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The Lost Words

October 20th, 2017

Author Robert Macfarlane and artist & author Jackie Morris have produced a beautiful book entitled The Lost Words inspired by an alarming study that suggests that children are better at recognising Pokémon characters than they are at naming wild animals, plants and trees. The Lost Words is an attempt to reconnect young children to the natural world. Here’s an excerpt from MacFarlane’s article in The Guardian about the book. To read the entire piece and see more of Jackie Morris’ gorgeous illustrations visit here.

Two years and a summer ago I began work with the artist Jackie Morris on a book called The Lost Words: A Spell-Book, about the magic of naming and nature. When we began, we knew only that we wanted to make a modern-day spell-book for the natural world – a book that might go some small way towards conjuring back the words, names and species that were being lost. We wanted to celebrate the “identifications” made possible by names that are, as Observer columnist Henry Porter put it, part of “the plain euphonious vocabulary of the natural world – and do not simply label an object but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it”.

So Jackie and I chose 20 common names of 20 common species of creature and plant. Our choices formed a crooked almost-A-to-Z, from acorn and adder through bluebell, conker and kingfisher, to weasel, willow and wren. For each name I wrote a summoning spell, structured as an acrostic, to be read aloud by child to grown-up, grown-up to child, or even grown-up to grown-up. The act of reading out – of spell-speaking – was also an act of conjuring back.

Because I am certainly not a poet, and do not want to be mistaken for thinking I am one, I always imagined my texts as “spells” or “charms” rather than “poems”. I wrote them to be spoken aloud, and often I wrote them by speaking them aloud – sounding them out while walking or waiting, seeing if they would stick in my mind as chants before putting them down on paper. The otter-spell slipped into my skull while I was walking over the Cairngorms with my father. The willow-spell arrived on the towpath of the River Lea, tramping the unglamorous bank-miles between Broxbourne and Tottenham Hale. The first line of the newt-spell came while I was in the checkout queue at Sainsbury’s.

‘As nature thins, so does our memory of it.’
‘As nature thins, so does our memory of it.’

I sent each drafted naming-spell to Jackie with the same accompanying note: “To be read aloud.” I needed Jackie to test them for what Seamus Heaney called language’s “palp and heft” – its thickening by rhyme and texturing by rhythm. I wanted to write spells that, even if they were not fully understood by their readers, might (Heaney again) “weave a gauze of sound” around them.

Young children meet language sensuously as well as semantically. They embrace what Francis Spufford in The Child that Books Built calls the “gloriously embedded” aspects of language: “Its texture, its timbre, its grain, its music.” These are also the aspects that have always been central to spells and incantations – for such utterances originated in oral cultures where gestures and speech, rather than the written word, were executive.

In many of the spells I found myself writing about shape-shifting: the “partaking of existence” of which Keats spoke, and at which children are such natural geniuses. Thus the last line of the “otter-spell”:

Run to the riverbank, otter-dreamer, slip your skin and change your matter, pour your outer being into otter – and enter now as otter without falter into water.

Elsewhere I tried, futilely, to catch at what Hopkins called the “thisness” of each creature; the swiftness of wren-flight in the first line of the “wren-spell”, for instance:

When wren whirrs from stone to furze the air around her slows, for wren is quick so quick she blurs the air through which she flows.

Nature isn’t always wondrous. Often it’s absurd, violent or vile. Ravens rip the eyeballs out of living sheep stranded in snowdrifts. Skuas half-drown gannets and then eat their vomit. I wanted to allow certain species their brutality or comedy – and others their unsettling, alien otherness. In the “willow-spell”, human voices beg to be taught to speak willow:

Willow, when the wind blows so your branches billow, will you whisper while we listen so we learn what words your long leaves loosen?

But the willows soundly reject their entreaties:

We will never whisper to you, listeners, and even if you learn to utter alder, elder, poplar, aspen, you will never know a word of willow – for we are willow and you are not.

While I wrote, Jackie painted. I had the easy job: 20 spells to cast. Jackie had hundreds of paintings to create. She painted for a year and a half, working seven-day weeks for most of the final six months. For each name she first painted its absence or lostness. Then – on the facing page of my spell – came the conjured-back creature or plant in the form of an “icon”, set against a shimmering background of gold leaf. Finally, she painted a double-page spread showing each species back in the landscape of which it was intricately part: wren whirring through furze, acorns in an owl-haunted oak-wood.

‘This is what nature must best be to children: something “alive, powerful and sentient”.’
 ‘This is what nature must best be to children: something “alive, powerful and sentient”.’ 

The absences were hardest. How to paint what isn’t there? Jackie drew the empty silhouette of a wren in 18 pen strokes, miraculously catching its teleport-quickness, its jaunty-jenny pose. She painted a blue ripple under willow leaves where a kingfisher should have broken a stream’s surface; a single heron feather rocking down through air. On these “absence” pages, too, Jackie hid single letters that – when sought and found by children – would spell out the lost word. So the book grew and grew and grew – until it was 128 pages long and a foot-and-a-half high: a proper grimoire.

We should be unsurprised that nature’s names are vanishing from children’s mouths and minds’ eyes, for nature itself is vanishing. We are presently living through the sixth great extinction – a speed and scale of planetary biodiversity loss not seen since the Cretaceous. At a local level, this expresses itself in what Michael McCarthy memorably calls “the great thinning”. The 2016 State of Nature report found Britain to be “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, with 53% of British species in decline – among them barn owls, newts, sparrows and starlings.

As nature thins, so does our memory of it. Shifting baseline syndrome flattens out the losses; each generation grows into ease with its new normal for nature. The grim end-point of this thinning is foreseen in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where common names survive but the common species to which they refer are all extinct. Names in that novel are spoken hopelessly, shaken like rattles filled with ash.

Jackie Morris

“Reconnect with nature” is the mantra for fixing this awful decline – as if we could just plug the toaster back into its socket and get right on back to lightly browning bread. We load the cant-word “connection” with responsibility, but rarely examine what it means philosophically or practically. An exception to this is the RSPB’s 2013 Connecting with Nature report, based on a three-year research project. Sensibly, the report recognised “nature deficit” as a complex problem, strongly inflected by socioeconomic and cultural factors. Dismayingly, it found only one in five British children to be “positively connected to nature”. Hopefully, it emphasised “nature connection” as not only a “conservation” issue, but also one closely involved with education, physical health, emotional wellbeing and future attainment: what’s good for nature is also good for the child…Read the entire article

2 Responses to “The Lost Words”

  1. This is beautiful. The art is breathtaking. The ideas inspirational. And as long as there is a breath in my body nature is not forgotten. My children have been taught from infancy to read the differences of trees in the shapes of their leaves. To know meadowlark from killdee, the call of the red tail from the cooper hawk. They can read the patterns in the grass and know how long ago the path of a deer was made. Both have been taught without even knowing they were learning – it just is part of their world. I cannot imagine living in a world where this is not seen.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I have had a wonderful time reading it. The beauty and charm of it ripples through me, leaving all my empty spaces filled.

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