lost words…and why they matter

I just received my copy of The Lost Words and it is much larger, just as handsome, and quite as magical as I suspected it would be.

The Lost Words: A Spell Book, written by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris
published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books

To fully appreciate the book, a bit of background is required.

I do love British literature and find myself very often recommending British children’s books here on Orange Marmalade.

my well-worn Pooh Bear

From my tattered, stained, childhood volume of Winnie the Pooh through the entire 12-volume Swallows and Amazons series which we read aloud with our children, often around the campfire during our annual summer camping trips…

Barklems knowledge of natural history is on display throughout this charming series.

…to the loveliness of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, and Beatrix Potter’s thoroughly unsentimental tales… I could go on and on.

One of the differences I’ve noticed over the years between British and American literature — for children and adults — is the propensity of the Brits to properly name the flora and fauna in a story’s setting. Thus gorsebushes, hawthorns, and cowslips, thrushes, starlings, and coots, all appear even in stories for very young children, rather than merely birds, ducks, flowers, and trees.

A gorse bush, such as ambushed Pooh Bear on occasion.

To conjure up a picture of a woodland “filled with spring flowers” or to conjure an image of a woodland “drifted in trillium” for example, is quite a different thing. If you know what trillium is.

Trillium bloomed like snow in the woods near my in-laws home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

To speak of a barn swallow’s nest to children who have seen one mudded into an out-of-the-way corner, nestled in the porch rafters perhaps, creates a vivid picture quite different from simply “a bird’s nest” which could look dozens of different ways.

However, British researchers have substantiated the sad reality that yes, even in Britain, these richly-precise words once commonly used by children to talk about the natural world have begun to fade away. No longer do children talk of brambles or ferns, kingfishers or wrens. Their study results, published in Science, mourned the fact that presently children seem “more inspired by synthetic subjects” such as Pokemon characters, than by “living creatures.” Part of the tragedy, beyond the richness of life and experience which is lost when children are nature-deprived, is that since “we love what we know,” fewer children can be brought to care about the extinction of a species, for example, the loss of habitat, the despoiling of a vibrant, vital natural world.

Children’s language and writings on the whole began not to employ this more precise vocabulary. Thus we arrive at the “lost words” that Robert Macfarlane began to ponder as a result of his reading and reflecting on this research.

If the act of naming something lends credence to it, acknowledges it, vivifies it, the disappearance of that name correspondingly blurs its reality, perhaps even disappears that thing — wren-ness, bluebell-ness — from our conscious knowledge of its existence, our ability to experience its reality, to see it. This idea set author Macfarlane to musing about the almost magical power of naming in old fantasies and eventually brought him to the concept of this profound, gorgeous book. You can read Macfarlane’s article relaying in much fuller and more cogent detail his thoughts — the article that initially cued me into this title — at the link here. It’s absolutely fascinating.

So, the book. Twenty living things — from dandelions to weasels — are conjured once again in The Lost Words, brought back from a sort of banishment into their old vigor and resplendence via the “spells” spoken by us, the readers. These spells consist entirely of naming the creature. The way it works is this:

On a double-page spread, a tangle of letters meanders atop a natural setting in which it feels, somehow, that something is missing. Here, for example, is a glade of trees with a sense of barren vacancy.

If we pick out the letters in blue (contrasting with the other, golden letters), we find the name of what is missing. “Bluebell.” Say that name aloud, and turn the page…

Voila! A bluebell appears, and an anacrostic poem describing a bluebell-filled wood, with “billows blue so deep, sea deep, each step is taken in an ocean.” Macfarlane wrote these poems, and each one is finely-crafted, dignified, wonderfully respectful of children’s minds.

Turn the page once again and Jackie Morris’s stunning painting spreads a revitalized scene before us. Our “spell” — our naming of bluebell — has worked! The wood is transformed with the reappearance of this splendor of nature.

The size of the book — coffee-table worthy — means we feel ushered right into these lush scenes, magically whisked feather-close to the cerulean line-up of kingfishers perched just over the pond or up into icy alpine world of the raven.

Elegant. Artful. Inspiring wonder. Bidding us to attend to the natural world more closely, know it, name it. This highly unusual book knits together science, poetry, and art, magnificently. I hope it coaxes many into the great outdoors to exult and see and name and know and care for the treasures of nature around us.