We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Making Meaning out of Mountains: the Political Ecology of Skiing

By Mark C.J. Stoddart

Only in Whistler: Tales of a Mountain Town

By Stephen Vogler

November 4, 2013

Review By David Rossiter

Mountains play important and complex roles in the lives of British Columbians. As sources of material wealth, barriers to travel and communication, and sites of physical and spiritual exertion and exploration, mountain landscapes have shaped and been shaped by the histories and human geographies of the province. While this relationship has been written about in the context of natural resource extraction and colonial resettlement,[i] comparatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which mountain landscapes have been bound up with the production and promotion of recreation and tourism. In these two volumes, Stephen Vogler and Mark Stoddart, each with very different methods and styles, explore this aspect of mountain-society relationships in BC through the focusing prism of recreational skiing and the places that have been produced around it, particularly the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

Vogler’s Only in Whistler is the long-time local resident’s colourful account of the transition of the ski resort from a small town of about 500 year-round inhabitants (a mixture of “old school European Alpinists” and “snow-hippies”) in the mid-1970s to the international resort destination that it had become on the eve of hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Having moved to Whistler with his parents and siblings in the mid-1970s at the age of 12, Vogler brings to his narrative the perspective of a person growing through adolescence and into adulthood; this is the same path of development that he traces for the town of Whistler itself. The result is a very personal account of both change and continuity in a place that is clearly dear to the author’s heart.

During his time working in Whistler as, variously, a dishwasher, musician, journalist, and author, Vogler amassed a wealth of anecdotes that shed light on the growth of a town and its changing surroundings and social milieu. Only in Whistler is written mainly around reminiscences elicited by the author during recent interviews with his large group of long-time friends and acquaintances in Whistler. The result is a series of vignettes that work backwards and forwards in time, rather than a chronological account of the town’s development. As such, the ten chapters focus upon different aspects of life in Whistler, including: “squatting” in the 1970s, life and labour in bars and restaurants, the local music scene, skiing (of course!), and home-grown journalism. The picture that emerges offers readers a detailed glimpse, through crisp and witty prose, into the past and present of “the locals’” Whistler, a place that is very different from the carefully constructed tourist Mecca that is portrayed for and sold to travellers and tourists arriving from Vancouver and beyond. In this way, Only in Whistler serves to provide a valuable, if selective, popular history of the growth of the town and its community.

Stoddart’s Making Meaning out of Mountains is a very different read. As the title indicates, the volume investigates the social production of skiing landscapes within the networks of early-twenty-first century consumer capitalism — both Whistler and the town of Nelson (and nearby ski resort Whitewater) in the Kootenay region of the province provide the setting, as well as an opportunity for comparison. Written in a style peppered with terminology common within the critical social sciences and humanities, the book will likely find a receptive audience among graduate students and faculty members interested in analyses of society-environment relationships.

The study is based upon dozens of interviews with skiers, as well as textual analysis and the author’s observations from the field, all filtered through ideas drawn from post-structural social theory. The Introduction sets the stage by outlining the rising importance of the “attractive” economy of tourism in British Columbia as a complement to, and at times replacement for, long-standing extractive resource activities. This chapter also provides brief histories of the resorts at Whistler and Nelson, a broader discussion of the networked corporate structure of the BC ski resort industry, and an overview of debates around wilderness experiences and environmental sustainability in the context of recreational skiing. From there, Stoddart goes on to explore four main themes: the ongoing construction of skiing landscapes by a range of social actors; skiing and related landscapes as hybrid “naturecultures”; politics, power, and relations between human and non-human nature; and the role of social difference along lines of class, gender, and race in producing skiing landscapes and attendant politics. The Conclusion identifies a series of implications that the study raises for consideration in an “ecopolitics of skiing,” as “(s)kiing involves flows of power among humans and non-humans, and it should be seen as part of our political ecology, where the purified boundaries between human politics and non-human nature break down” (177). Observing that “(t)here is more to skiing than simply having fun in the snow,” Stoddart highlights ecological impacts and attendant discourses and networks, as well as social justice issues such as First Nations claims, as areas of contention that a political ecology approach helps to illuminate. The book ends with an Epilogue that addresses Whistler’s role as host of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and finds the experience to have reflected the themes addressed throughout the study.

Ultimately, these books succeed and stumble in different ways. Vogler provides a selective but intimate understanding of the history of a place that is very often regarded and experienced in a most transitory fashion. And yet, one closes the cover feeling as though Vogler’s Whistler has been revealed, but a larger picture remains somewhat obscured. Conversely, Stoddart brings a theoretical perspective to bear that gives an over-arching perspective to complex and confusing places and activities.  However, the master weaving comes with a loss of detail and nuance.[ii] This reviewer would love to be a fly on the wall at a Whistler bar where these two cross paths and exchange notes. Perhaps something could be arranged?

 


[i] See for example R Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change, Vancouver, UBC Press, 1997 and Jeremy Mouat Roaring Days: Rossland’s Mines and the History of British Columbia, Vancouver, UBC Press, 2005.

[ii] An obvious instance is the erroneous account of the merger of Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains in 1996; Intrawest, already owner of Blackcomb, bought Whistler that year, not Blackcomb as Stoddart claims (9).

Only in Whistler: Tales of a Mountain Town
By Stephen Vogler
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2009. 240pp. $24.95 paper

Making Meaning out of Mountains: the Political Ecology of Skiing
By Mark C.J. Stoddart
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 223pp. $85.00 cloth