One spring morning, as I stood in my doorway in the Scottish seaside town of St Andrews, I became convinced that the usual chattering chorus of birdsong in my garden had grown louder. It was April 2020—the first taste of COVID lockdown—and I, like many others, was witnessing the quickening new life of the season with an added layer of astonished appreciation. While the fabric of our daily lives unraveled before our eyes, nature sang out louder than ever.
It would take several months and an internet search for me to realize my mistake: the skylarks and seabirds outside my window were not any louder, but a sudden lull in the sounds of human life had created space to listen.
Music as we know it was originally lifted from and returned to the landscape. Our earliest musical instruments were flutes whittled from hollowed ivory or bird bones, and it’s not hard to imagine their first echoing harmonies arising out of devotion to and in communion with the living landscape around them.
For centuries, folk music traditions have tended the flames of this relationship. But as traditions fade and flicker, the wisdom they protect can disappear along with them.
To better understand what the messages of these old songs mean for us today, I met with Sam Lee and Cosmo Sheldrake, two British musicians who are treading a new path for folk music—or rather, as they might remind me, retracing its footsteps. Both have made a name for themselves in Britain’s emerging “eco-folk” scene, a subculture of folk revival which addresses the urgent reality of ecological collapse.
Spring found them busy with budding projects. Sheldrake joined us between recording sessions for his new album, Wet Wild World. Lee had just returned from a month of touring (and, he added with a laugh, a weekend at Sheldrake’s house). As they began parlaying between one another with a familiar warmth and buoyancy, I sensed the conversation was picking up where it last left off.
It’s easy to see why the two are friends. Both spent their childhood immersed in the rolling green landscapes of Southern England, where a shared passion for the natural world took root. Both are avid folk music collectors, and their styles are informed by a diverse range of international traditions.
“You and I probably owe much of our early musical diets to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,” Lee told Sheldrake with a laugh. Searching through vast archives of song, the two became enchanted by the same idea: beyond any commercial or narrative end, music was the inheritor of a much wider sense of culture.
“That was an awakening for me,” Lee recalled.
An affinity for the vernacular music of the British Isles sent Lee in search of the living oral traditions of his own country. Folk aficionados advised him at the time that all the old tradition bearers had long passed on, taking most of their songs and stories with them. Unconvinced, he followed his curiosity north to Scotland. There, he began a formative apprenticeship with celebrated Scottish Traveler musician Stanley Robertson, who inducted him into a rich (but nearly forgotten) tradition of song carrying.
After Robertson’s death in 2009, Lee continued going door to door in rural Traveler (aka Roma or Romani) camps across Britain and Ireland, gathering unrecorded folk songs and lore from local elders. Living just below the surface of these oral traditions, he soon discovered, were deep-seated cosmologies that reflect a relationship of profound connection to the land. Across vast repositories of song and story, blackbirds, riverbanks, nightingales, and other hallmarks of British wildlife are as explicitly celebrated as any human or otherworldly character.
“The songs would have been sung around the fire, or while working the land, and repeated like a mantra throughout the year,” Lee noted. Their cast of creatures cycled with each turning season, recording the migration patterns of an ever-changing landscape. “It has all the hallmarks for me of a tradition of prayer and ritual.”
The subtle spirituality of these song traditions enabled them to survive in a delicate dance with Britain’s dominant religious power: Christianity. Still today, Lee explained, song carriers are guarded when it comes to acknowledging a song’s pre-Christian devotional undertones.
“If you were to ask them, they’d tell you, ‘Oh no, that’s for the church.’”
Lee documented the folksongs through an extensive public archive as well as through his own discography, which reimagines the original songs in contemporary contexts. In recording the traditions for future generations, he hoped to honor the legacy of the communities he traveled to. “I wanted to paint a picture of the villages they came from,” he told me.
More recently, he has explored how these folksongs illustrate an ancient wisdom that is indivisible from our relationship with the natural world. His most recent album, Old Wow, digs deeply into his own feelings of awe and adoration for nature—“in its gloriousness,” he described, “but also in its grief.”
Sheldrake uses a similar form of song keeping in his own music to record the infinitely varied harmonies of the natural world. His past studies in ethnomusicology sparked an interest in the ways musical traditions emerge from and contribute to wild soundscapes—see the Tutsi and Hutu tribes of East Africa, for instance, where the ultra-low frequency communications of elephants have been incorporated into folksong and story for centuries.
“Trying to weave stories and relationships to place through music is something I share with these traditions,” he expressed.
Sheldrake’s creative process regularly sends him trekking through fields and forests. Equipped with a portable recording studio, he samples from natural soundscapes, skillfully cutting and rearranging organic sounds into richly textured original compositions. In the process, acoustic ecology becomes a medium for storytelling. Take Wet Wild World, which remixes recordings of a critically endangered community of orca whales living along Scotland’s west coast. The group, which communicates in a dialect of clicks, calls, and whistles unique to their pod, is fated for inevitable extinction: chemical pollution in the waters they inhabit has made them infertile. Their language will die with them.
“All of the complex linguistic cultural communication in the more-than-human world is just that: cultural communication,” Sheldrake reasoned. “If music itself evolves out of this interface with the more-than-human world, in some ways it’s part of the same tradition. There are seriously sophisticated and rich oral traditions that come in the form of birdsong, whalesong, and other forms of vocalization.” Like our own songs and stories, they express a distinct sense of place that can be inherited across generations.
What we consider uniquely human signs of intelligence, then, might not be as unique as we like to believe. For Sheldrake and many of his contemporaries, this understanding is all the more reason to get creative in rethinking the boundaries of culture.
“We are trying to dissolve that divide in the music we make, to say, this is music that is not from nature—it’s part of nature,” Lee echoed.
In 2005, Lee founded The Nest Collective, an organization dedicated to fostering connection with nature, tradition, and community. Though it offers a wide range of events, the collective is known best for its nightingale concerts. Each year, at the end of April, small audiences gather by moonlight in the woodlands of Sussex—one of the most biodiverse areas of Southern England—for an evening of fireside food and storytelling. The night culminates in an immersive midnight performance in which Lee and a guest artist duet live with the crooning nightingale in dancing, breathless conversation.
Over 570 song titles reference nightingales in British folk music alone. Lee’s recent book The Nightingale explores at length the songbird’s broad cultural legacy in the UK and elsewhere and its role as muse for writers, poets, and musicians.
“There’s a space the nightingale creates that means so many different things for so many people,” Lee said. “They bring up and out of you the most profound emotions, memories, and longings.”
“It’s a feeling of incredible intimacy,” Sheldrake recalled of his own guest performance.
The nightingale’s song is renowned for its musicality and repertoire, which includes over 1,500 distinct sounds combined to form more than 250 musical phrases. This, combined with the explosive power of its sound, makes for an intoxicating show.
As its song cuts through the night, Lee said, “it’s as if nothing else exists, as though the world is rendered down to pure song.”
“I like to call nightingales ‘decorators of silence,’” he continued affectionately. “In those spaces of soundlessness, you start to understand what silence is, just as much as song.”
Yet this annual serenade tells a melancholy story. Nightingale populations have declined by more than ninety percent in the last fifty years, and each year they return from their winter migration with slimmer chances of finding a mate. For all its beauty, the nightingale’s courtship song is often unrequited.
Such profound moments of connection with the natural world feel increasingly rare. While owing in part to environmental threats like habitat loss, the issue is also one of access.
“Accessibility to nature in the UK is socioeconomic,” Lee pointed out. “There’s a misconception that Britain is this wonderful green and pleasant land.” The reality is sobering: as naturalist David Attenborough warned in a recent broadcast, Britain is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
“The majority of our country is inaccessible by nature of land rights and legal frameworks that don’t allow people to get close to nature,” Lee added.
To confront concerns of accessibility, artists like Lee and Sheldrake attempt to translate the power of nature through music. Sheldrake’s 2021 album, Wake Up Calls, composed almost entirely of bird songs from the British endangered list, was originally composed as a collection of soothing alternatives to alarm tones. Its full-throated choruses of cuckoos, warblers, nightjars, and owls now offer a taste of Britain’s wild soundscapes to anyone with access to a streaming platform. Of course, the alarms are also warning bells, awakening listeners to the dramatic loss of birdlife in our landscapes and daily lives.
Connecting with nature, Lee clarified, looks different for everybody. For some, it might be as simple as lying in a field and falling asleep (“and letting the hayfever wash your eyes out,” he joked).
“For me, listening is the most powerful medicine,” Sheldrake said. He suggested going for a walk—or opening a window—and focusing on the closest sounds you can hear. Next, gradually expand and soften your awareness. You might notice things you hadn’t heard before: a sonic world that is diverse and polyphonic. Allowing this wash of sound to permeate on a non-intellectual, experiential level might be a challenge, but it’s a rewarding one.
“It’s become a meditation practice for me,” he confessed.
“It’s difficult when you have a broken tradition of nature appreciation,” Lee later acknowledged. “In the past, you grew up observing your elders in a state of listening and communication—of storytelling, ultimately.”
As a parent, he has made a conscious effort to weave nature into his daughter’s regular field of experience. Witnessing life from a child’s perspective, he explained, is a gift—one that constantly inspires him to contemplate the natural world “with fresh eyes.”
“Curiosity is key—it’s about play!” Sheldrake chirped.
It’s a mantra both musicians seem to genuinely live by. Curiosity shines through in their practice, and the two are clearly steered by the innate sense of wonder they share.
Our planet is in desperate need of rewilding. Over lockdown, we marveled at the ardor with which nature seemed to reclaim our abandoned spaces. Between apocalyptic headlines of case surges and stay-at-home mandates shone glimmers of the impossible: striped dolphins were spotted in Venice canals, coyotes wandered freely through the streets of San Francisco.
These widely circulated images of recovery and resurgence retreated back into the shadows as life resumed its usual pace. Three years later, their memory feels more like a fever dream.
Rewilding culture takes a bottom-up approach to environmental reform. Indigenous botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer has already said it best: “restoring land without restoring a relationship is an empty exercise.” Music, art, and storytelling have the potential to be a transformative force for healing our wounded relationship with the natural world, as in so many cultural movements throughout history.
Parallels between environmental and cultural loss remind us that the issues are two heads of the same hydra. “The dichotomy between nature and culture is a pointless one,” Sheldrake reiterated. “To get to the heart of the problem, we need to address that separation. Engaging with that divide will give us a more robust starting point for confronting cultural and ecological disaster alike.”
What might it look like, these musicians ask, to address nature as an animate entity looking back at us? We are, after all, in a relationship of constant cultural exchange and conversation with the natural world. Through the act of listening, we invite a deeper sense of kinship into our lives: with our human ancestors, with our more-than-human neighbors, and with the land we coinhabit.
“I’ve always felt that music is one of the most profound ways of awakening people to sincere truth,” Lee reflected, as our conversation drew to a close. “That’s what I’m in service to as an artist: rendering into music the loss and grief of the natural world, as well as its explosive joy.”
Tia Merotto is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her writing explores intersections of ecology, culture, and spirituality.