Notes on a songbird – a song of loss and hope that builds up
The Nightingale: Notes on a songbird
My favorite form of natural history note is one where wildlife sightings are confirmed by the butler. In a 1955 communication to the Irish Naturalists’ Journal, Mary Barry of Ballygoran, County Kildare, reports the probable presence of a nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) in that county.
A Mr. Flynn and his wife heard the bird on May 6 of the same year on Carton Estate, Maynooth. Three nights later, they returned with the butler who also heard the ornate song of the bird. After close questioning of all parties, the sighting was validated by a Father Kennedy of Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin.
This article, while entertaining is the tale of the bird’s meticulous identity verification, must surely be one of this songbird’s more low-key literary memoirs. Nightingales are only very occasional visitors to Ireland, with recordings suggesting their presence here at most a few times a year.
Nonetheless, even those of us who live outside this bird’s geographic range – pretty much Europe, parts of Asia and North Africa – can’t help but spend their lives within earshot of the nightingale. This is because the nightingale song has had a disproportionate influence on popular culture: it inspires tunes, songs, stories, poems, classical compositions, etc. No bird song, except perhaps that of the blackbird, has echoed in the world as deeply as that of the nightingale.
Sam Lee – the English folk singer, song collector, broadcaster, activist and now author – has been hosting nightingale events in Britain for several years. In May 2014, Lee commemorated the 90th anniversary of the BBC’s broadcast of cellist duo Beatrice Harrison with a nightingale on a memorable show.
I first encountered Lee’s work as part of an ongoing research project with my student Alexandra Duerst where we attempted to characterize songs across genres – pop, progressive rock, funk, dance, tech. house and, of course, folk – which incorporate recorded bird songs (we paused at around 100 songs). Representative Sam Lee songs on our playlist include My Ausheen and The Tan Yard Sign. What sets Lee’s contribution to the songs on our list apart is that he duet directly with the songbird – a nightingale – rather than using, as is more commonly the case, recordings made at home. ‘other purposes.
In The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, Lee deepens his kinship with the eponymous bird by writing a versatile account of this polytonal creature. As a song collector, Lee is in an exceptional position not only to catalog the bird’s influence on mainstream culture, but also to reflect on the nightingale’s resonance for some deeper streams of human culture.
“I wonder,” he wrote, “if humanity’s northerly push and the way we have forged the landscape as we have progressed has brought the nightingale with us. If this is true – that human modification of landscapes along our primordial migratory routes has produced landscapes in which, until recently at least, the nightingale could thrive – then this symbiosis could provide a benevolent model for our relationship. with nature. This is the one we might want to resurrect.
In this book, Lee wildly succeeds in revealing a debt we owe the nightingale for his musical gift and for the creative stimulus he provides for many moods ranging from the lover, the amazed to the deeply melancholy. .
There is a type of folk song in which the lyrics take a form of accumulation. For example, a version of the familiar song The Tree in The Wood, recorded in the early 20th century by song collector Cecil Sharp, reads: “And the tree grew in the woods of Merryshire. the tree there was a branch / And on this member there was a branch /… ”
For Lee, this cumulative form provides a metaphor for those circles lit by the campfires of Antiquity and “spiral geometry… deep in our creation stories”. The nightingale could be the bird of the archetypal circle: “in these woods is the bird, / in the bird is the song …”
The notion of a song that accumulates, develops fractally, develops both in detail and complexity, also provides a good metaphor for the structure of The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird. It’s a book that starts out pretty simple, but as we go along it’s like we’ve been walking along the edge of the thicket, and then as the darkness descends the music begins, and we’re absorbed by all the strangeness of the night.
The first chapters directly present our bird. These chapters consist of solid natural history facts, distribution details, and they tell us where nightingale populations might be found.
If the book had continued in this vein, I would recommend the volume to you as a solid companion for field adventures or as a charming guide for the chair naturalist. But the chapters at the heart of the book, where Lee discusses the cultural significance of the nightingale song, are captivating on another level.
Within these chapters are tales of Beatrice Harris and her BBC recordings, folk celebrations, the introduction of the Nightingale Spirit to Berkeley Square, and traditional songs and the amazing singers and families that keep them alive. life. Those who listen to the audio version, which Lee recounts, will hear him sing captivating songs. (Lee’s singing voice is a wonder in itself – there’s something nose about it, but it’s sweet and sad and sounds multi-tonal in a complex way that’s best left to anatomists to explain) .
The concluding chapter describes a strategy for the conservation of this besieged bird. This, of course, is a sad and urgent note, as the fate of nightingales in the UK is uncertain. Despite the protection, there has been a contraction of the bird’s range. How disconcerting it would be if the nightingale disappeared from that part of the bird’s range that has given us the most famous ode to a bird ever written.
There was always a danger that it was ultimately a deflating volume, one that mourns the disappearance of a world, a book mired in nostalgia and regret. Without a doubt, there are some here. In an epilogue that reads like the last elegiac musical notes of the night, Lee records that his song-collecting efforts are drawing to a close. He had spent several years traveling Ireland and Great Britain collecting songs, especially from traveling families. But the work had become harder and more discouraging.
“I would spend weeks pinballing mainly through Ireland, knocking on old people’s doors, to be told too often that I was’ months too late – if only you had come sooner, poor man. Mary, may God have his all the old songs’. Thus, loss permeates the text: loss of wild landscapes, loss of traditional agricultural practices, loss of old singers and loss of nightingale populations.
However, nostalgia is not the dominant key to the book. It’s more of a book full of hope, but, more than that, it’s a book that doesn’t leave us feeling like we’re lagging behind at the concert. The world is full of possibilities, new projects, new actions – some of which compensate for the losses, but most of which celebrate life in a world that is renewing itself. Rightly, Lee dedicates the book to Oran Summer Cecilia Lee, his daughter born in 2018, and to the next generation of listeners.
Liam Heneghan is Professor of Environmental Sciences at DePaul University, Chicago