The Sounds of an English Spring

a eurasian robin

version of this post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

The English robin and the North American robin share a name, but ours is a large, sturdy bird, while the British one is a sweet, fat little bird with a little less red and a pretty dab of gray. In The Secret Garden, the bird that shows Mary Lennox the way into the garden is a robin, and I have always wanted one as a friend myself.

The last time I was in Britain, I saw robins often, perched on a fencepost or singing from the top of a bush. I almost always caught myself singing the song “Ah Robin,” which we sang in the 2007 Christmas Revels. I suspect this song is about a man named Robert, not a bird, but it came to mind anyway.

Swallows streaked by at fence-level, wings swept back like tiny fighter jets. “Bring back the roses to the dells/The swallow from her distant clime/The honeybee from drowsy cells,” I sang to myself.

The ecosystem I know best is that of the Washington area; I know what our swallows and robins are like. But a lot of the songs we sing in Revels were originally about spring and landscapes that have been farmed intensively for centuries, in a country on the other side of the sea. For the first time, I was seeing all of these birds in the ecological context where the songs were born, where my distant British ancestors might have seen them.

By the way: England’s blackbird is a thrush, a different family from our creaking New World blackbirds. They sing from the bushes, too, and can only bring to mind one song.

Photo: By David Croad (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Up Flies the Lark

rolling fields of green grain

A version of this post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

I walked along the edge of a cliff. To my right, a hundred-foot drop to the waters of the English Channel. A strong wind blew off the water and over the cliff. To my left were spring-green fields. High above the waves of grain hung a skylark, twittering relentlessly.

On the ground, a skylark isn’t a very memorable bird. It’s brown, with a little crest of feathers on top of its head. A skylark in the sky, though, is quite impressive. It flaps madly, a fluttering speck against the cloudy white sky. As they hover and swoop, they emit a constant stream of notes. The song goes on and on and on.

The skylark made me think of a lyric from a song we often sing in the May Revels: “Up flies the kite; down falls the lark-o.” It’s part of the Padstow May Song, a tradition from the village of Padstow, 70 miles due west of the cliff where I heard the larks.

One of my walking companions was another Reveler, Liza Lester, and together we started the song: “Unite and unite, now let us unite, for summer is a-coming today!” Arms outstretched, we sang through the verses as well as we could remember them, dancing along the grassy clifftop path.

As we continued our walk toward Sidmouth, we passed from one skylark’s flapping-ground to the next, on and on above the cliffs. They sang and sang and sang.

Now isn’t the season for skylarks, though; it’s the season for staying inside and thinking about walks and birds, and looking forward to the dawning of the new year.

Photo: Helen Fields

Hear the skylark’s charming song.

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Revels and the Natural World

cherry blossom

In one of Washington Revels’ most-performed songs, “Country Life,” we sing: “I like to rise when the sun she rises, early in the morning/I like to hear them small birds singing, merrily upon their laylums.” A laylum is probably a bit of fallow land—it doesn’t matter; it’s a place where birds sing. Cheerful and bright, the song continues through the agricultural year. “In spring we sow, at the harvest mow; and that is how the seasons ‘round they go.”

Much of what we do at Washington Revels is rooted in the seasons. Spring is the star of our May Revels. During the hot days of summer, we march and sing in local parades. In our after-school workshops, children explore how people down the ages have interpreted the seasons in music, dance and drama.

In the Christmas Revels, we celebrate the time beyond the harvest, the darkest time of the year. Winter is a simple fact of our planet. Earth spins at an angle, its axis tilted at 23.4 degrees. When the top of the planet points toward the sun, the northern hemisphere basks in its warmth. But when our end of the planet points out into the universe, we shiver and draw close together. “They lighted candles in the winter trees/They hung their homes with evergreen,” Susan Cooper wrote in her poem “The Shortest Day,” recited near the end of every Christmas Revels performance. Each December we gather at Lisner Auditorium, “singing, dancing, to drive the dark away.”

Usually, in the Christmas Revels, we visit one or more specific cultures and eras, exploring how people in different places and times have celebrated the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Nature is present primarily as a backdrop to rural life. This year, nature comes to the forefront, as we explore our relationship with the natural world. The time period is less defined than usual, over a thousand years ago, in the Middle Ages. Back then, it was hard to escape our planet’s physics. When the world was cold and dark, we were cold and dark. Nearly everyone had to think about plants and pests, and whether the chickens would stop laying or the river would flood.

Today, some of us are still closely tied to the physical world. There’s a farmer in our chorus, for example. But many of us might think we can wall ourselves off from nature. Convenience stores will sell us eggs at any hour of the day or night. We have concrete, insulation, and elevators.

We are still part of this planet, though. Life feels different when the sun sets so early. Our city can shut down for days if the wrong set of air masses happens to collide over us. As we come together this weekend—whether on one of Washington’s oddly warm December days or whether the snow has begun—let’s sing together of peace and warmth, and look forward to when the sun comes back, the forsythia bloom, and the cherry trees let their clouds of petals fly.

A version of this essay appears in this year’s Christmas Revels program.
Photo: Helen Fields, thinking of spring

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