- Text by Alex King
Sam Lee is making himself scarce. He’s nestled himself away in the Spring Hide at RSPB Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire. Looking out across the lake, he’s humming, rolling his voice up and down in preparation for a special outdoor performance. “The whole idea of a birdwatching hide is to be quiet,” Sam says sheepishly, caught in the act, mid-vocal warmup. “Well, I didn't scare that wren… and there's the other one. I love how you can hear all the males letting each other know where they are. Wrens are notoriously vicious, so it’s quite serious conversation. They can kill other males in battles over territory.”
Sam is at Fowlmere to perform his version of ‘Birds in the Spring,’ an old Sussex folk song which dates back hundreds of years and whose exact origin is unknown. Sam is working with sound artist Rob Taliesin Owen to record found natural sounds to turn into a minimalist beat, which Sam will sing over. The piece is Sam’s contribution to the Odes to Nature series, a collaboration between Huck and On the Edge, a non-profit group of storytellers and scientists who use the arts to help reconnect people with nature.
Sam’s deep connection to the natural world is something to behold. He’s intimately aware of the subtle signs and sounds that indicate there’s wildlife nearby, which most people would be oblivious of. As we walk through the reserve to find his performance spot, Sam points out new bursts of plant life and identifies snippets of birdsong on the wind (robin and chaffinch) telling him which of his “feathered friends” will be his audience when he begins to perform.
Winter is slowly shifting into Spring and the Cambridgeshire countryside around us is in a state of flux. Orchids and other meadow flowers add splashes of colour and migrating birds such as sedge warblers return from Africa. “Being out here is really special because you see such a thrumming of biodiversity,” Sam reflects. “Even this early in Spring, you can feel that sense of pregnancy in the land. Everything is teeming and ready to explode out. This place is going to be unrecognisable in three weeks from now.”
Growing up in Camden in north London, Sam’s parents recognised an early fascination with nature, which they encouraged by taking him on walks in the city and outside London, in the British countryside. “That enabled me to grow a real life-long passion which developed into learning about foraging, self-sufficiency and wilderness work,” Sam explains. “That journey evolved into exploring how we can build communities in natural settings and get people out into nature.”
Sam is a Mercury Prize-nominated folk singer, conservationist, song collector, promoter, broadcaster and activist. Yet, despite being raised in a musical family, Sam learned relatively late how to weave music into his relationship with nature – and his calling to share nature with others.
“I didn’t study music and it was never ordained that I would become a musician,” Sam explains. “In my mid-20s, I began to learn about folk song and discovered this ancient British tradition that nobody had really paid any attention to. Folk song was disappearing, not being celebrated and missing from our wider culture. But I could see it was a very important part of our relationship with the natural world, with our heritage and our identity. It was only when I started learning these songs that I realised I could sing.”
Sam has found the perfect place to perform: he’s standing at the water's edge with reedbeds behind him. Marsh harriers are circling above us and a raft of ducks is bobbing on the water among the reeds. “I love singing outdoors,” Sam explains. “This is my favourite audience because there's no judgement and I feel so much freer. The birdsong is my accompaniment and I find myself listening as much as I am singing. When you're in authentic song, nature knows you're there.”
The beat Sam created with sound artist Rob, using sounds found in nature, begins to come through his headphones and Sam launches into song, with each verse radiating out across the reedbeds. Sam’s voice, the song’s lyrics, distant birdsong and the wind rustling in the reeds all come perfectly together to create an almost otherworldly moment.
“‘Birds in the Spring’ is an old Sussex folk song which has its roots in an ancient tradition of songs that celebrate nature,” Sam explains afterwards. “These are songs of devotion which come from a time when we were much closer with nature and more accepting of it. This song is hundreds of years old and has this amazing way of singing quite spiritually about Spring. It just feels like the right song for this place.”
After we wrap, Sam disappears deep into the Sussex forest for Singing With Nightingales, a series of night-time performances where he improvises along with real nightingales and their songs. Sam has learned that lecturing, guilt-tripping or trying to scare people into protecting the environment is doomed to fail. Instead, with each performance, Sam tries to create an experience that engages, draws audiences closer and helps increase understanding of the natural world around them. It’s an approach that echoes that of On the Edge; using the arts and storytelling to inspire a deeper relationship with nature. “How can we protect nature if we don’t love it?” Sam reflects. “How can we love it if we don’t know it?”
Find out more about how On the Edge are using art and storytelling to help us reconnect with nature.
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