Robert Macfarlane

The Lost Words

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children ... you hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words.”

As we traipse through the world it should be our objective not only to notice but to name the flower and stem and furry animal scratching in the leaves. To call on the raven or barn owl as distinct creatures, from one another, from ourselves.

“Naming deepens knowledge and encourages closer distinctions in what we see” wrote Robin Lane Fox in his wonderful book on thoughtful gardening. Indeed, the infinite variety of life – forensically organized by name – acts as a means to order, understand and ultimately to embrace.1

But as The Lost Words, a collaboration between the writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris, sorrowfully informs us “once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children…”

They disappeared so quietly that at first 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, health, 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.

Owl. Illustration by Jackie Morris in "The Lost Words" in the Examined Life Library.
Illustration by Jackie Morris.

Bramble

Bramble is on the march again,

Rolling and arching along the hedges, into parks and on the city edges.

All streets are suddenly thick with briar: cars snarled fast, business over.

Moths have come in their millions, drawn to the thorns, the air flutters.

Bramble has reached each house now, looped it in wire. People lock doors, close shutters.

Little shoots steal through keyholes, to leave – in quiet halls,

Empty stairwells – bowls of bright blackberries where the light falls.

This vocabulary of the natural world, like any language, is best acquired when young. I walked the Michigan woods with my grandfather, his rich voice defined the beech, ash and oak until I could do the same by sight. Up until his recent death we spoke the specifics of nature – I recall a pleasurable discussion on muskrat and mink.

It was a language of communion and connection, one I will teach my daughters.

Dandelion. Illustration by Jackie Morris in "The Lost Words" in the Examined Life Library.
“Dazzle me, little sun-of-the-grass!” Illustration by Jackie Morris.

This imaginative book brings those common words back to our tongues – kids and adults alike.

“No one forms new words any more” lamented John Steinbeck in one of his last writings, between us there are secrets, “not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness.” Words unused are words gone.

In our quest for self-expression we push against the boundaries of the unsayable. We are connected across geography and time by words. An acorn is an acorn is an acorn. From one acorn a thousand forests, promised Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Acorn

As flake is to blizzard, as

Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as

One is to many, as coin is to money as
bird is to flock, as

Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
spring is to river, as glint is to flitter, as

Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as feather is to flight, as light is to star, as kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

Although many of the magnificences in “The Lost Words” are creatures found in England, it is nonetheless a melody to see all of nature. Near and far. Seen and hidden. Morris’ gilded illustrations hoist us into another world of herons, owls, adders and minks.

Fern. Illustration by Jackie Morris in "The Lost Words" in the Examined Life Library.
“Fern’s first form is furled…” Illustration by Jackie Morris.

Magpie

Magpie Manifesto:

Argue Every Toss!

Gossip, Bicker, Yack and Snicker All Day Long!

Pick a Fight in an Empty Room!

Interrupt, Interject, Intercept, Intervene!

Every Magpie for Every Magpie against Every Other Walking Flying Swimming Creeping Creature on Earth!

Add to this bright collection the lovely missellany of words we always wished existed (and do outside of English), and the thoughtful conjurings of Annie Dillard whose books speaks the language of nature to all who listen, and Rachel Carson whose unique gift it was to see fairylands in lichen.

Conkers. Illustration by Jackie Morris in "The Lost Words" in the Examined Life Library.
“Cabinet-maker, could you craft me a conker? Oil its wood, burnish its veneer, set it glowing from within?” Illustration by Jackie Morris.

Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker, river’s quiver

Ink-black bill, orange throat, and a quick blue back-gleaming feather-stream.

Neat and still it sits on the snag of a stick, until with…

Gold-flare, wing-fan, whipcrack the kingfisher – zingfisher, singfisher! –

Flashes down too fast to follow, quick and quicker carves its hollow

In the water, slings its arrow superswift to swallow

Stickleback or shrimp or minnow.

Halcyon is its other name – also ripple-calmer, water-nester,

Evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer and

Rainbow bird – that sets the stream alight with the burn and glitter!

So much language to be found, unearthed, renewed. So many words to be spoken and taught. So much wonder to be sought.