Telluride’s treasure trove

The Telluride Mountainfilm festival has expanded significantly in the 21 years of my acquaintance. There are more films, more speakers, more themes. Galleries in Telluride have been pressed into service, their wall space devoted to the photographs and photographers that have always been a part of the festival.

Attendance has also grown. Last year, 2,000 people participated, a 10 percent increase from the prior year. Too many shows were sold out: Ken Burns debuted his new series on the national parks, but only those willing to linger in lengthy lines saw them. To remedy that, a new venue has been added, to restore balance.

But if lines have grown, the level of intimacy remains extraordinary. Last year, I was in the second level of the Sheridan Opera House of the Saturday night show, one vacant seat next to me. That vacant seat was filled by a columnist for the New York Times, Nickolas Kristof, his young daughter bouncing on his knee. They had been out for a hike.

I obviously took note of having a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer next to me. But he didn’t act like he was anything special. And, in fact, he wasn’t necessarily the most interesting person there – at the festival, or even that night.

This year, Thomas Lovejoy will speak about the Holocene Extinction: Scientists estimate that half of all existing species on the planet will be gone by the end of the 21st century. They list it as the Earth’s sixth major extinction — but the first to be caused by humans.

Not since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago have we had an extinction of this magnitude, said David Holbrooke, the festival director. But not all is grim. He notes an enormous amount of exciting work being done to combat the crisis, much of which will be highlighted at Mountainfilm 2010.

Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., will be there – but to talk about her current project, called “What is Missing.” It, too, addresses the biodiversity loss.

The most interesting presentation last year may have come from somebody you’ve never heard of, and for which I have no more room to write. But that’s Mountainfilm – bereft of much pretension, full of surprises, and deeply satisfying for its broad world of ideas and its celebration of the indomitable spirit.

That’s why Greg Mortenson strikes me as the essence. He’s of the mountains, yes, but his indomitable spirit exemplifies the do-gooder impulse that underlies this festival. Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea, tells about being cared for by Pakistanis after his failed attempted to climb K2 and his mission to repay that debt by founding schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are now 55 schools.

I am excited at the prospect of a live conversation between Richard Holbrooke, America’s premier diplomat in that hardscrabble part of the world, and Mortenson, conceivably America’s most effective agent of foreign policy.

Mortensen is the optimistic agrarian, planting seeds of hope in the rural provinces of Pakistan and Afghanistan – essentially the same soil from which militant Islamism was nourished. What can constitute more indomitable human spirit that this venture? It’s big – bigger even than climbing the world’s highest, coldest, deadliest mountains.
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