There was a madcap drive through country lanes, haunted by pale meadowsweet in the dusk light, trying to find the farm above Lewes indicated on the Brighton Festival map. And then we found it with a few minutes spare, parked the car in a field and stepped out into the warm May night.
Through a little wood into a clearing, there was a fire where 20 people including the affable Sam Lee were passing round millionaire shortbread and enamel cups of sweet tea. It was peaceful and just-so, sitting in circle round the sweet-smelling fire, as Sam and his ornithologist friend, Tom, held forth on the merits and wonders of the bird we’d all come to hear.
The event, Sam Lee’s Nightingale Walk, – one of six, very select evenings of 20 people a night – was a thread in Brighton Festival’s bird related theme. Sam is an experimental folk singer with a deep appreciation of both Sussex folk song (the famous Copper family come from a few miles from my home) and nature. He told us how he began working in ‘wilderness’ projects before coming to music and how this evening was convergence of his two great loves: being in nature and working with the voice.
Tom, the bird man, spoke about the migration habits of nightingales, drab little brown birds that fly down south to winter in Uganda before coming back to Europe to breed. Sussex and Kent are at the northern edge of their zone, and May is the end of their breeding season. So we were lucky to be in this spot with access to one particularly throaty singer. I was surprised to hear that Berlin has an unusually large population of nightingales. “Common as pigeons”, apparently. And it occurred to me that perhaps I had heard them before, in the middle of the night in Görlitzer park in Kreuzberg…
It’s the males who sing; marking out their territory, attracting mates with their vocal presence. Apparently these song birds have two voice boxes at the top of their windpipes so can produce virtuosic music. And it did occur to me to sound out the idea (expressed by David Byrne in his book) that birds don’t just sing for partners and territory. They must also sing for pleasure. I thought that Tom, the ornithologist, might frown at such anthropomorphism, but as a gay man, I can’t really subscribe to the idea that all natural exuberance is about reproduction. When i sit and listen to the tits and blackbirds in my garden, the joy is evident. It seems unnecessarily deadening to see it as just mechanical alarms or vocal pheromones.
As we had been speaking, the robins that had been very loud in the glade when we arrived fell silent and the darkness outside the fire-circle became deep and still. Sam sang a song with his own very arresting voicebox. Having talked about the microtones and slides of bird song (the nightingale has 200+ musical elements that they improvise with), it was shivery to hear this delightful man’s voice by the fireside, singing about country lovers and open-air love making.
He theorised that the reason that the nightingale is always associated with lovers is because of the location of their singing. The birds are very territorial and come back to the same spot every night – and that spot is usually in the middle of the wood or in a remote corner. This would be a very good meeting point, – in the dark – for lovers to grope their ways toward. “Meet me in the wood where the nightingale sings”. And so the song becomes enmeshed in the visceral memories of electric kisses and heady sex in the dark-green night.
And as we set off walking single file in the dark, entering a ¾ mile pilgrimage of smell, sound and very little vision, I could immediately feel how exciting it would be to pad through the forest paths in a moonless night, listening out for the only birdsong, getting closer and closer to a lover, waiting in the dark.
Sam had pointed out how night walking is improved by looking slightly up above the tree line and trusting in the acuity of your peripheral vision. The rods and cones of the central zone don’t function in the dark and we become more animal-like in relying in the very sharp movement sense of the fringes. Since I couldn’t see the ground it made no sense to look down. Instead my feet came alive. Padding, toe-to-heel, sensing out the land with my soles. It struck me as strange how we walk on two feet where almost every other animal out in the darkness walks on four.
The smell map was also massively heightened. Sam had drawn our attention to the slightly rotting smell of the wild-garlic, and the dusky waves of hawthorn blossom. There were other smells that I couldn’t identify. Damp earth smells. The occasional flash of elderflower. Some mint when we came to a stop.
We had walked through a wood, along the edge of a field and up along an old railway line, and even from a half-mile away we could hear our nightingale singing, across the field. Walking closer and closer in the dark was really exhilarating till finally we were all standing under a bank where he was sitting, unseen in a tree.
Apparently, this male is particularly vocal. An expert from the nightingale-rich Berlin had pronounced him the finest he’d heard. And it was odd and wonderful to have walked through the still night, across dark fields, to stand and listen to him crack open the silence with his song.
It wasn’t what I expected. It is loud and angular. Almost mechanical with soft insistent single notes followed immediately with brutally angular leaps and burbles. It definitely doesn’t have the torrential songfulness of a blackbird at night, or the seamlessness of a skylark, but there was something so insistent and loud about it in the dead of the night.
We stood for a while listening, taking it in, and then Sam started to sing and our bird sang even harder. It made me shiver. There was something so incongruent about a human voice and a bird voice together. Even though we were all there to honour the songbird, there was also an inseparable gulf between his strange, vivid world and ours. The species gap yawned wider. And yet there was also some here-and-now alchemy. This solitary, plucky, resilient, tiny male bird who sang for about six hours straight every night – all on his own – in the hope that he’d be heard by a female, or perhaps just because he could. And then here we were, come to hear him, to create something from the moment.
We sang together and listened some more. And then Sam bid the bird adieu with a lovely comment: “I hope you find love”.
Ironically, despite having such musical lungs, it might be that this male, still singing right at the end of the mating season, was a romantic failure. Perhaps there was a note of desperation in his continued singing when the other males had found their mates. Again, it’s all human projection into something so ultimately alien, but it was inexplicably touching.
After out walk home and a drive back to Brighton, i was still dazy with the experience. Partly from being so intensely in my body and senses but also of having had such an odd contact with another world, in the dark. It was, of course, rather dreamlike, but also very vivid.
This morning listening to Reggie Ray, he mentioned how we all suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. And the reason this has come to pass is because we have allowed the world around us to become so boring. Why would we pay attention to a dead, drab world with no life? Because the world has lost its enchantment we disengage and lose ourselves in the high-dopamine, flashy stimulation of our phones and computer screens.
Sam mentioned this also. Talking about night vision and how it opens up the periphery and disempowers the central visual zone, he made the point that modern life monopolises and colonises that central zone. The centre focus is constantly being attacked and seduced. “Look at this! Look here! Buy this!”. The straight-ahead, broad-daylight focus of our eyes is all papered-over by advertising and distraction. Cutting that off and opening up the edges allows the magic to flow back in under the neon.
A nightingale walk through the moonless Sussex woodland, created exactly the darkness necessary to see things again. To see what Reggie calls the “vajra world”, the inconceivably energetic reality that exist beyond the limits of our everyday sight, smell, touch and thinking. And – most fittingly – beyond our conventional hearing. Standing in the mint-scented darkness tuned into the song of a small drab bird was not just listening to music, there was something else going on that I can’t quite bring to words. And that remains, quite rightly, unexpressed.