Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Nothing so magical as the song of the nightingale

Listen to soundclips of the nightingale's song at the bottom of the page

A A A

Intense experiences of the soul are by their nature uncommon. Perhaps the one about which there has been the greatest speculation, historically, was that of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most elevated religious rites of ancient Greece, held at Eleusis, west of Athens, for more than 1,000 years, until in the 4th century AD the Roman Empire became Christian, and boring, and banned them.

No one knows exactly what happened at Eleusis, because participants in the mysteries all took a vow of secrecy. But we know they were based on the cult of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and fertility – of the cycle of death and rebirth, if you like – and it is clear that those who did take part, who included some of the greatest minds of Greece and Rome, experienced an intensely heightened spiritual state. (There has been conjecture that it was brought about with the aid of hallucinogenic mushrooms.) Whether it was a sense of being born again, whether it was a sense of communion with the divine, we do not know. All we know is how intense it was.

I have been thinking about Eleusis because I have been casting around to find something with which to compare the most intense experience I know of in the natural world, which is nightingale song, heard at night. Of course, comparing the noise made by a small brown songbird with a major religious festival is not really appropriate. Indeed it's probably way over the top; the trouble is, I cannot think of anything else to try to get across quite how exceptional a nightingale encounter can be.

I'm talking about fairly special circumstances, I admit. You can hear a nightingale during the day – yes, they are diurnal too – on a country walk, say, and not be moved one jot; unless you know it, you may not pick it out from the general birdsong background. Once you do know it, though, you realise that even in the daytime, nightingale song is different. A combination of rattling whistles and long, melodious notes, it is extraordinarily loud, probably the loudest of any songbird; it is also extraordinarily sustained, sometimes seeming to meander on without end.

But it is in the dark that it comes into its own. It usually brings with it a theatrical context: to be in a position to hear it properly, for example, you may well find yourself deep in a wood at midnight, somewhere you would not normally dream of going, where ancient fears creep out and set up a living tension. A wood at midnight is an unworldly place of unfathomable and intimidating shadows; it is a remarkably dramatic stage on which to hear a songbird perform. And when it does perform, if you are really close to it, its voice fills the whole dark world. It takes over everything; in the blackness you can see nothing, you can hear nothing else. All there is in existence is this blazing song, which seems to be performing a duet with silence. Silence moulds it; silence defines it; it is the silence of the night all about you which lets it fill the world with sound.

If you can ever experience this in a midnight woodland – I've experienced it three times – it touches and lets loose something in you, something in the soul, which is enormous, yet hard to name. I would use the word ecstasy, but that's not quite it. Whatever it is, you suddenly see why this of all songbirds has been celebrated in literature for thousands of years; you understand what it was that fired up John Keats so furiously, and drove him to write the most notable ode in English.

But it's not there long. Nightingales sing only for a short period of about six weeks in the breeding season in April and May, when they return to Britain from their winter quarters in West Africa, as they are doing right now. (The peak of their arrivals will probably be next weekend.)

It is exclusively the male birds who sing, in order to attract mates; as soon as a male finds a female and pairs up with her, he falls silent.

These, then, coming up, are the nightingale weeks of the year.

Unfortunately, it is growing ever harder to hear the bird; numbers have dropped by more than 90 per cent in the last 40 years, so for every 10 nightingales that were singing in Britain when Paul McCartney announced the break-up of the Beatles in April 1970, only one is singing now. The species is retreating steadily towards Britain's bottom right-hand corner, the extreme south-east, and is now confined to the area below a line drawn from The Wash to The Severn, with its strongholds in the Home Counties and East Anglia.

But if you are lucky, over the next six weeks – if you know someone who knows where a nightingale is, and knows the wood where it is singing, and will lead you there at dead of night – take the protective cover off your soul, leave it bare. Let it feel to the full the most singular and spine-tingling moments Nature can offer.

... and this is your chance to hear it

As listening to nightingales is not easy, we are offering a helping hand. To hear soundclips of the nightingale's song, click on the links below. It may not be quite the same as listening in a moonlit woodland, but try listening in a quiet room, with your eyes closed.











m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/mjpmcccarthy

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Sport
Raheem Sterling of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One quarter-finals
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
News
Not quite what they were expecting
news

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
film
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up