From Nettles to Nightingales: July is the cruellest month

No Man’s Land

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.

Toasting the brambles

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.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

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!

The 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.

Wikimedia Commons Frederick William Frohawk in ‘Birds of Great Britain and Ireland’, Order Passeres, vol. I, plate 13, PD-US, by Arthur G. Butler

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.

Thy plaintive anthem fades…past the near meadows..up the hillside…’



 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.

‘O, for a draught of vintage…tasting of Flora..and Provençal song…’ Artist Gordon Seward

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 

8 thoughts on “From Nettles to Nightingales: July is the cruellest month”

  1. Ah! I love your posts. I felt like I was sitting there with you and MDM, sweating, and wondering what in God’s name did we do! LOL! Your garden looks beautiful. Thank you so much for weaving in your garden with the Nightingale. What a magical bird.

    1. Chère Denise thank you as usual for your lovely comment. Yes – I believe you and your MDM may have had a similar experience – what did we do!!!! Maybe you remember some of the early garden pics from the time you invited me on to your blog (a long long time ago…) Does the nightingale get to Germany? I never heard any in the UK, think they are mainly in the south. Maybe in Spain? Hope you all had a great time !xxx

  2. Agricultarist , garden designer ( “Capabilty Laurette ! ? ) , ornithologist ,cultural historian, evocative writer …….or are you morphing into Gilbert White (1789) aka Laurette le Blanc ?
    July is quite a cruel month in SW Dorset as this very week hay cutting started and all the fields covered in buttercups and wild flowers are being cut and all the swarms of bees , butterflies and moths being dispersed – although a decapitated patch of wild garlic gives off a delicious aroma that the dogs enjoy!
    Don’t think that I’ve ever seen or heard a Nightingale although in the fields and trees next to the house we have Red Kites ,Egrets Crows , Gulls , Herons, Buzzards and two lonely Parakeets ……
    Always a joy to read your blogs and the images which you describe so well and in such detail .

    1. Wow what a great comment cher Peter T, not just for the compliments (smirk) but for bringing to the mind’s eye all the fragrant meadows of Dorset with their wildflowers, insects and birds, felt a bit homesick for England there! One great thing about blogging is how much you learn, this is where I confess I hadn’t heard of Gilbert White, and spent an enjoyable session on-line reading about him – I see you can buy his book about Shelbourne. So ‘England’s first ecologist’ and ‘inventor of the bird census’ – I’m rooting for him already. Many thanks ;-)xxx (Glad the dogs enjoyed the garlic!)

  3. As one who has seen your garden before and after (can it really be ten years?) after all your hard work you deserve every nightingale that comes your way! Gardens demand so much effort – plus the occasional presence of hired hands – but they repay us with their beauty and the wildlife they attract. We are enjoying a jay who comes to eat our almonds – he must live nearby but we only ever see him in the almond season. I also love the hoopoes with their Mohican hairdos and their very distinctive call. Sadly it’s a lot less melodic than the nightingale but their arrival also heralds the coming of spring.

    1. Merci chère Elizabeth, as you say, you have seen the before and after versions, and as you know, there are a number of beautiful plants in the ‘after’ version that bear your name – the Banks rose, the Japanese maple, the Van Gogh irises, that amazing purple plant which comes up every summer… so many things you’ve generously contributed to our garden, and a daily reminder of our friendship 😉 Love the idea of a jay eating your almonds! xxx

    1. Paulette, as usual, so much appreciation for your comments and generous support from the beginning 😉 Blog readers – Paulette and her husband work with a charity for rescue dogs, and the profits from her inspiring books go towards keeping the shelter open. Those Americans have a rather bald but apt expression for what she does – putting your money where your mouth is. An example to us all xxx

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