Folk singer and conservationist Sam Lee meets a songbird
My first meeting with a nightingale still seems like an unworldly baptism, a nocturnal awakening and a revelation that nature had fully arrived, filled with artful compulsion. I’ve long believed that the natural world’s glorious treasures appear in ways that only nature herself decides, and not always in the dependable, convenient way we hope to experience them, on our terms and to our time-keeping. As the rule goes, when out seeking enchantment on nature’s ground: never expect. The whimsical – even capricious – way nature offers up her rare gifts means that you often have to make great preparations to experience those delicate encounters, or be lucky enough to be in that special place at that special time. My first nightingale moment was pure luck. This tiny bird led me across a threshold and introduced me to a way of being in nature that I’d never reckoned with. The experience was a meditation on stillness, yet also a provocation to dance with abandon.
In not such a dissimilar way to birdsong, at the heart of the folk-song tradition – for which I am an interpreter and arranger – lies the solo unaccompanied voice. Silence is a vital part of the composition of performing in that old way. This bird singing unadorned in the raptured quiet of the night, so similar to my core practice when performing without any instrumentation, challenged me. The nightingale exemplified the daring possibilities that many artists aspire to. This was a guide to musicality; a masterclass in melodic explorations. In the nightingale, I had finally found my teacher and guide to instruct me in the great art of decorating silence.
It was after dark on a mid-May evening at Arlington Reservoir in Sussex and my friends had invited me to hear the nightingale sing. The night was chilly, as the day’s heat had condensed into a heavy dew, so I was wrapped up warmly, in readiness for my quest to find a bird that I’d never thought of seeking out, let alone making a pilgrimage to find. I’ve never considered myself a bird watcher, birder or twitcher. I wasn’t even sure what these terms really meant. I had worked in bushcraft when I was younger, so I have always been close to birds. But the nightingale is not a bird that can readily be seen in parks, gardens or in most parts of the country. An encounter with it requires planning.
That night my friends and I reached the edge of the reservoir, with its tall, woody treeline in front of us. In the distance I could hear the unusual drips and diphthongs – gliding vowels – of something that, at first, didn’t seem bird-like at all. The sound seemed too sinewy, too muscular even, to come from a bird. In the disorientation of the night I began to doubt my own ears. I even questioned whether one of my friends was taking me for a ride. But as we approached, the sounds grew in resolution, became cleaner and more fulsome.
We wandered, uncertain, towards the source, stopping and reorienting ourselves as the sounds grew closer and closer. The air felt heavy with the nightingale’s song, in the same way that the smell of a hawthorn hedge-line in flower, with its sweet, fetid scent, lingers in the nostrils. The nightingale’s song induced a similar response, an intoxicating, sedating sensation. The birds seemed to breathe a musical condensation that dripped from the branches of the trees in inky deliquescence.
We sat and listened to the nightingale’s aria for what felt like hours. Other nightingales rose up in response, and a polyphony of birds emerged, weaving the woods together. To me, the song was visual, despite the darkness. The night was pitch-dark and silent, and my eyes filled in the black with sonograms that vibrated, grew and resonated with the waves of music, producing a bodily synaesthesia in this sleeping wilderness. I was reduced, childlike, to a state of wonderment, grinning inanely and transported through deep time, deep song and deep earth.
After this first night-time liaison, I became obsessed.
Extract from The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird by Sam Lee, published by Century.