For the first time this year, I finally heard the very weird sound that a nightjar makes. It is described as a churring, but it reminded me of the sound of the cicadas that you get all around the Mediterranean as the light fades. Another night singing bird that I am yet to hear is the nightingale. I have never been lucky enough to hear one. Yet. It is on the list to do at some point.
These birds fly up from Africa and as they arrive in Europe their night-time singing is one of the heralds of springtime. They have captivated people for thousands of years with their breathtaking songs. Sam Lee first came across them through folk songs. An accomplished musician in his own right, this connection that folk music had to the natural world felt right and helped him become deeply rooted in this music. He first heard a nightingale sing when he was invited by friends on a cool May evening to the Arlington Reservoir. As they walked to the edge he could hear something that didn’t sound right.
The birds seemed to breathe a musical condensation that dripped from the branches of the trees in inky deliquescence
They sat and listened for what felt like hours and they started to hear others responding to the song of the first one. They are small non-descript brown birds that are hiding in scrub and as it is nighttime when they are active, pretty impossible to spot. But his ears told him this was something magical, he was reduced to a childlike state, grinning inanely at the sound and he was beguiled and hooked.
It is the beginning of a journey that will take him back through the history books to the Greeks, discovering the places that they overwinter in Africa and tracing their influence in folk music, folklore and in the art they have inspired. This is quite a different take on the natural history books that are being released at the moment, rather than being a memoir about him, seen through the prism of the nightingale it is full of richly linked and intertwined anecdotes.
Whilst he is deeply concerned about the loss of the habitat that these magnificent singers need to be able to survive, there are strong links to his other interest which is saving old folk songs for posterity. I didn’t find the writing exceptional, but it is very readable and his enthusiasm for his feathered subject is limitless. What is exceptional though is his passion for these birds, along with the action he’s taking over the environment something that is very evident that he writes about in the epilogue.