“Just a minute” said a voice in the weeds” Mary Oliver wrote in her gentle collection of verse, “So I stood still in the day’s exquisite early morning light.”
We so easily imagine the natural world speaks to us. It calls us, whispers, sometimes bellows. Sings. There is a syllogism inherent in nature, the wind blows a pond to ruffle the water, like the moon pulls and throws the tide to get our attention.
The Lost Spells is a collaboration of melody, hope, precision and wonder between two talented artists, writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris. It is a second verse, of sorts, to their spell-breaking The Lost Words which shot through our hearts with the energy and vitality of a new spring.
God knows the world needs all
the good it can get right now –
Out in the gardens and fields,
Goldfinches are gilding the land for free,
Leaving little gifts of light:
a gleam for the teasel,
a glint for the tree.
Did you hear their high scattered song,
their bright wings’ flitter,
Falling around you as flecks,
as grains, as glitter?
Imagine the loss of their lustre,
the lack of their sheen:
No more shimmer,
a worrying absence of gilt.
Charm on, Goldfinch, charm on –
Heaven help us when
all your gold is gone.
In the same way Denise Levertov and Rainer Maria Rilke centered their sublime verse on the legend of Orpheus, a tree-seducing flower-awakening musician, the words and subjects of The Lost Spells address specific inhabitants of field and forest.
Snow is falling, my silver-seeker;
soon the path will be lost to sight,
soon the day the day will give way to night –
Ice is forming, my silver-seeker;
soon the streams will be fastened tight,
soon the shadows will claim the light.
Look over your shoulder at where you have been;
the edge of the wood can no longer be seen
Vast is the forest and slender your track;
harder it grows to find your way back.
Even as the dusk gets dimmer,
still the birch trunks glow like torches,
still the birch-bark holds its glimmer.
“I become engrossed in every leafy, creepy or flying inhabitant of the wood, with each detail depression begins to disperse” wrote Emma Mitchell, a person of emotional spirit and heavenly sight, in her diary of observation. A sliver of scene, things hidden, a lift of the pale, to borrow from Keats, and just a glimpse at that thing which marches alongside the whole time, silently.
Below Barn Owl spreads silence;
All sound crouches to the ground,
Run for cover, huddles down.
Noise is what Owl hunts,
drops on, stops dead.
Over rushes, across marshes,
Owl hushes –
Will you listen with Owl ears
for a while?
Let the wild world’s whispers
call you in?
Loss is the tune of our age, hard to miss and bear. Creatures, places and words disappear, day after day, year on year. But there has always been singing in dark times – and wonder is needed now more than ever. ‘To enchant’ means both to make magic and to sing out. So let these spells ring far and wide; speak their words and seek their art, let the wild world into your eyes, your voice, your heart.
In Rachel Carson’s most personal project, The Sense of Wonder, this biologist/writer who catalyzed the modern environmental movement takes our hand and teaches us how to see. Or rather, it reminds us of how we saw when we were young. Macfarlane does the same but with voice and ear. 1
This is a book of spells to be spoken aloud. It tells its stories and sings its songs in paint and word. Here you will find incantations and summoning charms, spells that protect and spells that protest, tongue-twisters, blessings, lullabies and psalms. Here you might swoop with a swallow, follow a seal through the sea or sky-race with swifts. Here you can listen with owl ears and watch with the eyes of an oak. Here a fox might witch into your mind, or flocks of moths may lift from the page to fill the air.
Hold moth-names in mouth and
mind a while – Satin Lutestring,
Willow Ermine, Feathered Thorn
and Seraphim, Forester and
Dusky Clearwing – sing them
out into the night to give moths
back their range, their flight.
The melody of meaning and reference in these pages and these “spells to be spoken aloud” has inspired thousands and created a connective tissue of song and hope throughout the world. Learn more about the teachers, lessons, art and the inspired musicians who chant The Lost Spells in their voices here.
If, as Macfarlane notes, “Loss is the tune of our age” then lost will be the hymn of the future.
Or there will be no song at all.