Monday, October 27, 2008

Destination: Meat Cove

ver since I arrived in Cape Breton, I've wanted to go to Meat Cove. One might wonder why. The name leaves little to the imagination, and rumors abound concerning the local color. I ask you to simply pull out a map of Cape Breton, locate Meat Cove, and there you'll have your answer. The fishing village is the northern most outpost on the island, it's a reels cast from Newfoundland, completely isolated, nearly impossible to get to, and undeniably dangerous. So there you have it. I had to go.

I started hearing Meat Cove rumors the first week I was in Glace Bay. Only one family lives at the outpost, they guard their village, and their traditional fishing grounds with an insane jealousy. They bicker amongst themselves, murder is an annual event, and incest and excessive drug aren't just the norm, but encouraged. The rumors only piqued my interest more, how could a small fishing community harbor such extreme violence and dysfunction?

On Wednesday of last week, my friend Laura, a fiddler from Maine, called me and asked if I wanted to camp in meat Cove, one of the few folks from "away" who was still floating around the island like flotsam after the wake of Celtic Colours, Laura was hoping to see the northern end of the island before she returned to the states. I didn't hesitate to agree to go, and the next day, my host parents waved me goodbye from the front door of my home in Glace Bay...

"Good-bye, have fun, call if you have any problems. If my daughters told me they were going to Meat Cove, I'd tie them up in the basement."

Two hours later, halfway to our final destination, I read a satirical Wikipedia article out loud to Laura that my host-father, Adrian, had found on-line. Alongside the signs that you're in Meat Cove (ex: you have one set of grandparents, you go to a family reunion to pick up women), Oscar Wilde was quoted extensively, and seems to have been a regular visitor to outpost, among various other below-the-belt comments, the Irish play-write is quoted in saying of the people of Meat Cove: "If you can't keep it in your pants, keep it in your family." Halfway through the article an invisible third party seizes the pen, and this un-biased eavesdropper reports a questionable comment made during this now-infamous Wilde family outing: "'You're looking pretty hot'...Oscar Wilde to his brother on a visit to Meat Cove."

"Maybe we should camp in Aspy Bay instead." Laura suggests.

Outside Aspy Bay, we pass through the isolated fishing village of Neil's Harbor. Like many of the rural towns of Cape Breton, Neil's Harbor looks sad. The houses are peeling, the lobster traps are hauled in and stacked by doorsteps like forgotten Sunday papers, while the fishing vessels themselves, noble on the water, tilt at odd angles on their concrete pilings. I think of some of the off-season fishermen I'd met in Kerry, disoriented and bored during the winter months, they cannot think of what to do with bodies that are used to the sway of the sea and the pull of the lines, and so they collapse on barstools, defeated, and wait for spring to come around again.

We rent a Cabin at the Aspy Bay Campground, build a fire and wait for our recently-purchased mussels to pop open and reveal their savory treasure. I can hear the waves complaining at the base of the cliffs, the human lights wink out along the shorelines far below, as the milky-way gains in brilliancy, seeming to lay a mantle down to the brightly-lit Newfoundland ferry that balances on the edge of the sea-line, and appears to be preparing for a departure upon the skies celestial route.

We wake early and drive the extra hour into Meat Cove. Passing the small general store that advertises, ice-cream and candy, but displays no hopeful signs of commerce. As soon as we see the Meat Cove campsite, we thank our lucky stars we decided not to camp there last night. The restless sleeper might have rolled out of their tent and off the cliff, and even worse: the campsite is in plain view of the village. The Meat Covians, would have known we were there...and we would have been the only campers.

Enter Sean, Meat Cove's friendly campsite volunteer.

"You guys don't have to pay." He told us, gesturing to a sign that announces, "$2.00 for the use of picnic tables. "We're pretty much done for the season."

Aside from the absence of a few teeth, Sean seems completely normal. He's articulate, polite, and surprisingly attractive. A one-piece, blue work suit comes to an end at his rubber fishing boots, and his hands are rough and strong from hauling traps. He's guarded and hesitant to speak about the people in his village. I can't blame him, he knows the rumors as well as anyone else in Cape Breton, and it's his family that end as the butt of these jokes. He eventually concedes that fifty people live in the village year-round, that the easiest way to get down to the beach is a path from the far-end of the campsite, and that the outpost is, "great" in the winter.

He encourages us to check out the mural some creative tourists painted on the boathouse a few years back (see picture below) and hands us a brochure that advertises the campground and provides a brief history of the cove's inhabitants: "The MacLellan family has been fishing in Meat Cove for six generations. Come experience the wonder of Cape Breton's most northerly village."

Sean tells Laura the general store has been closed for three years, I miss that tidbit of information and make the trek down to the building, only to discover a dimly-lit room filled with ripped mattresses, beer cans, and cigarette butts. Eventually, we wave Sean goodbye, and make our way back down the island, just in time for the Saturday night dance in West Mabou.

In between sets, I tell a local beef-farmer, Gerald, that I'm staying for the winter. His glazed look of horror stops the conversation dead.

"Do you know...WHAT IT'S LIKE HERE...IN THE WINTER!?!"

Thinking back on this exchange today, I'm reminded of the Cape Breton author, Alistair MacLeod's, shorty story, "Island," set on the lighthouse dwelling of Margaree Island off the coast of Inverness county. The heroine of the story, whose family has run the lighthouse and lived on the islands for generations, when faced with her death, laments not her own mortality, but the end of her people's mark upon the landscape. She cannot fathom that someday, unknowing visitors might not know the nicknames for the rocks and coves, the places where people met and loved, waited, and mourned. I have to think that it's this phenomenon that keeps folks in a place like Cape Breton. It's what keeps Gerald, who knows the fierceness of the winter wind, on the island year round, it's what makes me "tough" for sticking the year out here, and's what keeps the MacLellans fishing the angry black rocks around Meat Cove for yet another generation.

Meat Cove Pictures

Margaree Island
Meat Cove General Store
I think I could get used to this town...
Meat Cove
Neil's Harbour
Is this a road sign?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Channeling Ashley

The Celtic Colours festival began the Friday before last with a performance honoring the Galician bagpiper Carlos Nunez in Port Hawkesbury. I missed the first performance. My mom arrived in Glace Bay earlier that day, and we spent the night at the Vespers by the Sea Bed and Breakfast, in a part of town I have never seen, where the shoreline shelves abruptly out into the sea, and the houses stagger haphazardly towards that sudden drop off into the ocean below. I imagine I'm walking through a half-empty library with no bookends. My mother tells me she has never seen a place so like Bethel Alaska, making me wonder if that was the reason why it all seemed so strangely familiar at times.

Every night for the next eight days there was a concert to attend in a different village around island. On Wednesday evening, after my mother left, I drove to Glendale to attend the, "ceilidh in the glen." At the time, I couldn't remember who was scheduled to play, and I had just about had my fill of driving. At the start of the show, when the lights dimmed, an elderly man shuffled up to the mic and sighed dramatically, "Well folks we've got some great music for you tonight, some Gaelic singing, some dancing, and some fiddling. Unfortunately our scheduled pianist broke her arm a few days back and it isn't quite healed yet, but don't worry, we've brought in Ashley MacIsaac in to sub for her. I think he brought his fiddle too."

Out came Ashely MacIsaac and my bad mood disappeared as quickly as the complimentary oatcakes at intermission. For the first half of the concert, Ashely backed up on piano a young Cape Breton fiddler who was making her first festival appearance, and who subsequently, was shaking as intensely as any one of the hydrant colored leaves along the well-traveled cabot trail ...nothing like baptism by fire, I thought. After all the rumors and controversy I'd heard surrounding one of the island's most famous fiddlers, I expected Ashley to a: either mouth some profanities, or b: expose himself before the night was over. In the end, he behaved like a perfect gentleman, cracked a few g-rated jokes, and brought the crowd to their feet with a blast tunes at the end of the show.

Three days before I'd started the Buddy MacMaster School of Fiddling, and later that evening, I made the sagacious decision not to go to the festival club almost two hours away at the Gaelic College in St. Anne's. I had a lineup of teachers I just couldn't sleep through: Jerry Holland, Andrea Beaton, Wendy MacIsaac, Mattie Rankin, Kyle MacNeil, Duane Cote, Colin Grant, Glen Graham, and Dave MacIsaac. During lunch and after the classes, Kinnon Beaton led group jams until the students scattered at dinnertime for the evening concerts.

At the end of the week, I made it to the after hours festival club, and after four hours of staged performance, three hours of back-stage jam sessions, and five greasy fried breakfasts at five a.m. I became adept in rooting out empty dorm beds that were otherwise reserved for bands. The first night, my fellow freeloaders and I found a room wide open with four empty beds. At one the next day there came a knock on the door, disgruntled, my neighbor stumbled out of bed to answer it.

"Good afternoon! Have the girls left yet?"



Two hours later the bagpipers ceilidh started under our window.

"I forgot that was today." mumbled a voice to my right, "I wonder, is it Nunez?"

"I think it's later than that." Came the response from above.

Three hours later, I got out of bed and went to another concert.

Saturday evening was my last night at the festival club, after the show, all the performers gathered in the backstage room, where a massive session ensued. For more than two hours, some of the best traditional players from Cape Breton, Scotland and Ireland entertained the dwindling party goers. Too shy to join in, I watched a séan nós singer in a trench coat and Kurt Cobain-style mop, bang on a bodhrán, while a Cuban bag piper attempted to revive my high-school level Spanish. After receiving one too many responses in Gaelspirish, he gave up and wandered off.

"You know, you can see where the stories of playing music all night in the fairy fort came from, these people are just in a trance." My Gaelic teacher roared above the din. He had been in a milling frolic performance earlier that day.

"By the way, you how I told you the Gaelic midterm is on Thursday? The bad news's on Monday. The Good news don't have to write it...want a beer?"

At five I found a bed on a couch in an empty lounge on the second floor that doubled as a classroom during the Gaelic language weekends. At two the next day, housekeeping started their rounds, eventually busting in on my makeshift bedroom.

"Good afternoon! When are you heading out?"

"Thirty minutes?"


An hour later, after toweling off with the complimentary bathmat in the communal shower, I headed down the road to the lakeside restaurant to get a slice of German apple pie and free refills on my coffee. Celtic Colours was over, my head was pounding, and even the dimming leaves seemed to reflect the aura of anti-climactic gloom that was settling upon the island. Winter would be here soon. A few minutes later the front door opened and in shuffled the Cuban bagpiping band.

"Buenas Dias. Here alone?"

It would be a good day after all.

Celtic Colours Pictures

The Fall Colors
Festival Club
Backstage Jam
Me at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou

Monday, October 13, 2008

Buddy MacMaster School

I won't be posting today, it's Celtic Colours and the Buddy MacMaster Fiddle School is running, check back next Monday!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Where I'm Bound to Land

When you enter into the Sydney region of Cape Breton, the sign welcoming you into the industrial heart of the island hints at the more than concrete and commerce: "Welcome to Cape Breton regional municipality, a tapestry of cultures." Really, this cultural richness is present all over the island, and I was able to taste a little of it myself last Friday at a dinner party in Goose Cove, a stone's throw down the road from the Gaelic college of St. Anne's.

Last Thursday at Rolly's Wharf, I had dinner with a retired construction worker and closet fiddler by the name of Jim Campbell. The session was in full swing. In between tunes we chatted about our families. Jim comes from a family of ten and most of his siblings are still living and working on the island. He believes Cape Breton changed dramatically during the two years he went away to work as a young man, but he can't say how. Three hours later, the session is still swinging, and I feel like I know Jim's family as well as my own.

Eventually, we were content and comfortable enough to settle in and listen quietly to the tunes. During one of the lulls I noticed a middle-aged man talking to the lighthouse keeper, Paul Cranford. I don't know what made the fellow particularly interesting to me. Maybe it was that I'd never seen him before. His hand-carved walking stick and kind, open face probably helped. He eventually came over and introduced himself. Paul MacDonald was his name, he taught at St. Xavier's University in Antigonish, had worked with another Fulbright scholar years ago, and invited me to sit in on his group's rehearsal for the Celtic Colours festival the following evening.

Dinner time the next day, I went to meet Paul at his house in Goose Cove. I lost cell phone service at the crest of a hill, but managed to find my way down the bumpy dirt road to his small cottage. We headed down the road to Paul Cranford's house, or what he calls home the months he's not out on the lighthouse.

Paul Cranford is not originally from Cape Breton, but his love for the music has shaped his life. When he's out at the lighthouse he practices fiddle constantly, he has put countless books together of Cape Breton tunes, and his website allows anyone accessibility to traditional sheet music. Paul's wife is from Western Canada, red-haired, fair, a musician and artist, Sarah is not originally of the island herself, but like Paul, came for the music and never quite got around to leaving. Their house is beautiful. Light plays softly on the hardwood floors and Sarah's pottery decorates the kitchen. An old parlor piano dominates the dining room, with a bell-shaped mandolin resting atop its cluttered top, tipped precipitously on its side amidst loose sheet music and handmade cards.

A bearded luthier by the name of Otis sat on the far side of the table, his wife directly to my right. When she spoke I thought of the Adirondacks of New York, something in her voice, the kindness of her eyes made me think of friends back home. She tells me later the comes from the countryside of New York, she went to Caffe Lena once and saw Mississippi John Hurt play. She was barefoot and young, and the blues-god was concerned she couldn't afford shoes. Later Paul would let me play the guitar Otis made for him, and I'd run my fingers longingly over the carved knot work on its head.

Eventually, the final band member, Paper arrives. Although his roots are Hungarian, Paper grew up near Montreal, where he was well known on the fiddle scene. Now he lives in Cape Breton and golfs avidly. Paper is slight and serious, he recycles the same few sweaters weekly, and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. He's the last person I could picture on a golf course. These friends that come from all over, with their various passions and histories, share something priceless: their love for the music and their ability to make it...beautifully.

When the group starts rehearsing, I grab a knitted blanket, wrap myself up, and take a seat on the floor by the living room door. Once they started playing, the music becomes a living, organic thing. Otis has an ear for harmonies, Paul knows a million tunes, Paper plays concertina as beautifully as he fiddles. In between tunes the group squabbled and argued over the set list, but always, the creation is the same, a sharing and blending, that mixes in the pulsing of the walls, the reflections in the window panes, and the slight whistle at the door of the approaching rainstorm. By the end of the night I want to cry. Sarah seems embarrassed that I've witnessed some minor squabbles. I want to tell her that I could care less. That what she shares with her friends is beautiful, that it's something I've always searched for, and that I hope to God to find before I die. I want to ask Otis's wife how she found her way, barefoot from Caffe Lena, to the shores of Cape Breton and to a home amidst this particular grouping of soul mates.

At the end of the night I take the English town ferry home. During the two minute crossing the wind picks up, the deck see-saws and I think for a minute that we're going to be blown off course. I imagine where the ferry would end up if I was carried out to sea, whether or not this particular mixture of wind and rain and deep-running tide would deposit me on the shores of wherever it is I'm bound to land.