So it was that after almost three weeks of recovering from the fatigue and coughing of a mild, but nevertheless very unpleasant covid infection, following right on the heels of being involved in some intense nonviolent civil disobedience, I longed to be out of the city and into the healing balm of the Spring flowering.
Taking a dawn train out to the edge of London, still sucking throat sweets to control my coughing, I was out – or rather I was right in. Entering the greenery, I found myself instantly surrounded by a symphony of song in the Lea Valley Regional Park, a huge area of reclaimed gravel pits, small islands, marsh and tangled scrublands, riotously exuberant with green willow, alder, poplar and masses of comfrey just coming into bloom.
We all know the term ‘dawn chorus’, yet to be in the experiential midst of it is a life affirming experience. Jaded by the omnipresence of human created soundscapes in the city, it is immeasurably refreshing to be immersed in the more than human world; in this case, especially of bird song.
It’s been a cherished and important ritual of mine for years now to make an annual pilgrimage to listen to the nightingales every spring in late April or early May. I know exactly where to go when the migrating nightingales return from Africa each spring faithfully to the very same thickets in this rather obscure edgeland setting on the outskirts of the metropolis.
As I walk along the early morning path next to the ribbons of streams and lakes, I am bathed in the ecstasy of the dawn chorus. There’s the piercing intensity of staccato calls of song thrushes. Every fifty metres or so, I seem to enter a new thrush territory with each bird proclaiming his presence to everyone else around; I’d never heard so many thrushes with those clear ringing notes, each tending to be repeated the characteristic three times. A flash of electric blue low and fast above the stream announces the kingfisher, who is gone almost before cognition; you’re left wondering did you really see it or did you just imagine this resplendent jewel?
And then I hear the unmistakable sound of my other spring love: the double note of the cuckoo. Always hard to locate the source of its sound, the notes echo enigmatically across the lakes and scrub. Then I’m drawn to a ruckus from the garrulous black headed gulls in their nesting colony on the small islands on the lake. They are mobbing a bird which they clearly think is a hawk and thus a threat to them. I realise that it’s actually a cuckoo, which looks quite similar to a male sparrowhawk. The cuckoo flies off and perches on a dead tree, where I observe him calling. I watch for a while and then watch him mate with a female cuckoo who looks similar though with a brownish chest. A rare sight these days.
Nowadays far too few people in England will ever hear or see the cuckoo, since its habitat and food sources have relentlessly been destroyed and it has vanished from much of the countryside; and most people will never know what they have missed.
Arriving at my favourite spot, I sit down on a rock beside a stream next to an impenetrable thicket of creepers, scrub and low trees. Right away, I’m in the audience of a nightingale, with another one singing fainter in the distance – though ‘listening’ makes it sound far too passive. The little bird is close by and intensely loud, the notes reverberating through my body, making it an intensely sensual experience. I feel the frequencies pulsing through my body and into my heart; it’s a visceral rather than a romantic experience at ninety decibels.
Never once do I even glimpse him, even though by the almost deafening volume of his performance, he must be very close. But that’s part of the mystery and allure of nightingales; I am more than happy for him to remain invisible and instead to experience the astonishing impact and virtuosity of his song.
If you google ‘nightingale’s song’ on your ipad, it’s a pale imitation of the powerful bodily experience of being close to a living singing nightingale. Some people on initially hearing the nightingale’s song – (and again, it’s usually from just listening to a recording since few people these days in the UK have the good fortune to listen to the real thing) – can feel that it’s not as beautiful as the poets down the ages have said. And it’s true for example, compared to the warm, comforting and melodious song of the common blackbird, the nightingale’s song is not so melodious.
Yet the virtuosity is staggering; trills and runs, clucks, crescendos, the heights and the depths of sound at an impossible volume for such a small bird. He voices in the order of 1500 different sounds and 250 different phrases, far more than most other songbirds, cycling ever new combinations of improvisation with explosive ecstaticness. It makes it nigh impossible to describe the song in mere words.
And the nightingale is a master of timing and of silence; for he (and it is the male who does the singing) does not sing in a constant stream, but leaves long silent pauses, plunging me into meditation. There is such power and pregnancy in the silence; as much so as in the notes he sings. The notes seem to penetrate through to the centre of existence and then the pauses between phrases allow one to go deeper into the imagination and heart, and the mystery of form and emptiness. Sitting on my rock next to the thicket, the nearby nightingale draws me out of exclusively anthropocentric sensibilities, across a threshold into the interbeing of the greater more-than-human world.
Perhaps the nightingale sings out of joy and even enters its own meditation. Certainly biologist Rupert Sheldrake thinks that birds may partly just be singing for sheer joy and that a lizard basking in the sun on a rock may be in bliss. I would have dismissed such notions as fanciful in the past, but as I unlearn more, and become less estranged from nature, now I am inclined to agree. Who can say? Folk singer and song collector Sam Lee, who leads small groups of people into the woods to listen to nightingales, puts it well when he says that the birds have learned the great art of ‘decorating silence.’
The nightingale is completely intertwined with our culture throughout the centuries and millennia, across all of Europe and Eurasia. From Homer in the Odyssey through Persian poets to Milton, Keats and Wordsworth, to the 20th century, the nightingale has featured in thousands of poems, folk songs and prose. Since ancient times, the bird acquired a symbolic meaning variously as the bird of spring, of night, of mourning and of love. The nightingale is embedded in our cultural psyche.
Sam Lee has collected ancient folk songs from the oral tradition all over the British Isles, in haste before the last singers and lineage holders pass away. He found that traditional singers, often from traveller backgrounds, had learned from nightingales in their style of singing; the songs and their rendition having been passed down for generations. They are our indigenous people and Sam Lee adds that they are to a certain extent our First Nations.
His ‘singing with nightingales’ events are occasions where he both plays and sings music with nightingales in the woods in the company of a small audience in the late evenings. In this he is attempting a modern resurgence of that ancient connection and experience with nature which for millenia had been our birthright. He has found that nightingales will change key and adapt their singing to respond to and duet with live music played near them.
Interestingly Sam says,
“In many ways, you know, living in England with a very strange secularity within our folk repertoire has allowed me to explore what a sacred spiritual form of practice might be with these birds and how they might enable a re-enchantment. I feel like nature is my spiritual leader in this respect and the nightingale is my imam at the top of that tower calling the prayer out.”
Experiences like the above can serve as an important kind of re-enchantment for us jaded indoor netizens. We need to find a new sense of indigeneity and belonging in order to love and care for our living world. Centuries ago, millions of inhabitants of the British Isles were dispossessed from our ancestral lands by the enclosure acts. Even today we are still not allowed to tread on an astounding 92% of our own land, so it is little wonder that we have become so estranged from nature. What passes for much of English rural life is still the aftermath of the colonial system of aristocratic estates and gentleman farming which claimed the commons as private property, and then degraded them for their own purposes.
Romantic poets saw the nightingale as melancholic though Coleridge strongly disagreed with this characterisation. I don’t feel the song to be melancholic but more as an opener of the doors of perception to a deeper enlivenment; creating a portal into our sensual being. Sam Lee recounts the sometimes cathartic responses of listeners to the power of the nightingale’s song at his events.
But I do feel a sadness that the nightingale is disappearing from these shores. There are fewer now and they steadily decline almost everywhere in this land. Am I part of the last generation who will hear nightingales and listen to the spring call of the cuckoo? I hope not. The tangled haunts so loved by the nightingale are vanishing in our life-denying crusade for tidiness and ‘productivity’ in the countryside. And its habitat is shrinking in its sub-saharan winter haunts. Also the climate is inexorably heating and the Sahara expanding; it all makes life much more tenuous for this little migrant bird.
As the morning progresses, I take my leave of the nightingale and head back towards home, my joy tinged with sadness, but unquestionably more alive and grateful to be in communion.
We are completely interdependent and entangled; after all, we’re all in this together.
On the path back to the train station, I hear the songs of the other migrant warblers: chiffchaff, reed warbler, whitethroat and blackcap. I love them all but I have a special love for the nightingale.
…..Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown……..
……Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
From Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats