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