A Message from Mackeigan Road

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A Message from Mackeigan Road

By Sher Maryn LeBay

Author's note:  I fell in love with Cape Breton: its people, its forests of conifers and maple and white birch, the sea close by.  There is a kindness here I have not experienced elsewhere and people are very easy to know.  They let you in.  

There are also deep strands of sadness, almost surrender, about the steady stream of people leaving the island in search of work or simply a more urban pulse. The manufacturing industries that once allowed people to make a living while setting roots in such a beautiful place, have shuttered and gone away. Work is hard to find.  Cape Breton is losing over 1000 people a year and if the trend continues, she may only have 75,000 people by 2030.

Sometimes I want to shake people by the shoulders and tell them it is up to them to shape a vibrant future, that it is only too late for any of us when we give up trying.  But I am an American so I do not talk this way to my Canadian friends.  I suppose I would if the government let me stay and I could really dig in and become part of life here.   But that is a separate story.

I wrote this column for the Cape Breton Post.  It was my poetic way of saying: "Yes you can..."  Re-reading it now, I realize there are messages for Americans too. Opposition is not enough.  Neither is despair. We must turn toward the future we wish to create, guided by a faith  in the greater forces.  

They will carry us.

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In the butterscotch light on Mackeigan Road in Marion Bridge, an old memory returns.  It is the kind that helps me remember who I was and who I am.  We all have them.

Mine comes to me in the clatters and squeals of dark shadows huddled on a wire and even more in their scrumming atop a torn metal roof. It’s the English Starlings sporting their winter-white dots.  And as is typical of them, they are all talking at once.

It is mayhem in a certain sort of way.

I flick my camera on, twist the dial for more speed and slowly open the door of my car and get out. I will use “the Barracuda maneuver” I say to myself, a technique I developed in turquoise seas when a school of Blue Tang shifted from cruise speed to sonic in mere seconds. I soon grasped why.  

A Barracuda, with teeth ragged as a cliff edge and sharp as a paper cut, abandoned the Tang family and parked an arms length from my right eye.  I looked at him once, slumping timidly, my heart drumming in my ears.  The sand was a country away. What could I do?

Quickly, it came to me that there are times in life when you can get farther away (or closer) just by putting aside your strength and swagger and going shy. It worked with the Barracuda. 

Maybe the starlings, too.

I sidle toward the birds, studying how the lemon-yellow flags of goldenrod bend, their green blood still pulsing.   A pair of sulphur butterflies tumble upwards and somersault down in shafts of perfume-laden air.  They are intoxicated with the sweet scent of the other and twirl as if they are the only ones in the entire world.  And for them, they are.

I step closer: the birds are still squeaking and twanging like a band tuning up.   Then a shock of black feathers lifts up and over the roof.  They are on to me. I abandon the maneuver and stride toward the mishmash of fence lengths, wire-then-wood, roughly banged and twisted together.

Pointing my lens toward the roof, I start firing.  No matter what comes from this, I am swept up in it: the wing beats and the frenzy.  

Then they’re gone.  

I lean into the fence and slide back.  Time is not linear.

My doctor sits before me in her padded black chair.  “You are too good with words,” she says not intending a compliment.  “You could talk your way into or out of anything.  I want you to paint.”

“I can’t even draw much less paint” I protest.

“That’s the point” she answers.  “I want you to go to Toys R Us and buy paints, not brush-paints.  Finger paints.”

My eyes sharpen like a hawk’s.  I stare at her, tightening my hands round the edge of the chair arms.

The next week I come back, awkwardly carrying the big sheets of paper in their purple sleeve.  I enter the room and lay them down, side by side on the carpet, maybe six of them. We sit in silence as I watch her eyes move slowly over the paintings, their paper hills warped by the watery fingers of a 36 year old stick-figure artist.

After awhile, she stops moving her head and looks straight at me.  Her eyes are like lakes.  A bead of water slips down a bottom lash and over the edge.  Then another.

The little girl in the finger painting is standing inside a black tornado.  Looking into the watery pools of Betsey’s eyes, I realize for the very first time that my childhood was neither sweet nor common. It is a long hour for both of us.

Eager to leave, the word-girl turns the conversation.   “I love the fall most” I declare, describing how I stop on the side of the road to watch the starlings fill the apple-crisp air. French swirls turn into whales and then into waves.  “I wonder how they all move at once without knocking each other out of the sky.” 

Dry-eyed and sure, she looks at me softly:  “Do you have any idea how few people ever see what you see, how they race right by every beautiful thing?  I know this has been very hard for you and it will get even harder but in the weeks ahead I want you to remember the starlings.  I want you to focus on the great gifts within you.  Your heart is strong.  It will carry you.  The starlings will carry you, too.”

It is a delicate dance to see the tornados of life plainly, while leaning into the promise of birds. People come along and hold the mirror for us.  It helps us see. Then we have to practice.  And practice.  Our best angels need strengthening. 

Then, one day we awaken and realize the speckled ones are everywhere…

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The woman who writes about damsel flies in the Gabarus Wilderness reads your letters, listens to the lyrics of your songs and overhears the hush-toned-talk about the westward movement from Cape Breton of your strongest backs and stickiest minds.  She knows about steel leaving.  Coal too.  And dairy.  The lament is strong in you.  Bits of your confidence have slipped away.  

And that is where the riot of starlings comes in…

When we look back on our lives, we will know we were each two birds:  one with a pair of wings of her own and the other that flew with others to become a whale, a wave or a french swirl.  How to be in-life-together is in your Caper-blood. You are masters.

So I have a question for you:  “Do you have any idea how few people ever see what you see, and how they race right by every beautiful thing?”

On Mackeigan Road, the wind fills my chest. The starlings soar over the torn metal roof.  It is a magical thing being carried into a new life.  

But, first we turn toward it.

The starlings do the rest.

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America: We Have Been Asleep for Too Long

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America: We Have Been Asleep for Too Long

By Sher Maryn LeBay

America, we have been asleep for far too long.  

We turned away from the things that did not concern us (although they really should have).  We explained this by saying there was nothing we could do… 

About the fact we jail one out of every 110 adult Americans, that there are 270 million guns in our hands and on our streets, that living wages among the 99%  have gone mostly sideways for twenty five years.  

We slept.. as the gray men discussed cocktail mixes to execute American citizens including juveniles.  We were and still mostly are, quite sure of our crisp calls for justice, when most of the civilized world watches our national penchant for revenge in disbelief.  (I am sure there are stronger words for it). 

It took gunning down nine black people praying in a church in Charleston, South Carolina to lower the Confederate flag on the pole of the State capitol.  Nine. Black. People.

We have been asleep.

The other day I got an email from a man who stumbled on my blog here.  Here is a line from the note: The Canadians don't need losers from the USA to go up there and tell them fake indian stories or sob stories about mexcrements.  He concluded by telling me I should move to Israel.

Does anyone really think that Mexican Americans can move about our country free from fear?  Or Jews? Or now... Muslims?

We have been asleep too long.

I am one of twenty million Americans who will lose my health insurance next year.  It is 2016.  Every other developed nation has argued and settled the question about whether to provide health insurance for every one of its citizens.  Their debate is about how to manage and finance it.  We are the United States of America and we are still debating “whether”.  And the answer on the way is: “No.”

Canada has had national health insurance since 1966. Bahrain since 1957.  Great Britain since the end of the second world war. 

I am weary of hearing how we are the greatest nation on earth.  The hallmark of of a civilized country is how it treats the youngest and weakest and poorest and sickest.  Is it capable of the greatest humanity of all, namely the reverence of difference in all its varied forms?

We have been asleep too long.

I could say many things about women, how we are paid differently and how it is expected in many powerful circles that we will trade up with sex.  But saying this is enough:  it is possible to be rich (it is possible to be president) and say you can grab women anywhere you want and take any woman you choose. And it is possible for a great number of people to carry on with the presumption that so many accusers are lying or worse—are irrelevant. 

We have been asleep too long.

There are times, when the outer forces are so crushing and so relentless that we duck into the cave to wait for the world to brighten a bit.  While there, we tend the fire, throw sticks on the soft inner light, make soup, sit by the sea in Cape Breton and grow silent and strong for another day. 

That day has arrived.

 

 

Notes:  The first photograph shows the hands of a homeless man in Tucson, Arizona.  

For the last shot, I climbed thru a fence into a hidden alley in Tucson to find (and shoot) this mural. Painters and poets have been trying to wake us for a long time.  I find these messages wandering around the back streets of Tucson, in the barrios.

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Awakening to a New World on the 9th of November, 2016

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Awakening to a New World on the 9th of November, 2016

By Sher Maryn LeBay

 

A mural in a barrio of South Tucson a few miles from my home.  The city is very poor with many people of Mexican descent.   In a dark time, we must turn toward the light.  We must decide who we are.  Many Americans were forsaken tonight.  Silence is an option, not a choice.                                                                                                                        Sher Maryn LeBay

A mural in a barrio of South Tucson a few miles from my home.  The city is very poor with many people of Mexican descent.  

In a dark time, we must turn toward the light.  We must decide who we are.  Many Americans were forsaken tonight.  Silence is an option, not a choice.

                                                                                                                       Sher Maryn LeBay

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Election Day, United States of America

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Election Day, United States of America

By Sher Maryn LeBay

The United States of America:  Calling on the Better Angels on 8 November 2016...No matter who wins tonight, the dark night of our national soul is now fully underway.  May the Spirit of all that is good show us the way to becoming one world...

The United States of America:  Calling on the Better Angels on 8 November 2016...No matter who wins tonight, the dark night of our national soul is now fully underway.  May the Spirit of all that is good show us the way to becoming one world...

 

 

 

About the photo:  I took this shot of a house somewhat hidden from the main road near Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia in July 2016. The painter is Ivan Fraser

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The Boy Was Born To Fish: A Life By the Sea in Neil's Harbour, Cape Breton

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The Boy Was Born To Fish: A Life By the Sea in Neil's Harbour, Cape Breton

By Sher Maryn LeBay

The boy was born in “Great Noise,”  a remote fishing village of a hundred families carved into a hill and sliced open by a nosedive of freshwater into the mouth of the sea. He came up there, too.  It was a couple of years after the end of the Great War, and Grand Bruit (rhymes with grit), like all of New Foundland,  provided Europe with its fish andsome of its young men. 

Ron Ingram lived between the two great tumults but he barely remembers either.  His memory is crackerjack for what tugs at him.   The wars didn’t make the cut. I brought them up, not him.

He talked fish, birds and squirrels, winds and waves.  He talked about the village of Neil’s Harbour and the spot where he built his house out of spruce and fir that he felled with a bucksaw in Black Brook.   And he talked about Bernice, his great love, looking out the window as he did so.   Just like she was on the other side of the glass.

Right next to the Blue Jay.

I’ve heard a lot of stories in my life and find that people can inhabit them, somewhat like a bird cage, if they tell them often enough.  Fishing for the truth about a person’s life, the life outside the fused wire frame, takes time.  And a willingness to follow the leader-line wherever it goes.  Jumping in, I search for a bit of common ground.  

The shared spot between Ron and me is a breath shy of remarkable: we both painted squirrel tails. When they raided our homes or treasures, we sprayed then with a shot of paint, sort of like a cattle brand except we didn’t want them to return after we dragged them miles down the road.  He painted them white.  I painted them blue.  Not a one of his ever came back.  Not a one of mine ever did, either.

We were well into a good yarn after that…

“When I was growin’ up, the only thing you could do was go fishin’. There was no industry there at all, just fishin’. Me father used to be on a schooner.  In the summer, (he) would go out and I and another little feller used to go out with two lines of gear, 90 hooks to a line, and whatever come off those two lines was ours…I was always doin’ somethin’.”

Ron gets up out of his maroon easy chair and walks toward a line drawing of his boyhood village that spans the support beam of his living room ceiling. “My home is still there” he says pointing to a housenear the crest of the hill. “That’s the school above it.”

Though the school was so close it nearly cast a shadow on his boyhood home, it didn’t lure him in withvistas of other worlds or curiosities about lives different than his own.  “I made it to grade three” he said. “I never went to school.” 

It wasn’t, he explained, that his parents pushed him to work or even that he didn’t like school.  The whisper of the salt spray started early in him and never let him go. 

It’s been ninety-six years.

Ron Ingram came from New Foundland to Neil's Harbour when he was 18.  He mends fishing nets, a dying art, in the basement of his home...

Ron Ingram came from New Foundland to Neil's Harbour when he was 18.  He mends fishing nets, a dying art, in the basement of his home...

Listening to Ron, I am struck by how similar our human longings are but how different, our lives. We are born into a story. Each of us.  Necessity and drift can keep us there.  Dreams can take us somewhere else.  Every once in awhile, someone comes into the world and seizes the very life they were were given.  Like Ron. The boy was born to fish. 

Newfoundland was under the British Crown when a Canadian officer stamped Ron Ingram’s papers, proclaiming him a landed immigrant.  “ ‘Go to hell with it!’ he told me.”  

And he did. Ron settled in Neil’s Harbour, rising by starlight, eating a bowl of cereal, then driving to Dingwallwhere he set out for lobsters and halibut, mackerel and the occasional cod (his favourite). Back then, all he had to guide him was instinct and a compass.

“You have to really love yourself to spend that much time on your own” I tell him.  “What did you think about all day?”

He laughs.  “Mostly how many lobsters there might be in the next trap I’m pullin’ up. I worked hard.” 

The Atlantic crashes headlong on the rocks outside Ron’s kitchen window. It’s a rare view for daily dishwashing.  “I love it here because I know everybody. I have enough money to keep me.  I have a good furnace.  So I don’t know what else you’d want and I’ve always got a bottle of rum…I have plenty to eat and lots of fish. As far as I’m concerned, everything I wants is here.”

Well, almost.

I ask about his wife. “If you’re married and you’ve got a good woman, I don’t know what else you’d want,”  he says. 

And then I disappear from his view.

He stares out the window and tells me how two people brought him halibut that day, how he was washing dishes and Bernice was watching The Young and the Restless.  She came into the kitchen and said she was going to the hospital.  Later his daughter Kathy called: “Dad, you comin’ up? she asked.  It never dawned onto me… I washed up and changed my shirt and went up.  I kissed her and asked how she was feelin’.” 

A few hours later, she was gone.  Ron rubs the three year oldmemory a hundred times a day, like the sea smoothing the jagged edges of old stones.  “I can’t get there fast enough,” he says, meaning right by her side.  

We sit in silence for a long time.  I wait for him.

If we come back again, he tells me,  “I would choose this very same spot. We’re living in the best part of the world.”

I close my eyes and look for him.  

A boy pierces slices of mackerel withshiny hooks, shaping the long bait lines into wooden tubs.  His strong arms row them out to sea in a dory with bright red sides.  When the fish sail out of the inky blackness in the hours before dawn, his heart thumps.  It is fresh and new.

Bit by bit, the boy turns into a man andfashions a life on the lips of the sea.  In summer, he picks Bakeapples with his wife on one of the islands off the coast of Newfoundland.  And when the snow comes, they sit in their living room and spin a bright yarn.  He drinks a spot of rum with coke.  The furnace hums. “Everything I want is here” he says to his wife. 

She nods once, smiling…

The boy was born to fish.

 

 

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Cape Breton and a Tale of Two Bears

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Cape Breton and a Tale of Two Bears

By Sher Maryn LeBay

Do you know the poem about the two bears?  I will embellish it…

Two bears, in the wild, spend an exquisite day doing what bears do—plunging their large paws into a cold stream where the salmon run.  They don’t talk much when the fishing is good and today there is very little conversation. All morning long, they hop and splash and pounce in the fast moving water, then lean into big rocks as they peel off the glistening silver sheets of skinand push the shimmering paw-fulls into their mouths.  

“The skin is the best part” one bear proclaims to the other. But the other bear’s mouth is stuffed so she nods, vigorously:  “You are right.” 

Stuffed bellies require naps so the two bears amble over to a clutch of trees and spread out under the limbs for a mid afternoon snooze. It is said that bears have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth.  Imagine how luscious the scent of their spruce needle carpet is to them.  The tiny spruce pillows we humans buy cannot compare. Not at all.

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Waking, the bears set out for one of their favorite berry patches.  Fall is on the way and there aren’t many berries left but they find a bunch in a spot they missed on prior forages. Clicks and thwacks fill the air as they bend the branches back, snapping them. Purple juice runs down their long snouts. Blueberries are their favorite fruit. 

What a day.

As the earth spins and the sun recedes, the two bears sit side by side on a hill mesmerized by the crimson slants of light turning fire-orange in the sky.  “Have you heard about Jacques?” one bear asks the other, “how he is traveling all around the country in a golden cage.  The humans love his stunts and tricks and clap and cheer wildly for him.”The listening bear says nothing for a few seconds.

Then, he starts weeping…

For bears, the greatest loss is to give up on who they are and what they love.

Us, too.

I come upon Nick on a bluff overlooking Schooner Pond Cove in Donkin.  His maroon car, oldish and low to the ground bumps up and down over the swells of earth.  He parks it parallel to the sea, gets out and leans his body into the shut door, crossing his feet at the ankles.  Through the glass window, Iknow so much about him: “He owns this place” I say to myself. “His blood is here. His heart. The whole thing.”

I get out of my car and make my way toward the young man, just shedding boyhood, where he stands on a lip of grass sloping sharply to the sea. He will tell me where to find the birds near Schooner Pond. My binoculars over my shoulder and bird book in hand, I make my way to the car.

“Good morning,”   I say confidently. He smiles broadly. 

There is a sweetness about him; a shyness too. The Men of the Deeps have this same quality in their faces when they sing…a kind of twinkling tenderness that causes me to lose the melody as I follow the dance on their faces. He does not know where the birds are but it doesn’t matter.  I am already leaning into the side of the car, my legs outstretched.

Nick will be twenty in September.  He lives with his mom in Donkin.   He points up the road when I ask if he was born here.  “Ohh nooo” he answers. “I was born in Long Beach.”  I try not to smile. 

“I come here a lot” he tells me.  “It is so bee-u-ti-ful.”

He tells me he is a mechanic but he cannot find work. “There aren’t that many jobs for mechanics” he explains. And the ones that exist, are taken by men who have been there for four or five years.  “You only get a job if someone leaves and people don’t leave too often.”  (Inmy three months in Cape Breton, I understand Nick’s story is this island’s story).

He talks about his life without a sliver of bitterness.

“My heart is here” he continues. “Everybody is so friendly.  You go down the street and they all wave.  I love the peacefulness. I don’t want to go but if I have to, my heart will never leave.”

I rifle through my box of words and choose carefully, telling him what I know to be true in my own life:  “Follow the trail of whatever you love most deeply” I say.  “It is easier to find work than it is to find home. I have never loved a place as firmly as you love this place.  Go as long as you can and as hard as you can to stay where your love is.”

I wonder if he knows the poem about the bears. I will re-cast the ending.

The bears have had another glorious day. After salmon fishing and berry picking the two nestle togetheron a hillside and watch the sunset.  “Have you heard about Jacques?” the one bear asks the other. “He is coming home.” 

The listening bear thinks for a few seconds and then starts smiling. 

“I have missed Jacques so much” she says. “How shall we welcome him? Winter is coming. The salmon are few and the blueberries are nearly spent.  What can we do?”

The bears watch the last few lights in the sky for a long time.  Then one bear says “You know, there is only one thing that’s ever gotten us through these long, cold winters.”

“What is that?” the other bear asks. 

 “We love our life.”

“So true. There is simply nothing better than being a bear. Nothing at all.”

“First thing tomorrow, we will go fishing for Jacques.”

“Berry-picking, too. ”

 

 

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The Love of Lobster

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The Love of Lobster

By Sher Maryn LeBay

When I was a little girl growing up in Connecticut, I would have been very happy if lobster had been designated as an essential food group.  Every birthday I wanted just one thing:  a 2 lb. lobster all my own.  One birthday stands out among many others.  I was five or six and my parents took me to a restaurant in Westport called the Clam Box, a quintessentially New England place, with a white wooden exterior and lots of windows that looked out mostly over a parking lot instead of the sea.  The food made up for it. Well, really, I only ever tasted the lobster.  When my cupcake with the lit candle arrived at our table and everyone was singing, I sat shyly in my chair, my well-used lobster bib in full view.  I didn't have room for the cupcake.

I arrived in Cape Breton just as lobster season was kicking off.  It lasts two months starting in mid May.  I ate nine lobsters in two weeks.  And I did something I said I could never do:  I boiled the water and cooked a few myself.  Living here has brought me closer to the pulse of all life, the coming and going of it, my part in it all, the joys and sorrows.  Lobster and all the Cape Breton festivities that go with it are pure joy but I suppose I will always notice the catch light in a lobster's eye.  To notice this light is who I am in the dancing circle of life.

I thank every lobster I eat.

So, I jumped into the Caper's world of lobster with both feet, exploring the trail of this strange-looking creature with  black pearl eyes,  from sea to feast.  Lobstermen offered to take me out and I wanted to go badly.  They leave the dock at about 4am and do not return till noon if the weather is good.  If the weather is not good, meaning it is just shy of tumultuos, they return closer to 2pm.  I have spied the churning of waves from the shore, much less from a boat.  Could I do it?  I've been seasick on the Block Island Ferry and I knew I would have to tough it out for more than eight hours.

Maybe someday I will dare it, after a double-dare...

But I was happy exploring all the other parts of lobstering on Cape Breton.  When you come here next, look up the lobster festivals in the little towns and go to the church or firehall and sit with folks at long tables and eat corn and lobster and slaw.  If you have your own place with a spot to cook, get yourself to one of the wharfs: Main a Dieu, Gabarus, Port Morien.  There are many lobster villages.  Buy your lobsters right off the boat. Come sometime after 12 noon.  This is not a lobster roll place but place to buy  live lobster for $8/lb CAD ($6 US).  Last year, lobsters went for a little over $5.00/lb CAD so the Cape Breton lobster men and women are pretty happy with this year's season.

So here are some photos to give you a sense of the life here.  Anthony Bourdain is really right when he says you know a people by the food it loves.  I will let the photos speak for themselves.

Lobster boat coming into the Gabarus, Cape Breton harbor

Lobster boat coming into the Gabarus, Cape Breton harbor

Two lobstermen from Gabarus select lobsters they will sell to villagers on a list to buy lobster tonight.

Two lobstermen from Gabarus select lobsters they will sell to villagers on a list to buy lobster tonight.

The shoes of a lobsterman are designed to grab onto a wet boat.  They wear a lot of heavy clothing.  I wonder how they manage being in it all day.

The shoes of a lobsterman are designed to grab onto a wet boat.  They wear a lot of heavy clothing.  I wonder how they manage being in it all day.

The world of lobster is very colorful in Cape Breton.  Their clothes are colorful.  Their boats are colorful.  I put aside my love for black and white photography when I came here.  The color is enchanting.

The world of lobster is very colorful in Cape Breton.  Their clothes are colorful.  Their boats are colorful.  I put aside my love for black and white photography when I came here.  The color is enchanting.

A Lobsterman in Gabarus prepares to sort the lobsters.

A Lobsterman in Gabarus prepares to sort the lobsters.

Lobstermen place the elastic bands over the claws at sea but they still wear heavy duty gloves when holding them.  Lobster scars are part of the lobsterman's fare.

Lobstermen place the elastic bands over the claws at sea but they still wear heavy duty gloves when holding them.  Lobster scars are part of the lobsterman's fare.

Lobstermen use different kinds of bait. This man holds up frozen flounder he buys in blocks. Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

Lobstermen use different kinds of bait. This man holds up frozen flounder he buys in blocks. Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

I met Luke the lobster dog on a boat in Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.  He goes out every day with his dad, Brian Wadden, Sr.  "Luke doesn't eat a thing or drink a thing when he is lobster fishing."  I think Luke has figured out the key to avoiding being seasick.  What do you think?

I met Luke the lobster dog on a boat in Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.  He goes out every day with his dad, Brian Wadden, Sr.  "Luke doesn't eat a thing or drink a thing when he is lobster fishing."  I think Luke has figured out the key to avoiding being seasick.  What do you think?

Every lobsterman or woman has their own buoys with their port name and their license number on the buoy.

Every lobsterman or woman has their own buoys with their port name and their license number on the buoy.

A lobsterman in Gabarus, Cape Breton pulls up the anchor.

A lobsterman in Gabarus, Cape Breton pulls up the anchor.

The Cranky Lady comes into port with all its lobsters from the day. Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

The Cranky Lady comes into port with all its lobsters from the day. Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

The men separate the lobsters into bins where they are weighed and placed on a waiting truck for shipment.  Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

The men separate the lobsters into bins where they are weighed and placed on a waiting truck for shipment.  Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

The catch light in the lobsters' eyes always meets my own.

The catch light in the lobsters' eyes always meets my own.

Lobsters are loaded onto a waiting truck where they will be driven to Louisburg and sent to various parts of the world.

Lobsters are loaded onto a waiting truck where they will be driven to Louisburg and sent to various parts of the world.

The Lobstermen clean their boats thoroughly at the end of each day.  Gabarus, Cape Breton

The Lobstermen clean their boats thoroughly at the end of each day.  Gabarus, Cape Breton

You have to be strong to be a lobsterwoman. This is heavy work, pulling the lobster traps out of the sea, lifting them on deck and then diving into all the work that remains at the end of the day.

You have to be strong to be a lobsterwoman. This is heavy work, pulling the lobster traps out of the sea, lifting them on deck and then diving into all the work that remains at the end of the day.

A lobsterman in Main a Dieu refuels his boat.

A lobsterman in Main a Dieu refuels his boat.

This is one confident lobsterman, wearing pink.  Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

This is one confident lobsterman, wearing pink.  Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

Lobsterman rests in Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

Lobsterman rests in Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

All the lobster boats are bright, saturated colors.

All the lobster boats are bright, saturated colors.

The Herring Gull has a lobsterman for a friend. Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

The Herring Gull has a lobsterman for a friend. Main a Dieu, Cape Breton

Cleaning the boat in Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

Cleaning the boat in Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

Maureen Kavadias gathers sticks in Gabarus and starts a fire for the lobster boil.

Maureen Kavadias gathers sticks in Gabarus and starts a fire for the lobster boil.

Walter MacLeod of Marion Bridge pours water into the lobster pot in Gabarus.

Walter MacLeod of Marion Bridge pours water into the lobster pot in Gabarus.

A former lobsterman tosses the lobster through the air into the boiling pot in Gabarus, Cape Breton.

A former lobsterman tosses the lobster through the air into the boiling pot in Gabarus, Cape Breton.

One of the many lobster festivals, this one held at the Mira Center in Marion Bridge, Cape Breton.  A man tosses the cooked lobster into a crate of cold water to cool.

One of the many lobster festivals, this one held at the Mira Center in Marion Bridge, Cape Breton.  A man tosses the cooked lobster into a crate of cold water to cool.

In the kitchen behind the scenes, a volunteer plates the lobsters for waiting guests of the festival. Marion Bridge, Cape Breton.

In the kitchen behind the scenes, a volunteer plates the lobsters for waiting guests of the festival. Marion Bridge, Cape Breton.

A community lobster supper in Marion Bridge, Cape Breton.

A community lobster supper in Marion Bridge, Cape Breton.

I walk in many far flung places and often see lobster traps like this one that have broken away and washed up on shore.  I found this one in Baleine, Cape Breton.

I walk in many far flung places and often see lobster traps like this one that have broken away and washed up on shore.  I found this one in Baleine, Cape Breton.

At the end of the season, many of the lobster boots are brought ashore and lifted off the ground.  I am always intrigued by the skyward vantage point.

At the end of the season, many of the lobster boots are brought ashore and lifted off the ground.  I am always intrigued by the skyward vantage point.

A lobsterman in Main a Dieu holds up a blue lobster for me to shoot.  What a beauty.  Blue lobsters are one in a million and the lobstermen return them to the sea.

A lobsterman in Main a Dieu holds up a blue lobster for me to shoot.  What a beauty.  Blue lobsters are one in a million and the lobstermen return them to the sea.

The last day of lobster season... These men and women work seven days a week for two months.  I wonder if they miss it the rest of the year.  Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

The last day of lobster season... These men and women work seven days a week for two months.  I wonder if they miss it the rest of the year.  Main a Dieu, Cape Breton.

 

FOR A MAP OF WHERE TO BUY LOBSTER FRESH OFF THE BOAT IN CAPE BRETON CLICK HERE:  http://capebretonlobster.com

 

                Sher Maryn LeBay

                Sher Maryn LeBay

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A Day in the Gabarus Wilderness

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A Day in the Gabarus Wilderness

By Sher Maryn LeBay

The green door of the Gabarus Wilderness is a portal into a world of enchantment bound by the sea.  There are lakes and ponds, barrens and hillocks, leafy trees and needled ones…but first you must find it.

Canadians, it seems to me, favor the oral tradition when it comes to signs and directions;  I have stumbled into the arms of this island’s beauty far more often than having been pointed there.  It is a good thing I am constitutionally unshaken when lost.

It is also good I discovered the true nature of the Cape Breton’s Canada Post, which is something akin to the modern day servers connecting humans to each other for every imaginable purpose.  

“The post mistress will tell me the way to the green door at the edge of the wilderness,” I say to myself. And she does.

Gwen Wheaton runs the Gabarus Post Office from her home snuggled into a lagoon in the village harbor.  “Are you going alone?” she inquires seeing no one next to me.

“I am.”

“Do you have water?”

“I did but I left it on the counter.”

“Let me make a phone call.”  She rings Linda Besse, the president of the Gull Cove Trail Society who is making cookies.  “She’ll be over in a few minutes” Gwen says. “I’ll get you a couple bottles of water.”

“One would be plenty” I say.  I am a little embarrassed and I want to tell her how hard it is to remember everything when you are packing two cameras, batteries, pads and snacks.  But I resist and accept her kindness instead.

Linda opens the door and steps into the tiny hub of life in Gabarus, smiles, looks me overand asks:  “Are you going dressed like that?”  

I am beginning to wonder what awaits me. I come from a land of thirteen different kinds of rattlesnakes and occasional mountain lion sightings.  The only problem I ever had in the Sonoran desert was kneeling on the spine of a Teddy Bear cholla when composing a photograph.  My scream pierced the Tucson mountains like a rabbit in a death grip. 

Maybe I don’t look hardy enough.

Linda drives me down Gull Cove Road and the dust whips up between our cars.  We park on the rim of the cemetery.  Slinging my knapsack and camera over my shoulder, I follow her hand gesture toward an opening in the woods, almost cave-like. 

“Let us know you got out alive.”  She bids me well.

I thank her, descending the tiny hill into the woods. The damsel flies, painted with azure and black stripes and sky blue pin-prick eyes, lead me in.  They sail from one leaf to the next. I reach for the arms of alders and maples as the watery earth grips my shoes. 

Frogs with coal-colored eyes and golden rims peer inquisitively as I struggle to keep from joining them in their splash of mud and rain.

There isn’t a place in the world where the dance of life is more riotous and varied than a wilderness. We have tamed so much of our world, including ourselves, that nearly all of the foreign things repel or unsettle us, especially those with eight legs or four wings, or those that slip out oftheir shells or skins in order to grow.  

I kneel down to capture a mushroom freshly born from the forest floor, waiting for the wind to part the canopy open.  The caramel colored cap, dusted with crumbs, glows when the light spills through the rending of leaves. The world I care so much for and often take most seriously, disappears. And something like faith in the preposterous resilience of the natural world, rises. 

It will live beyond our folly.

A few more steps and the path curls under the conifers toward the sea.  I scramble down a cliff edge shaped by the glaciers in a time before human consciousness.  Chocolate colored seaweed, fine as a mermaid’s mane drapes over large boulders while thousands of baby barnacles create an accidental etching on their new forever home. The wild worlds of earth are unruly and untethered and utterly self-reliant.

In the distance, two loons synchronize their diving.  But there is something else, shore-bound, that pulls me in.  I make my way over to an outcropping of rocks for a closer look.

It is a human made sculpture, an assemblage of tide-hewn stones in the shape of a triangle.  They will tumble into the lap of the sea by nightfall.  The artist knew this. It was part of the design— his bow to the impermanence of all things.

I smile. A day in the wilderness creates its own language, elementally shared.

I go to the wild to be surprised.  I always am.  I go to be shaken out of my skin. That happens, too.  The jumble of thoughts in my head leaves me as softly as smoke slidingthrough a barely cracked window. Empty of clatter and jangles, Wonder rushes in and puts her feet up. It is astonishing how easily she finds her place in me and how I am once again magic-filled and humming.

The Gabarus Wilderness is a canticle to joy.  

Come hear her sing.

 

The sea rushes between an opening in the rocks in the Gabarus Wilderness, Cape Breton

The sea rushes between an opening in the rocks in the Gabarus Wilderness, Cape Breton

Many bridges like this one are being reclaimed by time in the Gabarus Wilderness

Many bridges like this one are being reclaimed by time in the Gabarus Wilderness

Humor in the Gabarus Wilderness. A Detour sign points toward the sky.

Humor in the Gabarus Wilderness. A Detour sign points toward the sky.

A bumble bee enjoys thistle sweetness in the Gabarus Wilderness

A bumble bee enjoys thistle sweetness in the Gabarus Wilderness

An old fishing net caught in a tree in the Gabarus Wilderness

An old fishing net caught in a tree in the Gabarus Wilderness

A snake slips out of her skin and leaves it on a bridge in the Gabarus Wilderness

A snake slips out of her skin and leaves it on a bridge in the Gabarus Wilderness

One of the many watery worlds within the Gabarus Wilderness

One of the many watery worlds within the Gabarus Wilderness

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An Open Letter to a Canadian Boy

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An Open Letter to a Canadian Boy

By Sher Maryn LeBay

Dear Anthony,

The other day, I went over to your grandmother Anna’s house in Point Edward to learn how to make oatcakes and biscuits.  I am an American and I never heard of oatcakes before. Your grandmother saw one of my stories in the paper and invited me over to taste some. Your grandfather kept a close eye on us; I noticed he was there whenever the oven door opened. Did you know he puts molasses and peanut butter on his biscuits?

Well, we were sitting at the little roundtable having our tea when your grandmother jumped up to show me the family photo hanging over the piano.  She is very proud of all of you.   And there you were in that plaid shirt and gray tie wearing that bright smile. And then she zeroed right in on you Anthony and told me a story I want everyone to hear.  They will know why in a minute…

Like a lot of boys and girls who are ten and a half, you watch TV. For sure you see things that can be scary and yougo over the words and pictures in your head.  You’re smart;  you know when someone is angry or kind or when their happy or sad. And being that you are still a little boy you start wonderinghow safe you arehere in Cape Breton.  

That’s natural, Anthony.  We all want to play with our friends, go to school and get tucked in at night and feel safe and sound.

Your grandmother told me how you saw the man who wants to be president of my country talk about building a “beautiful wall” to keep out the Mexicans and how he doesn’t want any Muslims to come into our country either.  Being on top of things,  you noticed that most of the people he wants to round up and throw out of my country have darker skins than many Americans.

For sure the man running for president would say that has nothing to do with anything but being that your skin is darker just like your dad’s, I guess you got worried. 

I understand.  I remember the first time I saw the witch in the Wizard of Oz. Icried when she stole the little dog,Toto, from Dorothy. I was so frightened she would find out where I lived and steal my dog, Mabel.  She didn’t but I kept watch for a long time.

So being frightened by the man on the TV, you went to your mom and asked for her help:  “Mom, will you take me to Home Depot so we can buy some paint?  I want to make my skin lighter so what is happening to the Mexicans and Muslims will never happen to me.”

Your aunt cried when she heard what you wanted to do.  

My eyes were watery, too. 

Now I want to tell you a couple of stories Anthony because this is important.

When I was a younger woman, a handful of powerful people in my government went behind everyone’s back to send money and provide training to a group of men who were fighting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.  (I don’t know how far along you are in geography but Nicaragua is located on the ribbon of land that joins North and South America).  

Our president at the time didn’t like the Nicaraguans.  He was afraid of having “Communists” anywhere near the United States and risking contagion, you know, much like when you can give a cold to someone else.  He was afraid Nicaragua’s ideas would spread to other little countries on that same strip of land. He wanted to stomp out the cold before it got worse.

He feared the Nicaraguans just as much as the man that you saw on TV fears the Mexicans and Muslims.  I didn’t agree with my President then, anymore than I agree with the man running for president today. 

But I wasn’t famous or powerful so what could I do?   Well, I decidedto goNicaragua to live. When I landed in Managua (that’s the Capitol of Nicaragua), I shook my head in disbelief.  It was the tiniest airport I had ever seen and all along the road to the airport,  shack-like houses with aluminum roofs stretched as far a set eye could see.  These were the poorest people ever, Anthony.  Why were we so afraid of them?  I didn’t know. I still don’t.

I lived up north in the war zone in a town called Ocotal. I saw a lot. It was hard for the kids there.  Real hard.

Many years have passed.  Much that is old about us Americans is still the same. What can we do, Anthony?  How can we respond to the scary man on TV? 

I will tell you.  

There is an old Cherokee story of a grandfather talking to his grandson and it goes like this:

The grandfathersays:  “ Every human being has two wolves living in their heart.  One wolf is greedy, angry and violent.  The other wolf is loving and compassionate and kind.” 

The little boy looks hard at the old man and says “Grandpa, which wolf will win the battle for your heart? And his grandfather stares back into the boy’s beautiful dark eyes and replies: 

The one I feed.”

There are Americans, many of them, who get up every day and watch what  you are watching on television.  We reach into the refrigerator for the milk, fill the bowl with cereal and feed our loving wolf.  We try to do the very same for lunch and supper.  It doesn’t matter where we live.  Our task is no different.

I went to Nicaragua to feed the loving wolf. Many Americans did, too.

That’s a very simple way of telling you there are plenty ofAmericans getting up every day and feeding the good wolf.

And you can do the same thing, Anthony.  You can open your eyes in the morning and say out loud: “Today I am going to feed the loving wolf who lives inside my heart.” It will spin your head to see just how fast every thing changes when you do this.

You won’t change the man on the TV, that’s for sure, but everyone you meet will say “Hey what’s that with Anthony?  His heart is big and good.”  

And that is how the world will get better and better for you and the other 10 and a half year olds.

For all of us, really.

Listen, I gotta go, Anthony. I’m late…But let’s get together sometime.

My sweet wolf needs lunch.

Sher Maryn LeBay is an American writer and photographer who is enchanted by the wonders of the natural world and inspired by the beauty of ordinary people.  Her column appears every other Saturday in the Cape Breton Post.  Contact her at shermarynlebay@gmail.com

 

This story first appeared in the Cape Breton Post on July 30,2016

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Capelin Time

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Capelin Time

By Sher Maryn LeBay

Their lives are short: three years, maybe four. And they spend them in the coldest of waters, moving as a single glimmering sheet under the edge of an ice shelf where plankton thrive.  The capelin, barely as long as a silver spoon, form a living bridge between the the tiny organisms of the Deep and the sea birds and big fish.   The Puffins eat them.  The cod and whales, too.

In early summer, an inner imperative to spawn grips them like a siren song; they make their way to warmer waters, the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland and to a lesser extent, to the southeast coast of Cape Breton.

One of their chosen spots, year after year,  is a sliver of beach in Gabarus Bay.

It is the time of the Full Horse Moon, so named in Celtic mythology, for June’s bright evening light.  The moon, closer to us now then any time of year, works the tides back and forth like a strong arm on a loom; these are the days of the highest highs and the lowest lows. 

The capelin sail through the inky blackness toward land, leaving their eggs in bits of sand on the ocean floor.  

I look up and down the shoreline, spying parents and their children, men in pairs, and older hands inviting the young into a memory, if not a rite, they will remember all the days of their lives.  

Stones turn under foot. The water laps and whooshes.  In the moonlit darkness, bits of conversation in the softest of tones, are carried out to sea.  It is church-like. 

All night and well into the early morning hours, the Capers scoop the flashing lights into their nets. Just across the Bay, the red-orange flareof the Gabarus Lighthouse greets the moon.  She will not be outdone.

Next time, I’m trading my camera for waders…

I make my way to the water's edge where the Cape Bretoners wait with their nets.  The beacon from the Gabarus lighthouse is the tiny star just under the moon.

I make my way to the water's edge where the Cape Bretoners wait with their nets.  The beacon from the Gabarus lighthouse is the tiny star just under the moon.

A man stands in the light of the moon, net ready, waiting for the Capelin to run toward shore...

A man stands in the light of the moon, net ready, waiting for the Capelin to run toward shore...

A net glistens in the moonlight in Gabaraus Bay.

A net glistens in the moonlight in Gabaraus Bay.

A man loops his net into the air and shoves it into a scrum of Capelin in Gabarus Bay Cape Breton

A man loops his net into the air and shoves it into a scrum of Capelin in Gabarus Bay Cape Breton

A grandfather and his grandson work their nets in the tumult of Capelin swimming for shore in Gabarus Bay, Cape Breton

A grandfather and his grandson work their nets in the tumult of Capelin swimming for shore in Gabarus Bay, Cape Breton

A boy frees the Capelin from his net in Gabarus Bay, Cape Breton

A boy frees the Capelin from his net in Gabarus Bay, Cape Breton

A version of this photo story first appeared in the Cape Breton Community Post on July 13, 2016

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Finding Baleine

By Sher Maryn LeBay

There are places at the edge of the world that pull you up and out of your self by the hair.  They reach in, unlatch your heart from the tendons of memory and want, and throw the crimson-colored center of you into the splash and thunder of the waves.  Call it a cleansing or a rebirth.  It is both.

To find such places requires an opening of the heart-door.  The rest is cared for; you hop on a magic carpet ride summoned by desire alone. 

This is how I found Baleine…

Most days start just the same.  I set out with my forest green knapsack, a Cape Breton Island map, my Fuji camera, a back up iPhone camera and a small bag of roasted sunflower seeds.  Sometimes I remember my tape recorder though I am pretty uneven in my ability to get it going to do what recorders do.

A pad and pen are part of the daily kit…Writers always travel with pads and I carry a tiny one with pink dots on the cover clipped with a purple pen.  It is usually in my back pocket unless I am scaling rocks. At such times I think ahead and tuck the pad in a net sewn to the outside of my knapsack or zipper it up somewhere inside, never recalling which pocket it is stored in when I need it. 

This is one of the hazards of the fine art of paying attention and being amazed:  You lose complete account of the small things like hunger and time and where your pad is or how to turn your recorder on.  Self improvement in these areas is futile.  I tried, albeit half-heartedly, for years. 

I gave up.

Giving up trying takes you into the world of peace and grace. Which is where I want to live.  Which is why I am here in Cape Breton. Do you know how many Capers have said to me that what they love most about this island is its “peacefulness?”  

Many.

So my belief about life is this: peace attracts more peace and the reverse is also true. This is the simplest way I can tell all of you who have asked me with your eyes, if not with your words, how I feel about what is happening in my own country.  

It is not a calamity of one person but Fear seeing itself in every alley and in every face different than its own. My country is working day and night to build a world of guarantees that we shall all be safe. It will not succeed.

And it will cost us nearly everything that is sweet and generous and innocent.  Nearly everything that is good, deeply good, about the American spirit.

And yes, thinking about this makes me sad. Very.

But it inspires the road to Baleine.

There are maybe three or four houses in Baleine, two set back and the others nearer to a cove and a pond that peers out over the sea.  I make my way beyond the houses down the dirt road and spy two stone columns, maybe a couple of feet high with plaques on top. What could possibly be commemorated here in this watery green carpet at the end of the world?

Reading the text, I am stunned.  The aviator, Beryl Markam nosedived her Vega Gull in a bog in Baleine after ice blocked an air line into her fuel tank. She was the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic from east to west.  

But here is the remarkable part: I carry her book about Africa, West With the Night, when I travel because it is a jewel to read and re-read.  The book is on the table near my bed, the back cover facing upward.  The photograph on the back shows her little plane, completely intact, nose buried in the grass and the tail wing straight in the air.  There is no cut line saying: “Aviator Beryl Markham crashed her plane in the tiny fishing village of Baleine, Cape Breton in September, 1936.”

And here I am. At the outskirts of an old story…Hers. And now mine.

The walk to Baleine Head is filled with small perils. 

There is no path, just depressions in the earth filled with water and teeming with polliwogs.  You choose the bog carpet (and all that is hidden beneath) or the six inch caliper rocks tumbled together.  Either is an ankle break lying in wait.  I move cautiously with no thought of turning back.  The deep throated clack of an iron bell sounds over the water.

I make my way to the point where the sea simmers and roils and tumbles down against the rocks blacker than night.  A mother duck sets out into the surf upon spotting me. Her three babies ride the tumult, disappearing into the waves and surfacing again to locate the feathered-periscope-mother who loves them in her daredevil sort of way. The hiss of spray reaches upward, every drop spilling over with liquid light.

The raw and wild power of Baleine pulls me up by the hair and unlatches the heart-door.  

I am the salty spray, the thunder and the baby duck, diving.  There are no notebooks or recorders or countries here; no sadness either.  There is just the Cormorant lifting her wings to the coastal winds…

She is preparing to set out and fly into the one life, waiting.

Me too.

Sher Maryn LeBay is an American writer and photographer who is enchanted by the wonders of the natural wold and inspired by the beauty of ordinary people.  She is in Cape Breton exploring the land and its people.  Contact her at shermarynlebay@gmail.com

 

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The Good Life: Waiting for the Gaspereau

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The Good Life: Waiting for the Gaspereau

By Sher Maryn LeBay

A school of Gaspereau sails as one into the oncoming current in Cape Breton

A school of Gaspereau sails as one into the oncoming current in Cape Breton

In the mottled light under the canopy of alders and maple leaves, thousands of Gaspereau swim against the current  in Cape Breton’s rivers on their way home to their spawning grounds.  

In early Spring, the Gaspereau set out from their ocean homes and their fulsome meals of plankton and tiny insects on a legacy mission.  The impulse is old and deep:  simply that more Gaspereau-kin will join them in the salty sea.  

Like the Monarch butterfly, that several generations later returns to the very same tree in Mexico where its ancestors were born, the Gaspereau tends to return to the same stream where it morphed from a tiny bulbous egg to a strong-boned swimmer.  

To fish the Gaspereau is to enter into one of the many mysterious rhythms of life that guide the plants and creatures of our world.

BELOW:  Gary Hussey of Marion Bridge, Cape Breton, builds his own wire cage and sets it in the stream to fish for the Gaspereau.  He leaves one side of the stream  open so the lucky or clever fish can make it through.  Gary wrestles with an old beaver dam, opening it  to assure the fish have passage to their spawning grounds.  

By the end of the morning he has caught several crate fulls he will sell to the lobstermen for bait. 

 After a time, you see Gary tucked in a tree where he waits for the Gaspereau to run upstream.

 This is "The Good Life" being lived.

First Published in the Cape Breton Community Post on June 15,2016

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Life on the Mira River

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Life on the Mira River

By Sher Maryn LeBay

It is full summer in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a place I have lived for more than five years.

The Canadians in Tucson packed their cars in mid March and drove north; so too, the Americans who grew up in snow globes or rain-pelted worlds and craved more sunlight than such places afford.

I understand the Spring exodus. Our skins are thin, not like the whiptails and collared lizards whose sequined suits parry away the fire-tipped blades of light.  June in the desert is like having six feet of sunlight piled against the window. I check under my car for Diamond Back rattlers and walk the dogs before light nips the crest of the Tucson Mountains. The heat, euphemistically praised as “dry,” is something like living in a pizza oven.

My neighbours with two homes, one in the cool-needled-conifers and one in the aortal sunlight, call it the best of both worlds. If weather were all there is to the matter, I might concur.

But it isn’t.

It is Sunday night in Marion Bridge.  Every space in the parking lot of the Sacred Heart Church is taken. The latecomers are hugging the grassy edge of Trout Brook Road with their cars and scaling the hill with plates of ham salad sandwiches, biscuits and sweets I cannot name.  It has been a long time since I have been inside a Catholic church but there are still jewels in my memory box.

I sit in the pew, expectant, my back squirming in search of softness. I am eager to hear the Capers sing.

Two women from Glace Bay take their place on the altar, right in front of the red glass heart of Jesus. The waning light filters thru the window as they strap on the guitar and pull close to the microphones. The women are coal miners’ daughters and each speaks of her pride in being so.

Every bit of this is new to me.

Years ago, I took a five-hour detour through West Virginia coal country to see if I could understand anything, freshly. Every conversation I’ve heard or participated in about coal has centered on jobs and money or land and air. My drive around flattened mountains added little but sadness. 

Tonight I feel poked awake. This is the second time hearing the song, “Working Man” and I’m certain I haven’t seen coal mining in such a way before — like blood poured into black clay and shaped by necessity and a love of kin.  It is strangely moving and alive. The notes sail above all the earth-bound arguments.

Later, a woman from Trout Brook rises to sing one of a handful of American songs that charms me, still.  “Gershwin’s‘Summertime,’ “ I say to myself“is a sister-song to ‘Working Man’.”  By the end of both, you have flipped over a pail and are sitting next to someone you have never really seen before

None of the songs this night or the people singing them have anything to do with shuttling between conifers and light or skimming off the cream of each world, weather-wise. (After five weeks of rain in your fair land, I doubt anyone would choose Cape Breton for her weather, but that is another story). This bunch of Capers has dug into a vein of life few people touch. Anywhere.

I wonder if they know this.

A woman whacks her right thigh with a specially rigged pair of wooden spoons while her husband pulls the bow of his fiddle back and forth.  Another man opens the fan of his accordion like he is driving a delicious old black cadillac down a long country road. In the end, all the musicians and singers squeeze together on the altar to sing a local song about life on the Mira River. 

They hold nothing back.

I am an outlander or a “from away” in Caper-speak. My seeing is different than yours. My hearing, too. Sometimes an outlander awakens a memory, undresses the coat of time, and spotlights the glimmering world, anew.

Let me tell you something: I have never seen people cherish a place this surely.

I wonder how you come by this…how such a love of place is created or born.

Old Bridge spanning the Mira River at Mira Gut, Cape Breton

Old Bridge spanning the Mira River at Mira Gut, Cape Breton

First Published in the Cape Breton Post on June 25,2016

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First Feelings

By Sher Maryn LeBay

In so many ways, the journey was inconceivable: a woman with two older dogs setting out with every crevice of her car filled, maneuvering the jam-packed American highways en-route to a place she had never been.

It wasn’t a vacation or even anything as exotic sounding as adventure travel that prompted her to dare the journey of 3,500 miles from Arizona’s Sonoran Desert to the watery world of Cape Breton.

Nor was it a protest against a country she barely recognized anymore as the place that once welcomed the tired and weary and hope-filled souls sailing from the clutch of hunger or fear or any other lack you can name.

(The torch light, stretched heavenward on the verdigris arm of the lady in the New York Harbor, barely flickers anymore. Something dear in us as Americans is going out. The woman, driving north, north-east with her two sweet dogs, does not know why this is so, only that it is true).

But she was not driving away from something, rather toward. Every true-blooded-pioneer knows the difference, deep as instinct.

In Moncton, I scramble out of bed at 5 a.m., two insistent paws pressing on my right shoulder. Snapping on the leashes, I pull open the door to mist and rain. “You asked for this” I say out loud. All those months without a drop of rain in the Tucson skies and the repetitive scorch light of the sun, fingered the longing in you for water in its varied forms. “Here you are.”

We drive the 104 highway through sheets of rain, dipping in and out of pockets of fog. My Pomeranians are snoring. It takes all day to get to Marion Bridge. There is a reason for this, besides weather.

The woman at the Welcome Center suggested I get off the highway and head for Pictou. “Even though it’s raining” she says “it’s a prettier drive along the coast. There are lots of little places to eat and besides, you’ll get there just as fast.” I doubt ambling the coast is as swift as the highway, but I didn’t come here for “swift.”

I take her advice.

Anne and Mike Foster, the people whose home I am renting for six months, are there to greet me when i finally arrive to Marion Bridge. They have driven up from Halifax. Their home is perched on a hill overlooking the Mira River. I get out of the car, shake the kinks from my arms and back and spy a snow shoe hare in her spring coffee coat looking at me with one eye. It’s the first one I have ever seen.

On Sunday morning, after a night of very little sleep, I eat Pinkie’s Pancakes at Missy’s Diner in Albert Bridge. Afterward, Mike and Anne take me over to meet Colleen and Gary Hussey, people they describe as friends for life. Mike looks at me and says “They will be there for you no matter the time of day or night.”

He has no idea what that means to me. Or maybe he does.

Standing in the heat of the kitchen, Colleen tells me she has an extra ticket for a concert that night to raise money for the people fleeing the fire in Fort McMurray. “Do you want to come?” she asks. I say yes, not knowing how I can pull up the juice after seven days of driving.

Just hours later, I am thumping my thigh and tapping my foot. Tears stream down my cheeks I am laughing so hard. I look around at the 5,500 people filling the seats. Together, they tip the cup with a quarter million. It is strangely intimate for such a crowd and sweetly generous. Something inside of me, moves.

I do not have a speckle of Caper blood in me, which is to say I have no kin here. Not even a ribbon of friendship awaited me. It is like that with pioneers. They envision new worlds and leap into invisible arms. Trust is requisite for the journey.

I came to Cape Breton for heart. That’s the world I am capable of creating. That’s the world I want. With the willful insistence of a woman who knows deep down she can have much more in life, I set out.

Heart always recognizes itself. And I have.

First Published in the Cape Breton Post on June 11,2016

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