Barefoot, hair flowing to his waist, he stood on a red circle of carpet on the Center Theater stage.
“Imagine, all the good in this world is transient, all the evil in this world is transient,” said Kealoha, a Hawaiian slam poet.
From robotic prosthetics research to Tehran, the speakers at TEDx Jackson Hole took the sell-out crowd at the Center for the Arts through a variety of manifestations of the night’s theme: metamorphosis. Some stories were of societal transformation, others deeply personal.
“When I was 6 years old I heard people in the streets screaming ‘Death to America!’” said Jahanara, a filmmaker from Iran who lives in Salt Lake City and whose grandmother was American. “My sister and I joined them, but our father stopped us and told us that chanting that means death to our grandmother.”
The moment, jarring for a 6-year-old, humanized Americans for Jahanara at a time when Iran was hostile to them. Using that moment as a fulcrum, the filmmaker told her story of emigration, of coming to America to learn to make films. And she used it to challenge audience members to consider their own assumptions.
Examination of one’s values permeated many of the talks, from Mary Neal describing her spiritual and religious transformation following a near-death experience to John Kerr talking about how he navigated his retirement from WGBH in Boston, becoming a seasonal park ranger in Yellowstone National Park.
“Put everything you’ve done in the rearview; look out the windshield,” he said. “Make a pledge to never use the word ‘retire.’”
Some of the presenters, like Jewels Rossalini-Coker, the CEO of a blockchain company, seemed like natural speakers, but others, whose work may not often put them in front of large crowds, did not. Enter the TEDx organizers.
“Each speaker gets a team of coaches,” said Lisa Samford, who heads the conference organizing committee.
The work paid off, with the speakers filling their 15-minute slots with compelling testimony of the power of their particular expertise. Coker explained how blockchain technology, what the layperson may think of as Bitcoin, can be used to create digital identities to protect people from human trafficking, while Dr. Chris Duncan spoke about his work building robotic appendages for amputees and those born without hands.
In a night filled with amazement, Tom Mangelsen wrung the most emotion from the crowd. He told the origin story of his conservation philosophy, which started when the traps he set to capture raccoons to sell for the fur maimed but didn’t kill a raccoon — twice.
That set him on the path to photograph, not hunt, wild animals. His most famous subject is grizzly 399. He spoke of the bear fondly, of watching her litters romp in Grand Teton National Park and the tragic feeling of seeing her mourn a cub struck by a car on the highway to Yellowstone.
Mangelsen choked up as he thanked the crowd, engendering a nearly standing ovation before filmmaker Taylor Rees came out. She told about filming a mountaineering trip when she was left at base camp with sherpas for two weeks without any shared language. They found that song and communal experiences, like yoga, were their only ways to connect. To demonstrate the power of song she brought out a special guest, her dog, Baloo.
“Let’s all sing with him,” Rees said.
With that, she howled, and the assembled followed suit, filling the Center with a wolf song.