The Gift of Community

While at the Fernie Writers’ Conference a few years ago, I attended a workshop that not only changed my writing, but also changed me. One of the many ideas that our teacher John Keeble, shared with us, was the idea that a place’s geography shapes its inhabitants. Fernie provides an impressive and varied landscape – a river valley surrounded on all sides by mountains. Fernie’s residents are also varied and amazing. Fernie is home to many accomplished people including artists, entrepreneurs, writers, explorers, and athletes. In addition to the more recognized, Fernie is full of professionals, neighbours, volunteers, and parents who add to the community with feats of their own. All of these feats are shaped by Fernie’s geography, sometimes in obvious ways (like when someone paints mountains), and sometimes in less obvious ways. Not only does Fernie influence its people, Fernie also has a way of drawing people who are similar, people who are drawn to the outdoors for a variety of reasons, and people who believe in the power of community. We disagree often, yet Fernie has a common identity. We love community and we love the outdoors.

And what an outdoors it is! Towering cedar trees, legendary powder, panoramic mountains, the beautiful Elk River, and so much more. Yet, there are other beautiful places on Earth that do not achieve the same level of community. There is something special, something healing about Fernie. Whether it is the nature, the snow, the mountains, or the rivers – Fernie has a way of grabbing a large number of people trying to pass through (for a visit or for a season) and helping them find a sense of home. Some succumb to the pull right away, and some return years later. These people add to the community by building their homes and their friendships and their ideas in Fernie. Fernie seems to have figured out how to keep growing and changing, while finding a balance with the bigger-is-better mentality. Malls and box stores do not build community; people build community. They build community by trying new ideas, by pushing themselves, by sharing their talents with others.

Another thing that people do to build community is they start events. Fernie is home to a large number of unique events including Griz Days, Wapiti, and last month’s PPP. Griz Days is a weeklong celebration of the legendary woodsman who lives in a cave and uses his musket to deliver Fernie’s epic snowfall. Wapiti is a Music Festival responsible for bringing phenomenal rising Canadian talent to Fernie’s Annex Park. And the PPP (Powder Pedal, Paddle) is a quadrathlon that comprises skiing, biking, paddling, and running. There are few places in the world where such an event would even be possible.

Fernie’s landscape and its people are full of wonderful surprises. Countless times, I have known Fernie friends for years, and then learn something new and impressive about them. Fernie residents are layered with surprises. The same can be said of Fernie’s natural geography. I can do the same hike for the hundredth time, and see or learn something new.

During my first year at the Fernie Writers’ Conference, John Keeble also taught us about spending the effort to learn about words. The word “community” is interesting. Its origins are Latin, and comes to us from the words com (together) and munus (gift). And so we live in this beautiful valley, a gift, and we live together, building community.

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