The Nightingale: Notes on a songbird, by Sam Lee

Review by Peter Reason

Sam Lee is a renowned song collector, interpreter, and singer of folk songs from Britain and Ireland; he has an abiding interest in wilderness studies and connections with the other-than-human world. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say I have met him on several occasions at meetings of New Networks for Nature; I am a fan of his music. Lee’s connection with nightingales began in 2014 when he contributed to a BBC radio programme Singing with Nightingales, in which he and his musical companions ventured into the night at Arlington Reservoir to listen to, and then make music with, a nightingale. He has been greeting the arrival of the nightingale in spring ever since, taking people into the woods to hear their singing and partake of a human-avian musical collaboration. 

The Nightingale is a very satisfying book, one might call it the ‘compleate’ book of the nightingale—it seems small in the hand but includes so much in over 200 pages. Sam Lee covers the natural history of the birds—their nesting habits in scrubby woodland, migration, patterns and quality of song, and their sad disappearance from the southern English countryside due to human incursion into their habitat (less so elsewhere: I am jealous of my German colleague who each year reports their arrival in Berlin’s Tiergarten). He also places the bird within a cultural ecology, with the poetry of Clare, Keats and Milton, stories of Beatrice Harrison, the ‘Lady of the Nightingales’ who took her cello into the woods to play with the bird; of human song-making with birds; and with ballads, folk song and art song. He shows how the bird’s song can have a political dimension in his account of an event staged in London’s Berkeley Square—playing the RSPB pure-birdsong single ‘Let Nature Sing’ that Lee had composed a few months—before as part of the Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Lee’s Epilogue places the nightingale not just as a glorious singer but as a harbinger of the threats we face: ‘The vocabulary we possess does not suffice to describe the conditions that we are facing today… in a frontier of climatic extremities and ecological tumult’. Lee writes of the poignant feelings of loss—he uses the term ‘solastalgia’—of place and of our brother and sister species. He links this to the sadness he feels at the disappearance of the communities of travellers who he got to know while collecting their songs. He ends his book on the importance of paying respect, ‘being present and pausing to give renewed adoration toward that small, quiet beauty’. For these are times when ‘we need to take every opportunity to fill our hearts with the richness our land’. And this not only for its own sake, but to nurture our own capacities to join the struggle for a world in which we all can live.

The nightingale has entered deeply into our mythology; at the same time, we are driving this bird and many others toward extinction. We not only deserve to know more about the nightingale, one might say we have a duty to learn about the nightingale. Sam Lee draws together so many threads: his book is well conceived, elegantly written and delightfully presented with illustrations throughout. It is at the same time playful, serious, and accessible. Wondering about a birthday present for a friend, a young person, an elderly uncle or aunt? Your problem is solved: this is a book that will suit many tastes. But maybe first buy one for yourself!

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017)and Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). With artist Sarah Gillespie he published On Presence: Essays | Drawings in 2019, following this in January 2021 with On Sentience: Essays | Drawings, both available directly from the author/artist. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Sam Lee, The Nightingale (Century, 2021). 978-1529124835, 237pp., hardback.

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