Resilience Reimagined: 5:  Northern Lights (The Jerry Cans)

Northern Lights. Courtesy of NASA

Do did you ever visit Scarborough? No, not that one in Ontario. The Scarborough that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang about on their 1966 album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” in the song Scarborough Fair. You’re likely humming it already: “Remember me to one who lives there…”

In the past few months, music has spoken to me in a decidedly different voice. The more I paid attention to pieces I thought I knew, the more I realised that what was pulling inside the was the emerging  voice of resilience, those strengths we draw on when confronted by forces that can harm or diminish us.Cover Art

Simon and Garfunkel learned Scarborough Fair from a British folk singer, who learned it as a child from someone else, someone who likely learned it from the music historian Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), who reclaimed hundreds of traditional folk songs on both sides of the Atlantic. The oral tradition is captured, preserved, recorded, and adapted – as Simon and Garfunkel also added their particular “spin” onto an old folk song.

I first heard the music featured in today’s item in that best of all possible ways to encounter something new: quite by chance as I was driving, not listening very carefully to the radio. And no, it was CBC and not the nostalgia channel. Today’s song is the work of The Jerry Cans, a group of musicians in Nunavut. Their work integrates indigenous language and music styles. By the time the song had ended I realised I was singing along with the chorus: “Nalligilaurakku!” all the while having no clue as to what I was saying.Cecil Sharpe. Courtesy of BBC

For the rest of this item to make sense, you might want to listen to the Jerry Cans now. Be sure to watch the simple but beautiful animation work in the video:

Welcome back.

You may think the tune is familiar because it is. Northern Lights is yet another lively and lovely riff on the folk-classic Scarborough Fair, and that refrain, “Nalligilaurakku” is “I used to love him/her,” evoking “he/she was once a true love of mine.”

I like the energy. It’s joyful. I also enjoyed learning about music in Nunavut in the various articles I read about the Jerry Cans. To be a musician anywhere demands resilience. To be musicians in Canada’s North, in the era of Covid-19 multiplies this several times over.

And inspiration and resilience is where those indescribable northern lights come in. I remember the first time I saw them. It was in northern Manitoba in the grip of winter and I was making a phone call back to Winnipeg, from a payphone in a frosted phone booth. I looked up and had a Gerard Manley Hopkins moment. This is how he described his first encounter with the Northern Lights in September 1870:

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ Courtesy National Portrait GalleryMy eye was caught by beams of light and dark like the crown of thorny rays the sun makes behind a cloud. At first I thought of silvery cloud until I saw that these were more luminous and did not dim the clearness of the stars in the Bear. They rose slightly radiating thrown out from the earthline. Then I saw the pulses of light one after another rise and pass upwards arched in shape but waveringly and with the arch broken.  They seemed to float, not following the warp of the sphere as falling stars look to do but free though concentrical with it.   (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, ed. W. H. Gardner, Penguin, 1976, p. 121.)

Hopkins ends his initially clinical journal entry with this phrase: “This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years…” Making his encounter with this phenomenon a moment that is both inside and outside of time at one and the same time.

Fleeting moments of joy, hope, inspiration, awe. Stamped in memory. They surprise and inspire. They ignite resilience. And oh, how we need them.


Next in Resilience Reimagined: A Nurse’s Courage 

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 08:03h, 16 September Reply

    Only once have I been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, about thirty years ago one late August night in Haliburton. Breathtaking.

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