I’m behind with my Springwatch. So much so that it is now summer. I watched one of the episodes I recorded yesterday, and learned an amazing fact about the nightingale.
This bird, in an attempt to woo a female mate, chooses around 600 notes, and then combines them into about 250 phrases. From these it produces its song, and every time it sings, its song is different every single time.
Think about that: from the combination and variants open to them, every time these birds sing, they never repeat the same song. Each time they come up with something original.
The latest research seems to indicate that females select males on the quality of his song, because the nightingales that sing the best are the best providers of food for chicks. Ready to pull, they clear their throat and give it there all.
Never worked for me on Karaoke night.
Each year, this bird, that has its own favourite tree in Africa, returns to its own favourite tree in this country, resuming its unique repertoire of romance.
* * *
And so, Dylan.
He seems to polarise opinion, but I love him.
Today I returned to his album Desire. Two of my favourite songs of his are on this album: Hurricane, and Isis. But, on listening to another song, Sara, I remembered reading a story somewhere about its recording.
Sara was his wife, to whom he was then estranged. She happened to visit the studio one evening when he was recording this album, and he performed that very song while she was there, the two of them looking at each other through the glass window that separated them. He, singing his ode, another ode, (he also wrote Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands about her), for her, to her:
Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go’
She, overwhelmed and emotional, bowled over by something new.
Jacques Levy, who co-wrote many songs on Desire, recalled: ” . . . It was extraordinary. You could have heard a pin drop. She was absolutely stunned by it.”
Though Dylan could never be accused of having a repertoire of 600 notes, he was doing exactly the same as the nightingale, exactly the same as the rest of us: singing our hearts out for a mate, afraid to be alone in this savage world.
I was unable to find a satisfactory video of the song, so here is a snippet for you to decide if you want to seek it out for yourself. In the meanwhile, the lyrics are below.
I laid on a dune I looked at the sky
When the children were babies and played on the beach
You came up behind me, I saw you go by
You were always so close and still within reach.
Whatever made you want to change your mind
So easy to look at, so hard to define.
I can still see them playing with their pails in the sand
They run to the water their buckets to fill
I can still see the shells falling out of their hands
As they follow each other back up the hill.
Sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life
Radiant jewel, mystical wife.
Sleeping in the woods by a fire in the night
Drinking white rum in a Portugal bar
Them playing leapfrog and hearing about Snow White
You in the marketplace in Savanna-la-Mar.
It’s all so clear, I could never forget
Loving you is the one thing I’ll never regret.
I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through
Staying up for day in the Chelsea Hotel
Writing “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.
Wherever we travel we’re never apart
Beautiful lady, so dear to my heart.
How did I meet you ? I don’t know
A messenger sent me in a tropical storm
You were there in the winter, moonlight on the snow
And on Lily Pond Lane when the weather was warm.
Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress
You must forgive me my unworthiness.
Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp
And a piece of an old ship that lies on the shore
You always responded when I needed your help
You gimme a map and a key to your door.
Glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow
Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go
The evening in question was some weeks ago, when summer still reigned and the evenings were balmy. Through the twisted coils of a barbed wire fence, we looked on towards the local cricket ground, the grass barely stirring in the light, confidential breeze.
Within sight of hard-earned victories of edged fours and triumphant sixes, where better, when the light is fading, than a lonely cemetery? It is not often, in crepuscular twilight, that the eye is drawn to the ground, and rewarded by life in silent, still form.
The stillness was broken by the call of birds returning to roost in routine rounds: blackbirds and starlings and, yes, jackdaws, crossing the sky in large, raucous numbers. Black, canvas flags, loose and adrift.
The day passed the baton to night in faltering glory. The air sweet and temperate, prophets were not yet speaking of russets and absence, as the light died blissfully and unresisting. Our sleep was restful; our dreams fired.
The seasons don’t always stick to calendar dates to mark their entries and departures. It can be an inconvenience, I know. Sometimes we must look for signs, heralds that differ depending on where we live. Although sometimes nature throws us a curveball or two, on the whole I carve up and measure my time according to these local constants.
I’ve heard of people who, when it comes to summer, take stock of the darting flights of swallows as they pursue insects in the feeding lanes above their houses. But I prefer to wait for the ones that come after these, the birds that are among the last of the migrants to arrive: the swifts, living up to their names in their aerial manoeuvres. Around dusk, for the next couple of months, you can here them screaming overhead in their fraternal raiding parties, announcing to all who can hear: we are here, riding in on the southern winds to claim what is left from those who went before us.
Nature is like that. History is like that.
On leaving the nest in which they hatched, these birds fly non-stop for three whole years! Do you hear that? I have a daughter who won’t walk fifteen minutes into town.
These bird feed on the wing, mate on the wing, hell, they even sleep on the wing: snoozing with one side of their brain before switching over to the other. Three years of constant flight. My arms ache after one three minute, alcohol-fuelled session of YMCA.
Why don’t they have the occasional time out? You’d think that once in a while they might, I don’t know, sit on a telephone wire or something, and take in the sunset for a while, wouldn’t you?
But they never do. Swifts would make terrible poets.