Today is International Dawn Chorus Day, so in my own typically awkward style, I will talk about a recent experience of an evening and night chorus. Over Easter Mr Bsag and I went on holiday for a few days to Lewes in Sussex, which is on the beautiful South Downs. It’s an area that’s reasonably familiar to me as I grew up not far away on the North Downs, but I always forget how open and spacious it feels. We spent every day walking on the Downs, and on the Saturday of Easter weekend, I heard the songs of skylarks and nightingales in one day. It was the most wonderful day I’ve had in a while.
We couldn’t have been luckier with the weather. It was warm and sunny every day — the kind of conditions which show the Downs off at their best. As we climbed to the top of each ridge, skylarks rose up above us, fiercely alive and vulnerable against the clean blue sky. Regular readers will know how much I enjoy listening to skylarks, which I have written about before. On the Downs they are the voice of the blue sky and the chalk grassland.
Later that evening I attended a Singing With Nightingales event (as I did in Spring last year), but this time on my own. Mr Bsag really enjoyed it last year, but he was content not to go this time. It was a glowing evening as dusk got ready to fall, and while I waited with the other participants to be called to the fireside as the event began, I listened to a song thrush. It was right at the top of a tree, and though I couldn’t see it clearly, I could certainly hear it! The woodland was carpeted with delicate white wood anenome - I don’t think I’ve ever seen it grow so profusely before.
Sam’s guest for the evening was Flora Curzon. Her delicate and sensitive singing and violin playing actually reminded me of a wood anemone and was perfect for the feeling of the evening. Her music, together with Sam’s, touched on many of the themes that ended up going around my mind: the healing power of exposure to nature, migration (of people and animals), peace, war and new life. Somehow it all came together in the moment and was very moving.
You may remember that last year I had a Blood Moon for the event, which made it really special despite the shy nightingale. This year I just got tickets for one of the few dates that I could take off work and that wasn’t already fully booked. Imagine the little jolt of joy I got when I noticed a few weeks before leaving that it would be the night of a full moon! When the moon rose it was huge and golden. By the time we set off silently through the woods to get to the place where the nightingale would be singing, the moonlight had turned the trunks of the trees into silver tiger stripes. The wood anenome had closed their petals for the night, but the moonlight made them look like the Milky Way had fallen to the woodland floor.
I started the evening knowing that — as ever with nature — nothing was guaranteed. But I could hear the nightingale singing strongly before we even left the woodland, and I knew that we were in for an extraordinary evening. My aim was to be as present and open to feeling the whole experience as I could possibly be, to notice everything.
It’s so hard to convey what it felt like. There’s a particular kind of phrase that the nightingale sang which squeezed my heart every time I heard his new variation on it: a slow, almost sobbing series of notes, speeding up before exploding into a bright, ecstatic burst of frills and flourishes, like a firework going off in the dark. I noticed the way he could throw his voice off nearby vegetation, making the sound almost a solid 3D structure. I noticed the way that Sam and Flora listened intently to the pattern of his song and subtly altered their phrasing to collaborate rather than clash with him. I heard the other-wordly nocturnal flight calls of lapwings, which I haven’t heard for years and had forgotten how much I missed.
It felt like a pocket outside of time, and yet it went by in a breath. As our time with the nightingale ended and we stood quietly to leave, I was surprised to find myself facing the thicket where he was still singing away, and standing with my hand over my heart for a moment to thank him silently. He wasn’t doing it for us, of course. He was trying to attract a female, to mate and to make more nightingales. I really hope he achieved that. I guess I was just grateful that he put up with us noisy, ridiculous humans blundering about in the dark, and let us experience his world for a while.
As we dispersed, I tried to thank Sam for the amazing experience he has created, but I was so overwhelmed that I burbled something completely incoherent. As I’ve thought about it since the strongest feeling is that we (humans) are idiots if we think we are somehow separate from nature, with our cars and our memes and our fancy smartphones. We are nature and nature is full of impossibly strange and beautiful life. Forget going to Mars, there are wonders here and the network of nature of which we are part desperately needs us to wake up pay attention, and begin to fix the damage we’ve done. We have to: we are nature and there is nothing for us outside of it.