In a sense, the song of the bird in the title of this short, hugely thoughtful and fascinating book is a measure of the gap between nature and human culture. On the one hand stands the most mythologised, celebrated and interrogated maker of natural sound on earth: the nightingale. On the other, the most densely populated metropolitan area in western Europe: Berlin.
One might expect our light-winged dryad, in honour of its place in poetry, art, folktale and fiction, to sing in a sylvan glade by a brook full of beaded bubbles. Not a bit of it. It’s by traffic lights in a Berlin park. The bird itself is quite indifferent to the three millennia of cultural churn it has inspired. It is drawn to the German capital by insect biomass and the right vegetation density.
What lies between the two worlds, bridging and speaking to both, is the creature’s song, which has entranced David Rothenberg for many years. And for those who have never heard the species — since it has lost 91 per cent of its UK population in 40 years — it is worth repeating that nightingale song is truly extraordinary. An average male has 250 different song phrases, which it draws together in an unforgettable, spontaneously composed and unrepeatable composition, making each spell of song not only beautiful but unique.
Berlin is apparently among the best places in Europe to hear it. More difficult to fathom is why the song is quite so moving for its human audience. Rothenberg quotes a passage by H.E. Bates, who possibly best captured the paradox at its heart:
It is a performance made up more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion in them, a sense of breathlessness and restraint, of restraint about to be magically broken.