Ten years ago, in May 2011, the MDM and I said goodbye to our small flat (which we loved) in la ville rose (which we loved) to move to a converted farm-building in a four-house hamlet in the Tarn. The house was fully renovated but the ‘terrain’ which came with it could have been the perfect location for a WW1 film – a No Man’s Land of nettles, brambles, boulders, rusty iron rods and bits of old sink tumbling down a hillside into a neglected, treeless field.
That first evening, dragging chairs outside after an exhausting move in 36° heat, we were both wondering the same thing – had we gone mad? With stoic smiles and sinking hearts we raised plastic glasses in a toast to our new adventure.
It was very quiet on the hilltop. Our nearest neighbours were away; the insects and birds had gone to bed, leaving a vast, unbroken silence without a breath of wind or sigh of leaves. Beyond our wasteland, the overwhelming expanse of fields, hills, valleys, woods lay all around under an even more overwhelming, steadily darkening sky. Then, from the next door garden, the hush was broken by three long, pure notes, followed by a tentative trill, like a flute tuning up.
We paused mid-sip.
The air quivered, the invisible songster burst forth: opening bars like liquid honey, a distinctive bubbling melody, gathering force, then a gradual crescendo to a joyous, sparkling final aria.
I had heard a similar performance only once before, on a hot June night at a wedding in Provence. But once heard, the magic of the nightingale’s song is unforgettable. No wonder this small, dun-coloured bird, the Keatsian ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ singing of summer ‘in full-throated ease’ sends poets into raptures. No wonder it inspires song writers swooning after a kiss in Berkeley Square. No wonder its song cured the Emperor of China. No wonder it found a path through the sad heart of Ruth, standing in tears amid the alien corn. No wonder my arms and legs broke out in goosebumps. I was so excited I jumped to my feet, almost knocking over the MDM and his ‘beaker full of the warm south’. Reader, I had an epiphany!
Before my eyes (a bit misty on account of the light-winged Dryad), the brambles and nettles vanished. In their place, a bountiful paradise sprang up: hedges of lavender, thickets of rosemary, golden-flowering gorse, pink oleander, wild thyme covered in purple flowers, sage, savoury…The wilderness was transformed into Eden; trees and bushes rose up, sun-drunk plants undulated down the hillside and spilled into the field, the field became a meadow, bejewelled with poppies, cornflowers and buttercups spreading as far as the ancient fig tree bursting with fruit. From this mirage a ghostly fragrance rose into the air, that unique, aromatic scent which spirals like incense over the Mediterranean garrigue on hot summer days. Our future garden!
A nightingale will do that to you.
It has done so every year since we moved. For ten springtimes, the rossignol philomèle has arrived punctually at the end of April. There are now hosts of rossignols, in the garden we’ve created, in our neighbours’ gardens, in the nearby woods. They sing day and night, casting their enchantment over the hamlet. Ornithologists have counted between 120 and 260 different sequences in their dazzling repertoire.
But Nature has its rhythms. April passes, then May, then June. The day dawns when we no longer hear the nightingales. In the cruel month of July, the beautiful songster falls silent.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades…past the near meadows..up the hillside…
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?
John Keats: Ode to A Nigtingale
Now we must cross our fingers and wait for another spring, to sit among the lavender and oleander, among the thyme and the olive trees, listening for those first uplifting notes heralding one of nature’s marvels – the song of the nightingale.
Never heard a nightingale sing?
In this link you can hear it in all its matchless glory, and read the astonishing story of Beatrice Harrison, a cellist who in the 1920s played duets with the nightingales in her garden. On May 19th 1924 the BBC recorded such a duet, the first ever outdoor broadcast. During WW2 these broadcasts took on a special significance, boosting the morale of a nation at war.
Although we hope that our four households have encouraged the nightingale to return to our hamlet each spring, in England it’s a different matter. The nightingale population is dwindling. Here you can meet musician and conservationist Sam Lee and discover an annual event called Singing With Nightingales. His book, The Nightingale, (on my TBR list), published in March this year can be bought here.
From Nettles to Nightingales is my current work-in-progress, recounting the story of a French garden and its two novice gardeners. When will it be finished? The jury’s out on that. Who knew it would be so hard? Watch this blog-space and say a little prayer to the Muse for the exhausted author 😉
© Laurette Long 2021