Up with the nightingales: why we need more nights out in the forest

Can being in touch with nature help the new green movement keep its momentum?

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The last 12 months feel like they have seen an explosion in energy behind green thinking and politics in the UK. From the school strikes to Extinction Rebellion’s colourful protests and the Green Party’s recent success in the European elections, there is a new awareness building around our climate and ecological crisis.

But how can this momentum be prevented from ever falling away again? 

The recent proposal by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg for a worldwide strike this September could help forge a sense of national endeavour. So might Extinction Rebellion’s call for a People’s Assembly, to help create a greater sense of public ownership over controversial reforms.

But greater contact with nature – through experiences rooted in culture and communities – could also play its part. 

This struck me particularly hard last spring, when a break-up was weighing on my mind and a sense of loss had carried over from the long winter in the city. In response, I decided to try something new: namely, a night spent sitting in the middle of a wood in the dark. 

Called “Singing with Nightingales”, each April and May these ticketed evenings see folk musicians lead small groups into woods around England’s south-east coast, to listen to the mating calls of the famed birds.

Small and plainly coloured, nightingales make up for what they lack in looks with their wide vocal range, reaching over two hundred different buzzes, trills and whistles across the species. But with just 5,500 breeding pairs left in the UK, their personal efforts to attract a mate are also entwined with a larger story of survival.

So one Friday afternoon, with the help of a press officer from the Nest Collective, an acoustic folk club based in London, I hurtled away from the glittering high-rises surrounding Victoria station aboard a train headed for Kent. 

Green Farm, a holiday retreat in the Shadoxhurst conservation area, was all toothpaste-green and dappled meadowsweet by the time I arrived at dusk. A dozen guests of varying ages had gathered under the sprawling arms of an oak tree, and in their midst stood 38-year-old Sam Lee, the award-winning singer and founder of the project. 

Tall and looking otherworldly in his patchwork waistcoat, Lee soon set the scene for the performance to come: “We are here on the edge of an ancient woodland, where elephants and mammoths used to walk,” he whispered, as chaffinches and robins chattered in the leaves above.  

There followed homemade stew around a campfire. And then, at around eleven o’clock, we were instructed to wrap blankets tightly around us and to tread softly, toes-first, deeper into the woods. 

Five, 10, 20 minutes passed as we approached a clearing in the ancient trees. Tired by now, I ached to lie down on the mossy ground like some of the young couples in the group had done; emboldened in their togetherness. 

And then, there they were: the air was suddenly filled with the dizzying sound of two nightingales, calling out into the night in reels of free-falling vibration. 

This wasn’t the romantic occasion it might have seemed. Earlier that evening, the accompanying ornithologist had explained how any nightingales still singing so late in the season were unlikely to find a partner this year – or perhaps ever, as their annual migration to and from Africa is fraught with failure.

Yet still they sang. The prospect of loss may have been inherent to these creatures but their powerful sounds were not shaped by it. Instead, it seemed, they were singing for the joy of sound itself, with their racing, staccato cries, elemental and ecstatic. 

After that, I finally allowed myself to lie down too – to melt into the woody darkness, as if it were as natural as getting the tube and going to work. More natural perhaps, as here, among the spiders, I realised I was not afraid of insects or of wolves (my childhood fears), or of being alone, or somehow even of death. 

The experience struck me so deeply that I have struggled since to put it into words. Apparently this is not unusual: writing recently about the project for The Arts Desk, Lee noted how “every year, someone writes to me afterwards to say how they are going to change their life, get divorced, or move jobs”.

Which is not to say that sitting in the woods listening to birds and music is a magic answer to the problems facing nightingales and so many other species or earth – far from it. 

Firstly, events like Singing with Nightingales – beautiful and necessary though they are – are largely still too pricey and niche to have the reach they should. More kinds of music are needed, as are more bus routes to nature reserves. 

Secondly, simply providing funds to promote education and awareness of nature, as Environment Secretary Michael Gove did through a £10m pledge this February, won’t help if the natural habitats themselves are not also sufficiently protected at the same time.

Real change needs active campaigning, like that recently led by the RSPB to save a major nightingale breeding ground from a property development. And it needs a raft of new legislation, as we starting to see in Labour’s push for a Green New Deal bill.

But my night in the forest showed me that we also need experiences that bring out the best of both nature and ourselves – and give us the confidence to keep singing in the dark. 

The Nest Collective will also be running outdoor music evenings this summer, called ‘The Campfire Club’, in London, Bristol, Sheffield and Machynlleth. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.