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The Upside Down: The Song of the Nightingale Carries A Deeper Message

To sit and listen to a nightingale is to be transported to somewhere that is both quintessentially English but also impossibly rich and exotic, writes John Mitchinson

A nightingale singing in a tree


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One unseasonably cold but mercifully dry evening in late April, my wife Rachael and I found ourselves huddled around a campfire in Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire, a 300-acre piece of ancient woodland managed by the RSPB.

We were there – we hoped – to hear nightingales. The evening had been organised by the folk singer and conservationist Sam Lee, who has been running a series of immersive encounters between musicians and birds since 2014, when he was commissioned by BBC Radio to record a programme celebrating the 90th anniversary of its first ever outdoor broadcast, which featured the famous cellist Beatrice Harrison and the bird song of a nightingale harmonising in her Surrey garden.

That 1924 broadcast caused a sensation with approximately a million people tuning in to listen. Harrison herself received more than 50,000 letters of gratitude from fans. It moved the famously stern Lord Reith to remark: “Milton has said that when the nightingale sang, silence was pleased. So in the song of the nightingale, we have broadcast something of the silence which all of us in this busy world unconsciously crave and urgently need.”

‘Sam’s Singing with Nightingales’ taps into this tradition but adds a sense of ecological urgency to the celebration. 

Nightingale song no longer fills the English woodland at night: according to the RSPB, their population has declined to just 5,500 breeding pairs and their range is shrinking as each year passes. Gloucestershire is now at the northern limit of their distribution and, at Highnam, where as recently as 2001 there were 20 singing males, this year they have recorded just two males, one who had sung his song two nights previous to our visit (once a male nightingale finds a mate, his night songs cease).

This news sent a ripple of anxiety around the 50 or so people crowded around the campfire. For me and my wife, this was our fourth adventure with Sam, but for most people there, this was their first time – most had never heard a nightingale sing and anticipation was high. As well it might be.  

The Upside Down: The Ruffian on the Stair

For this month’s column, John Mitchinson pens a personal reflection on why knowing about what kills us makes it no less mysterious

To hear the song of the nightingale is to hear something unforgettable – a strange, complex, beautiful experience, made even more intense by being heard at night.

Their repertoire is astonishing: more than 250 different phrases, combined of some 1,500 different sounds – in comparison the blackbird produces 100 sounds, and even the skylark only manages 350. Beloved of poets and celebrated by composers, the otherworldly sounds of the nightingale have been used to evoke the extremes of pain and pleasure for as long as we have been telling stories and singing songs.  

Which, of course, is why we were all there. To sit and listen to a nightingale is to be transported to somewhere that is both quintessentially English but also impossibly rich and exotic: their sound is more reminiscent of a rainforest than mixed deciduous woodland. 

Their arrival from Senegal, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau each year reminds us of how profoundly connected we are to the rest of the planet. The harbinger of the English spring comes from sub-Saharan Africa. Spin that into whatever metaphor you like.

I like Edward Thomas’ observation of “the mysterious sense which they bear to us that Earth is something more than a human estate, that there are things not human yet of great honour and power in the world”.

We walked single file into the darkness as we gradually adapted to our night vision. Puddles reflected the starlight and the undergrowth resolved into subtle shades of silver and grey. Even the squelch of mud couldn’t break the sense of anticipation; ears strained to pick out the faintest hint of birdsong.

Finally, we arrived at the glade where the bird had last been heard. We huddled into a group, trying to ignore the cold. The silence was intense and then the music began.  

Sam started up the drone of his shruti box and the flautist Eliza Marshall began to play with wistful intensity. Her notes skirled out into the trees, imploring the bird to join in. I could half hear that low ‘jug, jug, jug’ starting up as I have so often before but it turned out to be wishful thinking; a projection of my own desire. A half hour passed. Birdsong came there none.

As we each returned silently to the car park and the distractions of 21st Century life, Sam drew us into a group one last time. A few of us shared our sense of… what? Disappointment didn’t capture it. It was more a kind of grief or the gentle melancholia which is just one of the many odd and profound emotions this bird is so good at summoning, even when it doesn’t sing. 

It is estimated that in 30 years there will be no nightingales breeding in England. Whatever the future sounds like, on a cold April night in Gloucestershire, we had heard it. Loud and clear.

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