November 24, 2006

There is nothing, perhaps, like a walk in the mountains to clear the head, ventilate the soul, and regain a balanced sense of perspective. In Telluride we are blessed with a virtual artery system of trails leading directly from town that, within minutes, deliver you into the rugged embrace of the mountains’ solitude.

One of the most popular trails, an up-and-back with a gentle gradient, is the Bear Creek Trail that comes to an end at the foot of the magnificent Bear Creek Falls. The trail slices south from town through soft spruce and aspen cover punctuated by patches of alpine meadow and bordered by stunning San Juan peaks, spires and pinnacles. The trail runs through land that was once sacred to the native Ute Indians and essentially bisects a 420-acre parcel that has been preserved in perpetuity as open space.

Having been laid low of late by the flu and still physically depleted by the experience, Bear Creek seemed a good option for me yesterday: a bracing walk, rather than a demanding hike, to help me start to regain my fitness.

Although it was Thanksgiving Day, and the ski mountain is officially open, the season in Telluride has not really started and the day, though mild, was gray and a little bleak so Bear Creek traffic was minimal.

I savored the long slow drawls of clean air that I pulled deliberately through my nose and exhaled from my mouth. I tried to keep my mind clear in a walking meditation but, of course, undisciplined and disparate thoughts regularly interrupted the brief interludes of calm.

One set of thoughts that I had trouble banishing was about sharks. The night before I had screened a film entry for our 2007 festival called Sharkwater. The film was written, directed and largely shot by Rob Stewart and it is a work of passion and devotion. It is also deeply alarming.

At the 2006 Mountainfilm festival we were lucky to have Mark Marks as a guest. Marks is a marine biologist whose special area of expertise is Great White Sharks. In fact, Marks swims with Great Whites. All sharks, according to Marks, can sense your state of emotion and, by training himself to stay calm, keeping his blood pressure low, he has learned how to be in the open water with them without undue risk.

Marks says that sharks, especially Great Whites, are the most misunderstood species on the planet. Quite the opposite of the stereotyped deadly predators, the relentless killing machines portrayed by the media, Marks contends that sharks are highly cognizant social animals that are integrally in tune with their environment and almost categorically unlikely to attack humans.

In his film, Stewart strongly supports these points. Fascinated by sharks since his childhood, Stewart became increasingly alarmed by public misperception of one of our world’s most ancient and successful inhabitants. He was astounded, too, by the horrific slaughter that annually kills as many as one hundred million sharks of all species, mostly to supply the trillion dollar market for shark fins, centered largely in southeast Asia and, most notably, in Hong Kong.

That slaughter has served to decimate the world’s shark population. As the top ocean predators, sharks essentially control their ecosystems. As they become increasingly eradicated, those ecosystems quickly spin out of balance.

That is all worrying enough but perhaps even more alarming is the barbarity by which the sharks (and myriad other species including sea turtles) are caught on hooked long-lines and then butchered for their fins. Their carcasses, often still twitching in their death throes, are dumped back overboard to sink bloodily to the ocean floor where they will be eaten alive by other fish.

Also deeply disturbing is the fact that there is no international agency or body set up to protect sharks.

As with so much of what’s wrong with the world, the source it seems of so much suffering and injustice, lies ignorance, and fear. And, of course, excessive love of money.

The Buddhist – or the nihilist – in me argues that thus the world has always been and thus it always will be: that it is ultimately feckless to try to fundamentally counter or correct what is wrong with the world.

And yet, I cannot help but fervently applaud people like Rob Stewart who take enormous risks and make huge personal sacrifices to try to right manifest wrongs such as the atrocity of shark finning. And Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepard and a founder of Greenpeace, who is featured in Stewart’s film and in it succinctly sums up Man as ‘an out-of-control primate.’

Reaching Bear Creek Falls, I stand in rapt wonder of the blue-hued beauty of its largely frozen flow, a sculpted panorama of crystalline relief that is alive with light and sound. I close my eyes and shut out images of maimed sharks and desperately greedy shark fin merchants. I meditate on the courage and honor and heroism of people like Stewart and Watson and Marks and all the other countless individuals who strive daily to steer this planet away from its excesses and evils and toward equity and balance.

I think of the Utes who lived in harmony with their environment and held it sacred.

I breathe deeply of the ions released by the waters of Bear Creek that are not yet frozen and still sluice freely over the rock and ice face of the falls.

I give thanks for all that is good in life and pray for strength to fight and resist all that is bad.

For further information on sharks and shark finning, visit www.sharkwater.com, and www.seashepard.org.

Advertisements