August 27, 2005

Timothy Treadwell: the Grizzly Man

A little while ago I said I needed to say a few things about the Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in Alaska. The film is full of Treadwell's footage of bears, so of course I recommend it highly. How can you resist a good bear movie? On the other hand, the film is mostly about Treadwell, and as a documentary about a rather extraordinary human being, I wasn't ready to give it the thumbs-up. After listening carefully to the arguments in Grizzly Man (and to Herzog's credit the film makes these arguments explicit) that Treadwell was a well-meaning but deeply misguided and confused man, I felt like I needed a second opinion. What I wanted was for Jon Krakauer to write the same kind of book about Treadwell as he did about that other controversial fellow who met his death in Alaska, Chris McCandless.

Sadly, there's no Timothy Treadwell book from Krakauer yet, but there is a fair bit of stuff on the internet. It ranges from the angrily contemptuous ("it’s simultaneously nauseating and mind-blowing to see a human being with so little regard for his own life and so little respect for the animals he claims to love") to the respectfully deferential ("Timothy proved, like we have, that there's a lot more room for bears in our world").

Reasonable people can differ about Treadwell, but I think some of the charges against him are plainly wrong. First, the claim that Treadwell just didn't know how dangerous bears really were seems absurd. He repeatedly emphasized that what he was doing was very dangerous. He routinely pointed out that any of these bears might decide at any time to kill and eat him. When he was in a particularly self-aggrandizing state of mind, Treadwell did claim to be a "gentle warrior" with an expert knowledge of how to avoid bear attacks. If this is an exaggeration, it's not much of one. He lived among grizzlies for thirteen years without being attacked -- surely he had accumulated some kind of expertise at staying alive. At the very least, it does seem odd to credit the criticism of people who've spent far less time with bears than Treadwell did. Relative to most of us, Treadwell had all the expertise.

I also don't agree with the argument that Treadwell was actively suicidal. If he was, then so is virtually everyone who engages in high-altitude mountaineering, where the chances of dying on each climb are real and significant. Good climbers die on a regular basis trying to climb K2, but somehow we seem to want to glamorize their deaths, and not condemn them as freaks like many of us condemn Treadwell. We forgive climbers their dangerous activities on the grounds that they just love the kind of life that requires taking big risks. No reason we shouldn't do the same for Timothy Treadwell.

In my opinion, a much more successful criticism of Treadwell is that he made it more dangerous for the rest of us by conditioning bears to human beings. By actively seeking close contact with grizzlies, Treadwell helped to break down the bears' natural wariness of people that we all depend upon when we travel in Alaska. But even though this argument makes intuitive sense, I'm not sure how true it is. We're still just assuming (without any real evidence) that Mr. Chocolate or Cupcake or any of Treadwell's bears would be less reluctant to approach humans other than Treadwell. I'm not aware of any evidence for this, and until I see some, this criticism is (at most) tentative and provisional.

But all of these arguments are just beating around the bush. The real question that Grizzly Man poses is why people's reactions to Treadwell, positive or negative, are so strong and passionate. The people that criticize Treadwell seem to really loathe him, and his supporters seem to love him. Why?

At one point in the movie, Werner Herzog says bluntly that he disagrees with Treadwell's view of the universe as essentially harmonious and full of love. Herzog says instead that he believes the universe to be a place of chaos and brutal violence. Whoa! Those seem to me like fundamentally opposed and irreconcilable philosophical positions, dude. Reasonable people can disagree about what behaviors are too risky, but disagreements about the fundamentals of life can start wars. Killing unborn fetuses is wrong -- or not. Human freedom can only thrive in the free market -- or else the unregulated marketplace will eventually enslave us to the few lucky oligarchs that win the game.

Folks who subscribe to Treadwell's view of life would probably see his life as a powerful argument for their own position. For a man to live so close to powerful and dangerous grizzlies for thirteen years demonstrates that when you send out love, you get love back. Even from wild carnivores. (Sure, he was eaten by a bear, but it was an old, starving bear that Treadwell didn't know very well.)

On the other hand, folks who side with Herzog about the fundamental violence of the universe would probably think Treadwell's story proves the exact opposite. The naive nature-boy was destined to die, because bears can't love anyone and are only willing to let you alone when they're well-fed, and then only sometimes. (The fact that it took Treadwell thirteen years to be killed and eaten just means he was extraordinarily lucky.)

Of course, most of us probably believe that the universe is a kind of place somewhere between the two extremes described by Treadwell and Herzog. For us, it's obvious that both men's views are so extreme that we wonder how either of them can possibly say the things they do with a straight face. We sit in the theater, incredulous at some of Treadwell's more utopian pronouncements, and then our jaws drop open when we hear Herzog's equally extreme pronouncements from the opposite side.

Grizzly Man provokes such passionate responses because it addresses fundamental views about the universe, and it provokes passion from everyone for different reasons. Bottom line, it's not about the bears. It's about whether you're a blue-stater or a red-stater, philosophically speaking.

Ok, maybe I misspoke. This movie has bears in it, so it is very much about bears. (By definition, if there's a bear in a movie, it's a bear movie.) We all owe Treadwell thanks for his spectacular footage of grizzly bears, which is just the best I've seen. None of his detractors would ever have the guts (or the lack of sense) to get these kind of shots.

The controversy surrounding Treadwell's sanity could have a profound impact on the way human beings deal with grizzly bears. Bear enthusiast Doug Peacock has pointed out that public policy towards bears is often made on the basis of a single case of predation. If the "only safe bear is a dead or absent bear" view wins out, we might be a bit more careful about staying out of the bears' way, and/or we might be more eager to kill them wherever they still lurk. If Treadwell's story inspires us to think about bears more as fellow-travelers than as wilderness monsters, we might be more willing to protect their habitat in the lower 48 states where they still live, but we might also become more careless in bear country. The publicity surrounding this movie will almost guarantee that Treadwell's story will lead to some policy changes.

Doug Peacock's response to Timothy Treadwell's life and death seems to me to the most sane response I'm aware of. Treadwell's death isn't shocking; he did live right on top of the the bears. His research and his film footage, though, will probably turn out to be enormously helpful for understanding wild grizzlies better. It would be a shame if Treadwell's death increases the influence of those whose idea of good wilderness management means reducing all risk to a minimum by keeping people and wildlife entirely separate. A little risk is good for us. A little loss of control. As Peacock sums it up, "Timothy Treadwell was not in control: [h]e had a great run of luck that lasted more than a decade, and it ran out. In the grizzly business, it happens.

Posted by Carey at 08:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 26, 2005

Things could be worse

Embattled Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose approval ratings have sunk to a lowly (for him) 53%, can still count his blessings.

After all, things could be worse. I mean, imagine if he'd lied to the American people about Iraq's WMDs, constantly referred to the nation being "at war" as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, and yet despite the war had still chosen to take more weeks of vacation this summer than the most laid-back law students working grossly-overpaid and cushy Biglaw jobs. If he'd done that, his approval ratings might be even lower.

Posted by Carey at 10:52 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 24, 2005

F as in Fat

Once again this year, the Trust for America's Health has released a state-by-state study of obesity in America, called "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America."

Just like last year, Colorado is the least obese state. It's also the least fat state, when you combine the percentage of obese and overweight people together. Presumably this is due in part to Coloradans' higher level of physical activity, although the study doesn't try to explain each state's ranking.

Mississippi is the fattest state, and every Southern state except Florida is among the fattest in the country. Florida is ranked 38th. Again, the study doesn't presume to explain this, but most readers might reasonably conclude that culture is part of it: sedentary habits are less frowned upon in the South than they are in Colorado.

However, Colorado shouldn't pat itself on the back too much over this. It, along with 48 other states, are fatter than they were last year (Oregon is the only state that stayed the same). As the study points out, there are plenty of ways that state governments can act to combat obesity, but most states aren't doing very much. They're not doing much to fight suburban sprawl, or to close the urban grocery gap, or to ensure that school lunches are nutritious.

If we weren't all collectively paying for the obesity epidemic in higher health care costs, I suppose we could forgive state governments (like Colorado's) for acting as if this were all just a matter of the free market -- people like the suburbs, they prefer to drive instead of walk, and they want to sit on their ass all day watching TV and eating potato chips. But of course obesity and related conditions like diabetes affect all of us, and appropriately so. We all pay higher health care fees, taxes, and insurance premiums to ensure that the obese among us are treated when they suffer heart attacks or when their blood sugar gets out of control. That's why they call us a civilized society, as opposed to a barbaric one.

States very much ought to be in the business of reducing the rates of obesity by encouraging people to get off their ass. They could start by encouraging the creation of neighborhoods where people can walk to stores that sell healthy food, rather than encouraging developers to build thousands of homes that are many miles and several eight-lane highways away from the nearest Wal-Mart. Shit, if I lived in one of those neighborhoods I'd find it hard not to slowly blimp up, too. We shouldn't have to depend on just the willpower of hundreds of millions of Americans to lose weight.

Governments need to get up off of their ass just like the rest of us, and stop pretending that this public health crisis is an unavoidable consequence of "free markets" or worse, a reward for our high standard of living. These days, the poorest of us, who are least able to enter the market and buy health-club memberships and $3000 racing bicycles, are the fattest people around. They're often subject to government policies that lead to inadequate education and limit their food choices to highly-processed swag. They aren't victims, and they're responsible for their own cable-TV-watching habits, but just like the rest of us they have to live in a community that makes some choices seem easier than others.

The problem is, our community has collectively decided to encourage behavior that leads to obesity. That's why we're a nation of porkers. Colorado shouldn't pat itself on the back just because a whole lot of runners, cyclists, kayakers, and climbers with a little extra cash decided that dry air, bright sunshine, and big mountains made it a good state to live in.

Posted by Carey at 09:31 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 23, 2005

The Legendary Matt Carpenter

Some of you may have heard of Lance Armstrong. In fact, most of you have probably heard of him, which is kind of surprising given the fact that Armstrong's sport, road cycling, is so unpopular in this country that most of you probably haven't heard of Eddy Merckx. (Don't worry; he's only the most legendary cyclist who ever lived.)

There are other obscure sports with legends that you may not have heard of. For example, mountain trail running.

In Colorado, they run an ascent and a marathon every year on the trail that climbs 14,110 ft. Pikes Peak. A runner named Matt Carpenter has dominated these races, winning the marathon six times, the ascent five times, and setting the course records for the ascent (2:01:06) and the marathon (3:16:39). Carpenter is the only runner ever to win both the ascent and the marathon on consecutive days in the same year (2001).

This year was the 50th anniversary of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. Carpenter didn't win, but that's only because he didn't enter. Instead, Carpenter had set his sights on a new challenge. He was in Leadville for a 100-mile trail race appropriately called the Leadville Trail 100. When he first ran the race last year, he was way ahead of everyone after 75 miles when he got leg cramps and ended up finishing 14th.

Now, no legend is ever going to be satisfied with 14th place, even if he's a really nice guy like Matt Carpenter. Sure, he had an excuse -- he wasn't used to competing at that distance. But excuses are not for legends.

So this year, Matt Carpenter went back to Leadville and did this.

For those of us who like to make analogies to athletes in other sports: is Carpenter a legend in the mold of Armstrong (dominating one major race like no one else), or is he more in the mold of Merckx (capable of winning every kind of event, at every kind of distance)? The only thing that isn't in any doubt is that Carpenter is trail running's fastest legend of all.

Posted by Carey at 01:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 21, 2005

Back in Ann Arbor

My time in Colorado is never quite enough to do everything I want to do. A few more breakfasts at Wades, a few more beers with friends from med school, and a few more trail runs would all have been nice. Maybe a few more days in the backcountry, hoping to see the elusive "bear" that I'm always looking for but seem to never see.

Nevertheless, it's good to be back in Ann Arbor. I'll be working on my journal's orientation program, catching up on email from friends, plotting my latest career moves,* and working on papers I need to finish. Basically, living the enjoyable life of a third-year law student.

One of the things I need to do is write a little about Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man, the one about the guy who was eaten by a grizzly bear in Alaska. There's a few things I want to say about Timothy Treadwell, but all that will have to wait just a little bit longer. Right now, it's time for a beer, a book, and some sleep.
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* About which, more later...

Posted by Carey at 10:47 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 15, 2005

"Fun" in the mountains

Since I wasn't struck dead by lightning today, tomorrow I'm heading off on an expedition to the Flat Tops Wilderness with my H-Dogg.

This time, I promise to bring my evil battery-eating camera to heel. I will return with pictures for my blog...

Posted by Carey at 10:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 13, 2005

Lost Creek Wilderness

My backcountry trip to the Lost Creek Wilderness was amazing. Amazing because I'd lived so close to that area for so long and I'd never been there. Not that I expect to have been everywhere near Colorado Springs that's mountainous and beautiful (you could probably explore for a lifetime and not exhaust all the terrain), but this was a spectacular area full of granite cliffs and lush forests and open meadows. You'da thought I'd have been there a lot already.

There were only two disappointments on this trip. First, I didn't take any pictures because my camera batteries were kaput. Second, we didn't see any bears at all. Not even one. But we did see a beaver, twice. (Or maybe it was two different beavers--they all look the same to me.)

Posted by Carey at 11:57 AM | Comments (1)

August 07, 2005

Into the mountains

I'm taking off today for five days in the Lost Creek Wilderness with some friends from medical school. I'll take pictures.

(The "Colorado locator map" on the linked page is wrong. The wilderness is to the southwest of Denver, not Colorado Springs.)

Posted by Carey at 11:49 AM | Comments (3)

August 06, 2005

Role models

I just got back from seeing March of the Penguins, which I thought was an amazing and beautiful film. These penguins endure so much hardship to make sure their chicks are born and survive long enough to return to the sea that we humans can't help but respect them. These filmmakers obviously respect their subjects, and probably love them a little, too.

Vast numbers of penguins seem swallowed up by the hugeness of the harsh antarctic environment, but they're persistent and they stick together so that they can survive. Human behavior is usually more varied than penguin behavior, but when humans are at their best, they can sometimes act just like penguins do. Maybe that's why I shouldn't be surprised that so many scenes in this film reminded me of a Ted Nasmith painting of Fingolfin leading the elves across the frozen wastes of the Helcaraxë:


We humans can choose to act nobly or venally, but it's easier to be noble if we have role models, like Tolkien's elves. Or emperor penguins.

Posted by Carey at 12:17 AM | Comments (0)

August 05, 2005

News Flash

Julie Saltman has catblogged.

Posted by Carey at 08:36 PM | Comments (0)

August 04, 2005

Ridiculous drug war

Before we start to wring our hands about police insensitivity to cultural and language problems in a sting operation called Operation Meth Merchant that nabbed 44 indian-immigrant convenience store clerks in Georgia, we ought to ask ourselves -- again -- whether this war on drugs is doing more harm than good.

The operation was designed to enforce a federal law making it a crime to distribute any product with knowledge or with reasonable cause to believe that that product will be used to produce drugs. 21 U.S.C. 843(a)(6-7). Convenience store clerks, most of whom presumably do not harbor any aspirations of becoming police officers (or drug dealers), can be locked up for terms in excess of ten years because they sold legal products with legal uses to their customers, and didn't concern themselves enough with what the customers were going to do with these legal products after they left the store.

That's draconian on two levels. It harshly penalizes clerks when they merely do their own jobs, and don't try to do the jobs of DEA agents without pay. It's also draconian for customers, many of whom would like to be able to buy some cold medicine and some kitty litter without the sales clerk wondering what they're going to be doing with such suspicious products. "One's for my nose, and the other's for my cat's shit" is what I'd say if anyone asked. Or, better yet, "it's none of your business. What are you, DEA?"

The drug warriors will always tell you that methamphetamine is dangerous, and that it's bad for you. But the drug warriors can't seem to realize that this doesn't justify limitless law enforcement intrusion into other areas of our lives. So let's not be distracted by the cultural issues here. Even if all of the Operation Meth Merchant perps were white guys named Floyd from Atlanta, this sting operation and the law it was designed to enforce would still be a problem.

Posted by Carey at 10:12 AM | Comments (2)