Food for thought for the soul 

If you don’t already know how to get in touch with it, a soul can be a difficult thing to find, particularly in a resort town full of seasonal workers, part-time residents, vacationers and full-time residents who may spend months out of town.

Finding the soul of a town that has changed and grown as rapidly as Whistler is not a simple task. Whistler faces dozens of issues – as do most towns, it only seems like Whistler’s are all immediate and critical. But issues aside, it is the people who define a place. Even if a place is known for its physical surroundings, the landscape doesn’t define the town, it defines its people – it is reflected in its people.

Pythia Peay, writing in the February Utne Reader, discusses soul in relation to cities, an idea she says was common among the ancient Romans, who believed in the special spirit of a place, and indeed was common to most Western cultures up until the age of Enlightenment.

Peay set out to find the soul of her own adopted city, Washington, D.C., and came up with six tasks to aid her quest. Step one is to unearth the original landscape. The essence of a place is closely tied to its landscape and often goes some way to explaining how settlement came about at a particular location.

Whistler’s landscape has been severely altered but it hasn’t been buried. It is still the high point of the pass between Squamish and Pemberton, a valley full of lakes and streams that flow both north and south. Understanding this goes some way toward Peay’s second directive: steep yourself in history. A town’s history reveals something of its intrinsic nature. Whistler’s lakes and streams were an important part of the valley’s beginnings as a fishing resort. As the focus switched to logging, saw mills were built on the edges of the lakes, where logs could be floated to the mills. The PGE Railroad got the milled lumber to market.

Whistler’s development as a ski area is a fascinating, complicated piece of history in itself, but obviously the landscape was fundamental to that part of that story.

Peay’s third principle of finding a town’s soul is: stoke your imagination. "In some way, great cities are created by the artists who render them immortal as much as by the planners, construction workers and business leaders who build them." she writes. "Delving into the works of local poets, fiction writers, columnists, memoirists, painters, photographers, folk artists and songwriters deepens how we experience our home…"

Find the heart of town, is the fourth task. Where do people go to hangout, to socialize, to relax, to feel at home in the town?

Find where people come together – in celebration, in protest or for discussion – is another of Peay’s prescriptions. This may differ from the heart of the town in that it is likely a large public space but it brings people of different backgrounds and interests together.

Finally, Peay says to discover the civic wound that needs healing. "While it’s difficult and politically risky to draw attention to shortcomings… ignoring them perpetuates a state of soullessness," she writes. "…speaking out about community ills can help you find the soul of your hometown, as well as contribute to healing it."

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