The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie MorrisReviewed by Peter Reason
When our postman handed me the package that contained my review copy of The Lost Words I blurted out, ‘I’ve been waiting for this!’ In the weeks before its delivery I had read hugely appreciative reviews in the national press and on line. The book has benefited from a major marketing campaign from the publishers, aimed firmly at the Christmas market, and attracted much attention. So while delighted to get my copy I was also a bit anxious: would I like it or was it over-hyped? Would I find anything to write about it that has not already been written?
I took the book to my favourite armchair and slowly turned the pages, first taking in Jackie Morris’s illustrations, then reading Macfarlane’s ‘spells’. After a little while I realized that all the time I had a smile on my face, and I found myself muttering to myself, ‘This is very well done indeed!’ The Lost Words delivers everything it promises.
The story behind the book has been well rehearsed. In 2007, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. Many words describing the natural world had been omitted while words from the ‘technosphere’ such as ‘broadband’ were included in their place. A group of well-known children’s authors wrote an open letter in protest. In parallel, concerns have been raised in recent years about ‘nature deficit’, the fact that children were no longer allowed to roam around in parks, commons and wild places on their own, no longer building dens, collecting tadpoles, unable to name common wildflowers. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods has attracted much attention; naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham, among others, has joined the call for children to get back into the natural world, showing its importance in his own engaging memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. It was Jackie Morris who first had the idea of a book illustrating these lost words—she conceived of it as a ‘wild dictionary’. She asked Robert Macfarlane if he would write an introduction and this more ambitious project grew from there.
If words are being lost, if we cannot name our world, can we actually experience it? Is not language important in perceiving, even conjuring up our world? If the names are lost, will we care when the beings evoked are also lost? As I write this, I learn that the population of flying insects has dropped by some 75% over the past 25 years, yet another indication that we living in a time of the Sixth Great Extinction of species in the history of Earth, this time caused by human impact. How come we collectively pay so little attention to this destruction, this ‘great thinning’, as journalist Michael McCarthy so aptly calls it? Are we all asleep?
The Lost Words is offered to wake us from our collective nature deficit, to reclaim words and celebrate a world that seems to be slipping away from us. The Introduction tells us, ‘You hold in your hands a spell book for conjuring back these lost words… [to] unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye’. As Macfarlane points in the Guardian Review, just as Ged, the magician hero of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, has to learn the true names of beings in the Old Speech of dragons and gods if he is to work his spells, we too must relearn the magic of words.
The book starts with Acorn and moves through the alphabet to Wren (although some letters are omitted and others repeated). Each word is represented in three spreads: the first marking loss or slipping away, where the letters that make the word are scattered across the page; the second containing the summoning spell; and the third being a rich illustration celebrating the word in its wider context. The spells are evocative, as one would expect from Robert Macfarlane; the illustrations gorgeous, from the experienced hand of Jackie Morris, who lives up to the tradition of great nature illustrators, including Arthur Rackham, currently celebrated in the Victoria and Albert exhibition Into the Woods. Author and illustrator have worked closely together to conceive and realize an integration of words and images that is an artwork in its own right.
This is a wonderful book to offer to a child at Christmas or birthday; or on no occasion at all, just for the sake of giving a gift that is beautiful as well as educational.
But this is not just a book for children. It addresses the challenge of how ‘nature writing’ in its broadest sense can reach a wide audience and address the ecological calamity of our times. How do we encompass the loss of other beings in the community of life on earth; and even more the disturbance of the great cycles of the atmosphere, the oceans, even of the rocks, that are destabilizing our planet? How do we write about nature when day after day we learn of some new way in which the human—mainly Western—fingerprint is to found everywhere; when in many ways we can no longer distinguish between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’? How do we all, adults as well as children, re-enchant our damaged planet?
Macfarlane has always been a literary writer. He goes on his travels accompanied by the writers and poets he knows and loves, notably by Edward Thomas in The Old Ways. He has written elsewhere about the importance of language in appreciation of our world; his Twitter feed features an uncommon ‘word for the day’ that has proved popular and stimulating. In earlier works he shows how the reclamation of words and stories helped save the Brindled Moor on Lewis in the early years of the present century from the construction of a massive wind farm. The energy company claimed that the moor was a barren place, a wasteland, certainly disenchanted; and indeed so it might appear to an outsider. But local people strongly opposed the proposal and devised ways to re-story the moor, to reclaim and re-enchant it in ‘narrative, poetic, lyric, painterly, photographic, historical, cartographical’ forms. What was required, one protagonist argued, was a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would help both name the landscape and the community’s relationship to it. The Brindled Moor was saved, at least for the moment. (It is also interesting to note that the speed of development of wind generation technology suggests that a windfarm built in the first decade of this century would be obsolescent toward the end of the second decade; while the moor would be ruined forever.) Words are not just nice for children, they have practical and political consequences.
Some ‘nature writers’ are birders and old style naturalists, some of whom study one creature or ecosystem for a lifetime; others are journalists and broadcasters, photographers and filmmakers, travelers and eco-philosophers. In pursing this link between language, our literary heritage and the natural world, Macfarlane is making his particular contribution, complementing other contributors to this broad field.
In this collaboration, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have drawn together words and images to create a book of spells that promises to evoke a sense of wonder in us all. As Macfarlane tells us, ‘wonder is an essential survival skill for the Anthropocene’.