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.
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…
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.