Song of the Nightingale 🐦

In an anthropogenic worldview, nature will often take on an otherwordly or fantastical quality. When humanity is no longer considered a part within nature, nature becomes a detachment that inspires and mystifies. As mentioned by David Rothenberg in the third chapter of his book Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound, perhaps this is why the nightingale and other singing birds have entranced humans over the centuries. It has no external musical instruments, nor any methods of recording its songs. And yet these birds have a wondrous gift of melody, capable of constructing unique and complex songs singlehandedly. They contribute to the overall complexity of nature by proving that the production music is not restricted to humans, and that such complex processes as melody can be reproduced without sapient thought.

But even if we consider the alternative worldview, that places humanity inside of the larger concept of nature, the nightingale and its music still holds true as a beautiful thing. Making humanity of subservient importance to nature actually makes more sense in the context of music-making. It would explain how both birds and humans can create and share music. Humanity’s obession over the nightingale’s music and replicating it to some capacity would also make sense here. Seeing the two species as equals and mutual benefactors allows for unique discussion on the transfer of ideas. Music could be considered an example of ideas that can transcend a single species of animal, as humans seek to copy the singing birds, and vice versa.

Either way, it is important to realize that humans have uniquely altered the landscape, and the resulting loss in biodiversity and underappreciation for nature’s wonder has led to the nightingale and its kind to dwindle. They are less noticeable in the dense urban soundscape of cars and industry, and they are less present in the minds of men and women who have less time to think about nature. They were once important enough to be referenced by name in Shakespearean poetry and Romantic literature, but now it feels like as a society we worry more about anthropogenic problems. The road to repariring our relationship with nature is long and arduous, but by listening to the birds sing and understanding the significance of their music, perhaps there will be more incentive to starting the long journey.

My experience with a Mockingbird

I chose to read and reflect on chapter 3 of the reading. I enjoyed the sentiment of the reading that circled around how modern science drastically minimizes the essence of Nature by “name[ing] the facts of Nature away” (34). Giving a species a name makes it so humans tend to not look beyond the label; we know what the species is, therefore, there is nothing else to learn. The scientific process of labeling and briefly explaining Nature makes it so humans believe they know everything they need to know about a species. 

As the reading points out, this way of looking at Nature benefits those who want to exploit Nature. The reading uses the example of the woodcutter’s relationship to the nightingale: “He isn’t going to let that hopeless unstoppable song prevent him from cutting down their homes so people can have wood to burn and build. The birds will need to sing somewhere else” (35). Looking at Nature through labels removes the mystery, the curiosity, and the uniqueness. Species become uniform, all members are interchangeable. Removing the individualism of a species removes fault from the harming of a few; it doesn’t matter if these five birds are killed because they are identical to the other thousands of them in this forest. However, each animal and plant in Nature is unique and has its own story.

I related to this reading as I have had an experience with a particular male mockingbird. I took the year off school last year to travel around the country to volunteer on organic farms. While I was on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, I noticed a bird who sat on the very top of the evergreen tree by the main house. I noticed that he sat there for hours every day. He would often leave but would come back every morning. I noticed he had hundreds of different calls and could switch between them effortlessly. Every few minutes, he jumped up into the air, flapping his wings and showing off his beautiful patterns. I spent a few minutes each day observing this beautiful bird. With great confidence, he sang his little heart out, and, like clockwork, he leaped into the sky. Mockingbirds learn their songs over time, so this bird’s songs were unique to his life experiences.

 It was impactful to see the same bird every day; I began to rely on his presence. There was a period, perhaps a month, where he was nowhere to be found. I had assumed that he had found a mate, and had left his perch for good. However, one morning in early summer, I heard his familiar call (which was multiple tunes strung together). He had come back to his tree and was leaping in the morning light. He was unique. He was not just one of many mockingbirds, but he was his own bird, with his own tree and his own unique songs. 

nightingale poetry

Improvisation is key. Birds do it to survive in human areas, and humans do it in music. Nightingales are one example: they are artists who create music that is heard during all parts of the day. They inspired poets earlier in history. There are numerous poems illustrating the power of the nightingales’ songs. The nightingales were viewed as poets themselves who are skilled using sound. Humans have even collaborated with nightingales. The trio album “And Vex the Nightingale”, is one example of this combination (Beginnings of Time). Lucie, the composer of the album, managed to synchronize with the nightentale. He left space for the bird, and worked at its pace. Nightingale music takes numerous hours, and has to be one long sequence. People  can even determine the identity of a nightingale based on the amount of songs and how well they sing a song. This is noticed when the birds come back to trees they have inhabited after migrating.

Nightingales are even considered the bird of love. They are referenced in  Romeo and Juliet,  with importance given to the nightingale singing or not.  Nightingales also are  referenced  in Greek mythology, meaning its history encompasses thousands of years. It is difficult to understand  but music is  hard to create.  THe artists who make it have to constantly keep working. It can be repetitive. But it is interesting that animals as  unique as  whales can sing as  well. Music seems like a way for multiple species to communicate if  they cannot understand language. Nature may have caused animals to have the ability to make music for this reason in my opinion. 

Nightingales will live through all. Even if the human race disappeared, nightingales would continue to spread music across the Earth. Everyone should have the pleasure to listen to  nightingales music once.