Please share with us a little bit about you in five words. Could you describe yourself?
Quixotic, romantic, whimsical, lateral and…and free-flowing.
Tell us a little bit about your journey, what brought you to where you are now?
Well, I find myself here 40 years into my life. Ultimately, I call myself an activist. But my activism is a gentle one that comes through being a singer which is my…is my main craft, but as a storyteller, as a nature appreciator and guide through broadcasting and radio and making music and…and ultimately environmental awareness, which is a very cold term for a way of brokering relationships with the natural world that are not commonplace. And re-enchanting my audiences into ways of connecting with nature through folklore, through folk music, traditional songs, both the indigenous music of Britain and Ireland, as well as internationally sourcing ideas and practices from many different communities. Some of which I’ve spent time with, others I’ve learned from indirectly, in ways of us relating to the land in…in aid of creating a more, a more integrated relationship and the opportunity to respect, love and care for the land better.
Could you share with us an overview of your book, ‘The Nightingale Notes on a Songbird’?
I’ve been working with nightingales, for many years now, a bird, who I’m very devoted to, who for a short six weeks, from mid-April to the end of May, males will sing their courtship song that I’ve been in service to holding concerts, the singing with Nightingale concerts, bringing audiences into the woods, to their habitat, to experiencing them, to experience them with their amazing ability to collaborate with musicians. And it’s that musicality that led me into a journey of getting to know the bird, both on a historical, on a traditional level internationally, of how they see it as principal, birds, and icons within so many different cultures over so many thousands of years. There’s wonderful inter dimensionality of this bird, but then also going on a journey with them, on an ecological level, on a natural history level and on a personal emotional level. And what came out in this book that I was asked to write, I had no intention of writing a book, was that there was so much to be said and told, more than I could ever fit into one book. And…and it has become a sort of biography of the bird but also as a sort of a manual on how to forge a connection with a creature that is so receptive to human existence, but at the same time so vulnerable to it.
What has been your biggest inspiration with the work that you do and share?
The biggest inspiration, maybe this year, I’ve really found the power of healing that has come from creating space…holding space. And discovering so much that…of how much nature, if introduced in the right way, and the right…on the right terms can, you know, in a very carefully thought out trajectory, can be a place of enormous transformation. And I’m never, not stunned by…by the extraordinary experiences that people can go through. And the passages this year, particularly with COVID, that sense of coming together again, the safety of nature, and the sense of…of…the sense of meaningfulness and how important it is for us to gather and…and listen deeply and be quiet as well. And I think people have come out of COVID in a place of having a lot more stillness. And we are…we’ve been confronted with that. But I think nature can often find a way of allowing that stillness to be manifested into healthiness, as opposed to a…to a sort of vacuum. So, it was…it’s a really great sort of decompression place for us to re, you know, a chamber for us to kind of reintegrate ourselves back into the lives that we once had, or into the lives that we think we need more to have.
What sparks joy in your life? What really, truly lights you up? It can be big or small?
Being by rivers, that sparks joy in my life, swimming, being in the water, in sweet water, I’m not a saltwater person. I love it, but that…that’s somewhere that I…I always feel so alive. There’s been a lot of river swimming and lake swimming this year.
And those moments of just entering in and that sense of forever being held in this completely another realm, at the mercy of that, that makes me very happy.
What are your favourite soul or self-care practices that you could share with us?
Walking is a very, very healthy thing to be in that place of passage. Soft, slow walking as well, really not about covering long distances, but really about being as gentle on the earth as possible as you move…as you move, contemplating each step, as a new relationship with that, with the land below you. That’s something that I really appreciate doing, and not the kind of fast walking and destructiveness, but really starting to tune…tune into the ground beneath you and being able to, I was, did a pilgrimage on…so on the 20th…Sunday the 20th for Solstice to Stonehenge, covering some really amazing land there. And we’re walking really slowly and really started to observe that the…the change of flora as we move from one part of the path to another and to start to question why these communities of plants would shift and one species would appear quite profound, profusely, and then others would disappear and start to ask questions of what those relationships are…how they’ve come about. So questioning around you, asking the land questions, why, why are you here? These are for me, the practice is listening to the rooks or the ravens and asking them you know, what are you speaking? What are you telling each other? What can I learn from you? I think that’s a constant practice to…practice of…of humbleness to nature.
We don’t have enough stewardship in our ways of…ways of being in nature, I think there’s a…there are so many ancient cultures that have practised really exquisite and highly evolved ways of being, a behaviour that one adopts, a mindset, an inquiry that one has when they’re there. And we Brits have, you know, British, us Western people, have lost an inheritance, we’ve lost our inheritance there. So that’s both tragic and part of the reason why we’re in such a terrible situation right now ecologically. But it also gives a great opportunity for us to find our own practice, and do it in ways that are sustaining for us, and really help us forge deeper and deeper relationships with nature. So, there are lots to learn, and many different ways of doing it.
During these times that we are experiencing as a collective, in what ways are you seeing the importance of community?
It’s vital, and not that everybody wants to live in a community, but the holding that that offers, that sense of witness, that sense of accountability, the reciprocity in that the idea that when you’re in the community, you take care of the community, and thus the community is taking care of you. That as a…as a scheme, as an investment scheme is the most profitable one on the planet, I believe. You have your needs, are fulfilled in ways that you can never do on your own. You’re not for love or money. There is such a powerful thing about being reminded of the people who care about us and teach us how to care.
“There is such a powerful thing about being reminded of the people who care about us and teach us how to care.”
Inspire our Breathe Love community, can you share with us a favourite quote, affirmation or maybe a poem or song to inspire us?
Music is a constant with me, I’ve been listening to lots of music recently, particularly music that’s been deeply ceremonial Hamlet Gonashvili, (side note we at Breathe Love are obsessed with Hamlet Gonashvili, his voice is memorising) who’s a Georgian master, one of the greatest singers ever. He’s somebody whose voice calms and stills me in a way that, yeah, it’s constantly inspiring. I also love the quote, which I often use that I came to from the translation from Mahler, the composer, which is tradition is tending the flame and not worshipping the ashes.
What was the last sign you received from the universe if ever you had one?
There’s been a few. And the one that really came as quite an extraordinary experience and I was not prepared for it actually, happened on Saturday, a week ago from when we’re recording. And I just arrived at the Knepp rewilding estate. And I’ve travelled all over this country, and I’ve seen many landscapes and many…every creature there is big and small and I have only, of rare occasions do I have that sense of wow, oh, the power…the power hits me in that way that you don’t expect it. And…and as we arrived into the Knepp Estate, the rewilding block, I was walking under this oak tree, a big oak tree on a bright sunshiny day and all of a sudden, these enormous shadows started to race across the ground. And it was a sort of Jurassic Park shadow, I was like, Oh my god, there’s something big, there’s something really big up in the air. And I looked up and I had to move because they were above the oak tree that I was standing on. And as I moved, came into view were about six or eight full-grown storks, white storks, and now I’ve seen storks nesting, and I’ve seen storks in the ground but never in this country have I seen them flying, circling on the thermals above, clacking their beaks. They do this amazing kind of pelican, clack clap. And they’re huge, each one’s like a white van. They’re pterodactyl-like. And they soared round and their shadows would block out the sun. And I gasped, I actually gasped, and I burst into tears. What the sign was, I don’t know. But I hear it as here is the possibility of a bird that’s been extinct for 500 years in this country, for it to return…for them to return, to be re stewarded back in, that there’s such hope that we can…humans can do such incredibly good things if given the opportunity and the incentive. And, you know, they’ve brought this life back to the land which is phenomenal. So, if they aren’t…the bringers of new life as they are in…in…in myth as the carriers of babies, then I don’t know what is.
Share with us something that you are really proud of?
Something I’m really proud of happened yesterday. I’m extraordinarily proud of it. Two of the three films that I made singing folk songs in Stonehenge for English Heritage, were released on the solstice they were put out on the live stream and they’re now there on…on YouTube. And there…the two that are there are two blessing songs that are old folk songs that I’ve adapted to speak for today as a sort of calling of…of our purpose and of our reconnecting with the land, and to get to sing them and film them on my own in Stonehenge was an extraordinary experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
What would you never take granted?
Sunshine. Well, I never take for granted the confidence that I have to be…go and experience nature in the intrepidness that I have and my mobility in being able to do that.
What is your favourite practice that connects you to heart-ki, hearty energy? Could you share with us a tip or tool?
My favourite practice there, it has to be singing. That’s where my heart really opens up.
Rest the palms of your hands on your heart centre, take a soft breath and share with us a message from your heart to ours?
My teaching of the last weeks, particularly over Solstice, has been about letting go, about loving passionately, but not holding on too strong. Yeah.
Sam Lee plays a unique role in the British music scene. A highly inventive and original singer, folk song interpreter, passionate conservationist, song collector and successful creator of live events. Alongside his organisation, The Nest Collective, Sam has shaken up the music scene breaking boundaries between folk and contemporary music and the assumed places and ways folksong is appreciated. Sam’s helped develop its ecosystem inviting in a new listenership interrogating what the messages in these old songs hold for us today. With his latest critically acclaimed album, Old Wow, he’s summonsed up a truly compelling and emotional album that takes his work to yet another level. Likewise in 2021, Sam releases his debut novel ‘The Nightingale, notes on a songbird’ telling the epic tale of this highly endangered bird and their place in culture folklore, folksong, music and literature throughout the millennia.
The Nest Collective is a leading force in contemporary and cross-cultural folk music. They bring people together to experience extraordinary music, rekindling connections with nature, tradition and community. https://thenestcollective.co.uk/
We ask our interview guests to share a charity of their choice for us to learn about, support and donate. Please take time to look them up, share their information and make a donation if you feel called to. Sam has chosen Survival International
This interview has been transcribed and taken from our Breathe Love audio series. To listen to Sams interview (recorded June 2021) in full, please click here
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