Reviewed by Fiona Mountain, Marketing Coordinator
As Artistic Director and Founder of The Nest Collective, Sam Lee creates live events, campfire concerts, nature connection projects and pilgrimages, bringing music into communities and outdoor spaces. He will be performing a special campfire concert at FarmED on 30th June, the first night of the Oxford Real Farming Conference in the Field. Having, myself, attended several of Sam’s truly magical Singing with Nightingales events in the woods of Kent and Gloucestershire over the years, I know it will be an enchanting and inspiring occasion.
It’s appropriate that Sam, himself a singer, has written a book about the most iconic songbird. He describes his book, ‘The Nightingale, Notes on a Songbird,’ as ‘a singer’s digest of nightingale verse.’ But Sam is also a dedicated conservationist and this beautiful, delightful book presents a powerful argument for viewing these birds, which sing at night for a few short weeks each spring, as ‘canaries in the mine’. He highlights how the rapidly depleting numbers in England are a ‘litmus paper to the land and a barometer of all beings…within thirty years nightingales will be silenced in the UK. If they go then eventually so will we.’
He writes beguilingly about ‘the legendary stature of the bird and his music,’ how the secretive and elusive nightingale has inspired poetry and prose across the world and across time, from ancient Greeks to the Romantics, to the extent that naturalist, Mark Cocker describes them as ‘the single most important motif in all world poetry.’ .
The book also gathers together information about the birds’ behaviour, physiology, sophisticated mating calls, migration patterns and habitats, all interspersed with lovely fairy tales, stories and stunning illustrations.
In song lyrics and the most lyrical language, Sam paints a picture of ‘lead actors in the theatre of the night’, famed for their ‘melodies, wild and ancient’ which ‘connect us back to our ancestral motherland.’ He writes with passion and poetry about his deep love for this bird and how the ‘experience of going in search of nightingales offers the wonderful possibility to bring stories alive’, a way to ‘bridge a child’s imagination through the birds’ prominence in story and song’.
There’s a chapter on the phenomenon of ‘The Lady of the Nightingales’, Beatrice Harrison, who inspired Sam’s Singing With Nightingales events with the BBC’s first ever outside broadcasts in 1924, when she accompanied nightingales with her cello in her Surrey garden. The now fabled performances offered a way to ‘connect people to the natural world’, and this has become Sam’s mission.
‘Humans have sung with nightingales for millennia.’ But these enchanting birds are on the red list of threatened species, in danger of extinction. The book describes how ‘mixed agriculture, with hedgerows to partition fields to hold in livestock’ was the perfect environment for the nightingale, the ‘thick messy margins between fields.’ It laments a time when ‘most farms had scrapes, wetland areas, or small ponds, enormous wildlife havens’ and ‘biodiverse pockets of flora and fauna.’ Sam describes how the ‘decline began with dig for victory and destruction of habitats…the removal of hedgerows to increase productivity.’ How the ‘cataclysmic concoction of climate change and temperature, an imbalance of species and the crash in insect life due to farming practices and overuse of insecticides has devastated their particular food sources.’
In elegiac tones, he shows how, ‘little by little we destroyed the nightingale’s habitat and in doing so, we began to lose their song.’
So what can be done?
‘I am a great believer in starting local, with wherever your immediate community is working to protect or restore threatened wildlife-rich spaces,’ writes Sam. ‘Protect, restore and fund. Protect the ecosystems that we have, restore land, where possible, and fund positive, environmental and societal change, spending your money mindfully.’
He believes that, ‘food production’ is ‘the single biggest impact that humans have on the environment,’ urging us to ‘follow where your money goes in the products and ingredients used to make your food,’ arguing that eating seasonal food and ‘buying local as much as possible, means the carbon footprint of your purchase isn’t costing the earth and leaves a positive impact in the place where it is grown.’
‘Notes on a Songbird’ ends on a hopeful note! ‘The UK is experiencing a blossoming of new circles and communities, working to heal our broken relationship with the land, strengthen our connection and deepen our knowledge.’
Sam’s mission and belief is that in order ‘to change society’s behaviours, we need to change people’s minds and to do that we have to go through their hearts.’
His message is a hugely appealing one: How art - music, theatre and storytelling - ‘is the most powerful way to campaign for ecological survival.’ A way ‘to bring re-enchantment back to the natural world and into our lives.’
We are so looking forward to welcoming Sam to FarmED in the summer.
The Nightingale, Notes on a Songbird by Sam Lee is published by Cornerstone . Support your local bookshop by purchasing through Bookshop.org.