A while before Christmas, I was with a dear friend in my local bookshop The Suffolk Anthology and we were looking at books by Robert McFarlane such as Landmarks and Holloway. I mentioned that I loved The Lost Words, the book he made with artist Jackie Morris. My friend remembered, and at Christmas-time she surprised me with it. What a gift for me; and what a gift the book is to the world.
As is well known, a few years ago there was a furore when a new edition of a dictionary for younger children dropped words like acorn, adder, bramble, and fern, and replaced them with words to do with computers and the internet. The editors said something, I believe, to the effect that a dictionary is descriptive, and records the language actually in use. And so Robert McFarlane begins The Lost Words thus:
Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.
He calls the book “a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words” and hopes that it will be read aloud, and “unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” Jackie Morris’s beautiful illustrations of birds and plants complement the “spells.” Their combined magic evokes what happens when we really look at the natural things around us.
The bluebell picture is especially lovely, and exactly captures the delicate native bluebell with its drooping curve, “arched down like a cutwater drawing itself back from the line of the keel,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his notebooks. He loved bluebells, gazed intently at them: The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape…He experienced them with all his senses: drawing his fingers through, so they struggle with a shock of wet heads; smelling the faint honey smell; and tasting the sweet gum when you bite them.
But this is easy, he says; it is the eye they baffle. They give one a fancy of panpipes…..He seeks to describe that curve like a shepherd’s crook, and notes how the flower holds itself differently when you put it in water from the way it looks when growing. Over and over he tries to capture that arch of the bluebell: what with these overhung necks and what with the crisped ruffled bells dropping mostly on one side and the gloss they have at their footstalks they have an air of the knights at chess.
It’s still January, a while off bluebell season, but The Lost Words has conjured it. The book reminds me to look closely at the ordinary but infinitely precious bluebell, bramble, conker, fern. But while adults have praised the book, it is made to give children the words. I wonder if they are reading it, or having it read to them? Will these spells do even more powerful magic than evoking the natural world, will they send the children outside so they can see and touch these things for themselves, and learn their names?