A few years ago, a group of friends and I followed Barbara Dickson, the Scottish pop star turned folk singer, into a wood deep in the green heart of Kent. We were there as part of Singing With Nightingales, an immersive experience run by another folk singer, Sam Lee. It was night and we had no torches. We came to a small clearing where we sat, silent, until from far off, then closer, and then so close that the sound seemed to be the voice of the very trees around us, a nightingale sang. After listening to its otherworldly carolling for a while, Lee and Dickson took turns singing back to the nightingale, old shanties and folk songs, praising the beauty of its voice, recognising the importance of its role in that bright space where culture and nature meet.
Now Lee, a tousle-haired former Mercury prize nominee (for his 2012 debut album, Ground of Its Own), has turned from song to prose with The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, a beautiful, lyrical, heartfelt book about the songbird. Part nature writing, part memoir, part miscellany, every page of this book benefits from the incredible intimacy that Lee has built up with the bird over the years of his “undoubtedly romantic and whimsical” pilgrimages to listen to, and sing back to, nightingales.
At a time when it feels as if every week brings the latest H Is for Hawk wannabe to the overstuffed natural history sections of our bookshops, nature writers need to be able to call upon the authority of lived experience to bring authenticity to their work. Lee has devoted almost a decade to the nightingale, finding new ways of engaging with this great harbinger of spring, of representing it in song and in words. The Nightingale is buoyed along on the tide of Lee’s enthusiasm, and if the prose is occasionally asked to carry a little more emotion than it can bear, or if the language deepens to a twilight shade of purple, it is not only forgivable, it’s almost the point. As Lee points out, nightingales are so gaudily extravagant in their singing, so strangely able to utter “every possible character, tone and temperature imaginable”, that any attempt to describe their song in words is doomed to fail.
This might have been a melancholy book. The British population of nightingales has declined from hundreds of thousands in the 1960s to the 5,000 or so left now. The causes of this diminution are numerous, from the climate crisis and industrialised agriculture, to the explosion of muntjac deer numbers in the UK, to changes in farming practices in the birds’ African wintering grounds. Lee is clear that without coordinated action, “in my lifetime I will see these birds extinguished from our land”. His Singing With Nightingales project provides a model for how we might help the bird stage a recovery, by winding it firmly back into our national cultural identity.
Lee ends by imagining that, in the not-too-distant future, every year, when “spring is firmly stirring from its winter sleep”, families might get together to “do a Nightingaler” – seeking out the birds in the woods in May. There, they would stop and bask in the unique beauty of the nightingale’s song, and reflect upon how wonderful it is to “hear this bird again after a long, cold winter”. From this recognition, this intense noticing, a movement to conserve the birds might grow. Certainly my appreciation of however many nightingalers are left to me will be for ever heightened by the time I’ve spent with this generous, sensitive book about our most glorious songbird.