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A sense of place

Here in this ragged place known as British Columbia, the navel-gazing question of Who am I? is often replaced the more relevant Where am I?

B.C. is a land marked by contrast and riddled with paradox. Coast and Interior; south and north; wet and dry; urban and rural; peaks and valleys; and so on.

This fantasyland we call Whistler is a good case in point. It takes a bit of thought to grasp an understanding of the forces that continue to form the collective myth of this place.

It is, after all, just a valley somewhere in the mountains. But, for whatever reasons, this area has undergone a series of reincarnations from First Nations territory to bucolic fishing lodge to ski-bum haven to international mega-resort.

Longtime local Stephen Vogler has written a series of poignant essays, first published in Pique Newsmagazine and collected in his self-published book Whistler Features , that explore this subject and try make some sort of sense out of this valley.

Vogler muses on a diverse range of subjects including the Whistler area’s natural and human history, adventure sports, real estate speculation and corporatization.

Vogler embarks on a tough task as he searches for Whistler’s misplaced soul. These stories are about the good, bad and ugly of Whistler.

And with the inclusion of artistic vignettes – paintings, collages and prints – by Christina Nick and Hugh Kearney, he succeeds beautifully.

Another must-read is Whistler: History in the Making , a nuts-and-bolts approach to the who, what, when, where and why of Whistler.

Assembled and published by Pique Newsmagazine editor Bob Barnett and featuring a stable of local scribes, this book tells – in a straight-forward journalistic style – the stories that link the development and politics of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains to Whistler Village.

The best stories, however, are those that focus on the people who have shaped Whistler.

If you weren’t here to celebrate Rob Boyd’s 1989 World Cup downhill win and Ross Rebagliati’s 1998 Olympic gold or mourn the deaths of Crazy Canuck Dave Murray and extreme skier Trevor Petersen, this is the best way to capture some of the feeling that still reverberates in the valley’s hidden nooks and crannies.

Whistler needs more of the independent and thoughtful writing that appears in these two books, rather than the recyclable jingoism that frequents local publications on a regular basis.

Vancouver-based publisher New Star Books also tries to explore the same questions in its Transmontanus series, a collection of well-written and well-designed books about the relationship between people and landscape in B.C.

The seven books (and counting) range in subject from Clayoquot Sound to the Chilcotin Plateau, from First Nation culture to Utopian communities and from prehistoric sturgeon to Chinook language.

Each volume, edited by award-winning author Terry Glavin, features skookum writing that tries to shed some light on B.C.’s distant corners that are – both figuratively and literally – a long, long way from downtown Vancouver or Citta’s patio.

But perhaps the best book to evoke some understanding of this ragged place is Tom Thomson’s Shack by Harold Rhenisch (also published by New Star), which was nominated for a couple of B.C. Book Prizes earlier this year.

Rhenisch contrasts his life in the province’s rural Interior – the Cariboo, Similkameen and Okanagan – with his overwhelming urban experience in Toronto, Canada’s uber-city.

Whistlerites and Torontonians alike will be amused (and somewhat disappointed) to find out that the centre of the universe, according to Buddhist monks, is actually somewhere in a remote valley near 100 Mile House.

Rhenisch’s 264 pages of lyrical prose reads like a book-long meditation and best captures the ever-elusive sense of place. I read it in about three or four hours but have been thinking about it ever since.

Scientists and philosophers have recently been theorizing that each of us has a primal landscape engrained into our subconscious. They argue that we identify with a particular climate and geography, whether it’s the Coast Mountains, Prairies or Canadian Shield.

Books, like nature – and life itself, are rather simple. They express thoughts and ideas in concrete form, unlike the abstract reality of real estate speculation.

Reading these books and thinking about the uncertainties they ponder could possibly answer the question of Where am I?

And, in the process, they could also help provide the answers to Who am I? and Why am I here?

— Greig Bethel

Feedback? greig@piquenewsmagazine.com

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