Mountain News: Mountainfilm recap 

The first time Greg Mortenson showed up at Telluride's Mountainfilm Festival, he slept in his car. That was in 1981, and the festival - which then was mostly about mountain climbing - was only three years old.

Mortenson returned again on Sunday, his "Three Cups of Tea" now a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for 174 consecutive weeks and his name known and respected by generals and diplomats alike. If there is an ugly American, his work to establish schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes him the handsome American, unstinting in generosity and intense with good purpose.

Yet, for all of Mortenson's good deeds, the war goes on and on, no resolution in sight. "How do you work through that paradox?" the New Yorker writer George Packer asked Mortenson before a packed convention hall adjacent to the ski slopes of Telluride.

In his answer, Mortenson laid bare one of many dualities present during the four days of films, talks, and concerts. "This is going to take a long time," said Mortenson, a one-time big-mountain climber now of Bozeman, Mont.

Mortenson explained that having spent much of his youth in Africa, where his father helped establish a hospital, he had absorbed the view of multi-generational change. That, he went on to say, will be true also in Afghanistan. And the key, he said, will be the burqa-clad women. Women, he said, nurture life.

Other activists at Mountainfilm this year were - and are - less patient. Such was the case of Ernest "Rip" Patton and other freedom riders of 1961. The freedom riders, both blacks and whites, boarded Greyhound buses together to challenge the Jim Crow laws that persisted. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1956 had struck down the pretense of separate but equal, but Alabama, Louisiana and other states continued to defy the law.

Sides of the Greyhound buses carried the company's ironic message about riding in comfort. Tense with expectations, the freedom riders found no comfort, only challenge. Schooled in Christian teachings and the non-violent protest of Gandhi, they were prepared for violence. All had previously signed their last wills and testaments. There was. A firebomb was thrown into the bus, and as the freedom riders fled the smoke, many were clubbed by the local Confederate flag-waving bigots.

Yet they continued on, prepared but committed. The freedom riders had already signed their last wills and testaments. They hoped to trigger federal intervention, but the Kennedys - Robert was the U.S. attorney general, and John was president - wanted the freedom riders to back off. John Kennedy was concerned about the Cold War, and the case would have eventually been won in the courts.

But Patton - who was 21 at the time and a student at Tennessee State - and the other freedom riders couldn't wait. "Being young - 21, 22, 23-year-olds - we said the courts take too long," said Patton, speaking to a breakfast meeting in Telluride on Monday.

After a tense standoff, the freedom riders ultimately forced the hand of Bobby Kennedy, who dispatched U.S. marshals, ensuring safety. They had achieved success, triggering involvement by others and, a few years later, Congressional passage of the landmark civil rights legislation. Seen from today, Patton - who is now 70 - can be seen as a hero.

How will Tim DeChristopher be seen in 49 years? Organizers of Mountainfilm provocatively paired DeChristopher with Patton, asking what contemporary climate change activists can learn from the civil rights movement?

As a 27-year-old college student, DeChristopher two years ago walked into a U.S. government auction for oil and gas leases. He thought he might yell out or throw a shoe, he thought.

He proved far more disruptive, bidding for and then winning the right to leases adjacent to Utah's Arches National Monument. He had no intention of paying for the leases and no means of doing so. Prior to his studies, he had been involved in conducting tours of wilderness in western Utah. He will be tried later this year.

DeChristopher said he was driven to resist continued development of carbon fuels, to make a statement about climate change. Like the freedom riders, he felt he could not wait for the plodding wheels of government action. The freedom riders "create social tensions that forced our leaders to make a choice," he said.

There are differences, of course. The freedom riders have federal law on their side. Laws to slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases are only now being worked out. The freedom riders drew strength from the black churches. Activists such as DeChristopher who strongly believe our actions dangerously imperil future generations remain more dispersed. "It has to come from the pulpit," said Patton.

Patton also said action must come from the heart, even if strategy gets plotted in the head. That was among many other dualities. One of the most striking was the contrast of hope and despair, many speakers and filmmakers saying that both must be present to spark action.

Among the most vivid images presented in Telluride was one of both beauty and horror. Artist Chris Jordan had studied what is called the Great Garbage Patch, a place in the Pacific Ocean that is the size of Texas or larger, where Bic lighters, bottle caps, and other detritus of plastic flotsam has collected. The plastic looks like food to the albatross on nearby Midway Island, who collect the items to feed to their chicks. The birds die on the beach, the bellies filled with colorful plastic. The flesh decayed, the images in the sand that Jordan presents are of feathers, beaks, and colorful plastic innards - images both beautiful and horrific.

A film about plastic, called "Bag It," won rave reviews at the film festival. You will hear about it again.

As for Mortenson, he revealed that he wasn't entirely comfortable with "Three Cups of Tea." He was, he reported, driven by both his publisher and his collaborator to cut corners of the story in order to heighten the drama. In his second book, "Stones into Schools," he was under no such pressure. The result, observed Packer, the New Yorker writer, was a book that was "less happy but more interesting."

"Three Cups" was written nine years ago, Mortenson said. "I've learned a lot since then."

And that was another of the dualities at Mountainfilm: the power of simple stories, the more tortured truth that becomes apparent to people as they age.

Listening to Mortenson, you can't help but feel that someday he will be granted a Nobel Peace Prize. But maybe not. He would seem to present an inviting target when in Asia. He deflects such suggestions, insisting that he feels more threatened when in the United States.

That may be so, said Packer, who himself as widely travelled and reported from Iraque, the Congo and other of the world's most volatile places. But he couldn't help but worry about his safety.



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