did mention that the Dalai Lama sees a window of opportunity coming in the China-Tibet imbroglio, a time when the relationship can be resolved peacefully.
Mention was made often at Mountainfilm this year of windows – as in opportunity. I was particularly struck by the observations of James Balog, a geologist by training who adopted photography as his vocation. Perhaps you saw the commemorative stamps of endangered species several years ago? Those were his photographs.
About the turn of the century, said Balog, he remained skeptical about the computer models predicting dire consequences from accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. Then new evidence emerged in the form of ice core data over the last 450,000 years. The story told within the molecules of those eons showed just how unusual the carbon dioxide accumulations of the present are.
For Balog, that did it. Climate change became his issue, and through his photos of shrinking glaciers he has helped persuade what now seems to be a strong minority verging on a majority that this is a crisis for civilization.
What frightens Balog, and many climate scientists, is that most glacial areas are shrinking far more rapidly than predicted by the computer models. Compounding the concern are the various feedback loops that are likely to further accelerate the warming – and then the glacial melt, with repercussions worrisome and worsening.
Balog’s current project has him sleeping restlessly in tents atop glacial ice in Greenland and elsewhere. With a team of photographers, he is seeking to relapse the recession of glaciers with time-lapse photography, hourly for several years, coupled with continuous movies at a few key places.
Will this visual evidence provide the Pearl Harbor moment that is needed to unleash the decisive action? The U.S. doddered for months and years as Hitler’s Nazis marched through Europe. It took a debacle before the U.S. fully engaged. Thoughtful, aware people are girding for a similar engagement, but this time the enemy is not a totalitarian government run amok in racial and nationalistic hubris. The enemy is, as Pogo said, ourselves.
There are, said Balog, several potential Pearl Harbors found in the planet’s rapidly melting ice.
With one child that is now only 7, Balog said he is painfully aware of the irresponsibility of handing off an environmental problem of this dimension to the next generation to solve – if, in 30 years, it remains even solvable. He and many others think we have a brief window of opportunity of maybe 10 years.
Where is the hope? That question was also asked often at Mountainfilm.
Balog said he sees hope in the basic DNA of the human species. We have a primordial drive to survive as a species, and that instinct he hopes will finally drive a meaningful response to our global air pollution.
And that response will be, as in Hillary’s climb up the world’s tallest mountain, one step at a time, halting in places but driven by Hillary’s wisdom that ordinary chaps, sufficiently motivated, can do extraordinary things.
That was the same message from Justin Clifton, an organizer of Mountainfilm. The challenge of global warming can be so overwhelming that it’s possible to lapse into non-action – the opposite of the life urged by the Dalai Lama.
Instead of being seen as one giant math problem, said Clifton, global warming should be seen as small math problems, to be solved one by one.
And to illustrate that, he asked for promises from the crowd about what they will be doing. It was a revival-tent type of atmosphere, a little uncomfortable for a journalist like myself, powered more by the head than the heart. But yet, there is meaning, and value, in such public pledges. The forest is made up of individual trees. Individual actions, and votes, do make a difference.
We are all one within small villages – even in big cities. That was the story from Laurie Garrett, who has won more big-ticket journalism prizes (Pulitzer, Peabody, etc.) than anybody around for her reports about public health.
But global warming is the ultimately public health issue. Garrett explained how she and other activists living in an old Brooklyn hotel now called St. George Condominiums have set out to reduce or even eliminate the carbon emissions caused by their heating and electrical use. It is, she said, a village effort. The complex has 490 residents in a city of 8 million people. Nor, for that matter, is there a simple band-aid solution. But they believe it’s possible – one project at a time.
And so, I ask myself anew: What is my role in this as one who is influenced and, because of my writing, has power to influence? I have a window of opportunity. I am 56, somewhat compromised physically, but still vigorous in my power of writing and observation.
Will I be like Hunter Thompson or Sylvia Earle? What will be my role in this window of time – and what will yours?
“Well, we knocked the bastard off,” were the first words of Hillary after returning from the summit of Everest.
As for global warming, maybe we can knock off the bastard, too, ordinary chaps though we may be.