Writing about nightingales - that's a lot of literary and musical baggage to contend with. But, hey, let's give it a go!
So, earlier in the week, Jane and I had a safari tour of Knepp Farm - the rewilding scheme which is the brainchild of owners Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, the latter the author of 'Wilding', the book that explains the painstaking decades-long process of establishing their approach to nature. 'Safari' is a bit of a strong word if you're expecting, in Basil Fawlty's immortal words, to see 'herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain' (in his case from a Torquay window). And in truth, it could have been a bit of a disappointment. The Knepp landscape is not especially beautiful: there are gentle, rolling meadows, areas of scrub and some patches of denser woods, and the hum of the nearby A24 is an ever-present. Some of the more spectacular creatures if one is looking for a good picture, such as long-horn cattle and deer, are viewed mostly at a distance, or in the case of the Tamworth pigs, not seen at all.
Nature is a bit like that. A sort of stubborn refusal to perform to order. Its own world, while intimately linked to ours, also proceeds on a parallel track, a matrix of lines which intersect with ours from time to time, but often does so when we least expect it. And so it was with Knepp, which proved once again that the wild is to be found not only in the distant reaches of the Outback or the depths of a mangrove swamp but under a leaf, or as in this case in a thicket of hawthorn, bramble, and thin silver birches.
Our guide, Tegan stopped our group and asked for silence. 'Listen!' And then we heard it. The particular chirp and trill of the male nightingale, not calling out for a partner but protecting his patch of real estate. And a few yards on, another! And perhaps even a third (I got a bit confused at this point by various chiff-chaffs, white-throats and other interlopers sticking their oars in).
I had never heard a nightingale, at least not consciously. This is a bird on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list of endangered species. In 2013 it was reckoned there were more people with the surname 'Nightingale' than there were birds of that variety. In some parts of the country, especially the midlands and the north, the nightingale had essentially vanished. Hearing a nightingale remains a rare event, and we had heard three in the space of about 100 metres.
This was incredibly moving. The heft of literary history, even the most recent associations of the name with vast hospitals and the nurse whose work inspired them, came to bear at that moment. But at the same time, removed from all that, what impressed itself upon me most was the mere fact of its existence - its urgent, utterly separate demand for air, to be listened to, to survive. Not to sing a song - because whatever any poet says, it is not really lyrical or melodic - but to speak, to say - 'I am here!'
We also saw and heard a turtle dove, a bird which hitherto I knew of only from songs and books, and a great many storks, perched in their huge nests at the top of trees as if in the middle of a North African plain. So, what has been achieved at Knepp is a sort of modern miracle - unshowy, unspectacular and unfulfilling if what you're looking for are encounters with a UK version of the big six.
Me, I'm happy with the invisible nightingales, equally compelling to me as they were to Keats. That famous poem begins..
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk...
Towards the end of our three hour tour, a young man (shout out to Eddie) on his work experience, and already hugely knowledgeable about flora and fauna at age 15, stooped and beckoned us over to bend our aching limbs to look at a dribbling stream and a parsley-like plant bunched over the water. It was hemlock.
It seemed appropriate.