‘The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

Note: I began this post early in October, but circumstances conspired to delay things… Hope you enjoy anyway… Since The Lost Words’ release it has already won several awards, including The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller. This book is absolutely extraordinary…. A great idea for a gift… for yourself or someone you might enjoy sharing it with : )

There has been a noticeable buzz on social media recently, especially on Twitter. A new book  called The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris was announced in September. Anticipation ran high, and, in the first of an extended tour by the authors, the book was launched on the evening of 5th October, at Foyles Books in Charing Cross, London. I was visiting the city, having arrived that afternoon after a long flight. I knew of the event and had reserved a ticket. After finding my lodging, taking a few (jet-lagged) deep breaths, I set out in a taxi… running a bit late… We left Chelsea with almost an hour and a half to spare before the event ended.. The fates, however, were feeling capricious. Forty minutes later, through heavily traffic-snarled streets, I arrived, with only a half hour or so to go, at the venue – Foyles theatre. The room was packed. Chairs surrounded a smallish stage, where Mr. Macfarlane, Ms. Morris, and Gareth Evans, the MC for the evening sat on a low stage, near a screen showing a range of delightful images from the book. I was very sorry to have missed most of the evening, but grateful to have not bypassed it entirely, and to have a chance to see this book I had heard so much about.

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Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris took questions from the audience, and, as it was a smallish, intimate space the interchange was informal, humorous at times, informed, and very congenial. Discussion and questions ranged from the ways we might encourage children to connect with the natural world, whether the term ‘environment’ is a good one to use when introducing children to nature, (Mr. Macfarlane thought not… better to teach the specifics and show how connected we are with it). One of Ms. Morris’ instructors from Bath Academy, Brian Dunce, was in the room. He praised his former student, noting that Ms. Morris had been a stellar student, one who followed a style few of her contemporaries have chosen, and remarked that, disappointingly, representational art, especially focusing on wildlife and the natural world, is currently not often encountered. Further questions revolved around the digital world; how it is affecting both children and adults, and the tenuous relationship, increasingly, we all have with the world of nature. Both Ms. Morris and Mr. Macfarlane are on Twitter regularly, with Macfarlane posting a daily ‘word of the day’ that has attracted many followers, often leading to compelling and extended comment threads. Ms. Morris also has a delightful blog…

Around 9:00 discussion wound up, and many of us lined up to have our book signed and to meet the authors… both, gracious, personable and genuine. It was a great pleasure to meet Jackie and Robert, who were each kind enough to agree to an email interview about their  recent collaboration.

 

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The Lost Words’ is a large book, physically, and in its aspirations… The size is perfect for drawing the reader into the immersive text and captivating renderings of the creatures and plants portrayed. Described as a ‘book of spells’, it is designed to conjure some of the ‘ordinary creatures and plants that, though common, are becoming less so…’ These include badgers, otters, hares and herons, along with acorns, bluebells, ivy and dandelions.  Seemingly a children’s book, the spells and stunning, oversized watercolour renderings will nevertheless, with their subtle wordplay and evocative imagery, appeal to all ages. Twenty words are evoked… with subjects that move, play, dance, frolic and flee –  then are further brought to life by Ms. Morris’ paintings that thrill, spill, float, fly and rollick across the pages.

The arrangement of this volume is also incantatory… repetition, colour (gold), and rhythm weave a dense tapestry of words and imagery. Each word’s spell is preceded with a double page that suggests it, but its presence must be detected amidst a skein of other letters, to be teased out… incarnated. Following pages contain the actual spell, bringing life and context to the chosen word. Immediately following each is a setting containing the real thing… vividly manifested by the incantation. It took a few readings to decipher this, yet it is this sort of  patterning that, especially when shared with young readers, will resonate and enrich the experience.

 

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In a recent interview on BBC6 with Cerys Matthews, Robert Macfarlane noted that the spells were intended to be read aloud, in the best spirit of incantations. By happenstance, I had the opportunity to read the entire book to a couple of young children, on a very crowded train to Oxfordshire a few days later. The older one, around seven years old, paid close attention to the words and proudly told of her experiences picking berries in brambles (one of the words), and of a hare that lives in a field near her house. The younger sibling, a toddler, was more interested in the enchantingly vivid illustrations.

The words and images in ‘The Lost Words’ are full of musicality, motion, vitality and artistry… they evoke creatures and plants we might see on a walkabout in almost any neighbourhood, or in the countryside. Also, to make it even more compelling, (especially for those new to the magic of reading), each spell is written as an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling out the word. This would be a delight for a child beginning to decipher the potential of letters… to invoke words that allow entry into entire other realms…

This will be a volume to share with young and old…. then head out for a walk to see if the spell has worked its magic. Of course, the mere act of slowing down, paying close attention, looking and listening to the wonders of the natural world is certainly reward enough. At a time when populations of wildflowers, birds, butterflies and wildlife are rapidly declining, a book that invites us to take notice of and savour the beauty of common flora and fauna, especially with the next generation, may be just the spell we all deeply need.

 

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Robert Macfarlane noted in an earlier article, ‘The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch.’ Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages. They are present in part as a sign of hope, for those bright birds represent a rare conservation success story in Britain, their numbers having surged by almost 50% over the past 10 years. They are there, too, because the collective noun for goldfinch is a “charm” – a word which also means “the chanting or recitation of a verse supposed to possess magic power” and “the blended singing of many birds, or children”. Books such as The Lost Words help children discover the wonders of the natural world, and the words that bring it alive. This is absolutely vital, for a generation which has grown up with a close connection to the wild world and its flora and fauna, may take care to nurture and protect it, when they become the decision-makers of the future.

Interview with Robert Macfarlane:

  1. Such a stunning book you and Ms. Morris have created… Did you know one another before this project began? Can you let us know a little of how your collaboration on The Lost Words was born?

Robert: Thank you, Jo. We didn’t know each other in person, but we did know each other’s pages, as it were; Jackie’s books, especially The Snow Whale, had lived in and been loved in our house for years, read to all three of my children as they grew up. And Jackie had read The Wild Places and Landmarks. So when we finally met – under a vast polar bear at a Greenpeace protest outside the Shell HQ in London – it felt like a renewal of a friendship rather than the beginning of one. So it’s proved; working with Jackie these past 2 ½ years has been a total joy – being invited into her wild world, and watching the magic she works with her brush

2. Certain books that we come across as children can have a major lasting impact on us for our entire lives.. I recall finding C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, beginning with ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’… the wonder of encountering that other realm, and revelling in it.  Also books by Eleanor Estes and Beverly Nichols, especially his ‘The Tree that Sat Down’, and so many others. Are there certain books that had a major impact on you as a child?

Robert: Yes – as you suggest there are certain books that, when read in childhood, drive deep into the imagination, setting their roots and growing through a person’s life from there. Sometimes the flourishing can come unexpectedly late – I’m only now understanding how powerful some of that early reading was in shaping my writer’s imagination in, as it were, my heavyweight books (especially The Old Ways and The Wild Places). I discuss some of my most powerful childhood encounters with books in this essay, but I guess I would re-name and acclaim here in terms of teaching me nature, so to speak, books such as Cicely Mary-Barker’s The Flower Fairies, Arthur Ransome’s novels and also add the Reader’s Digest guides to British Birds, Animals, Insects etc, one of which I bought each year with the money I’d saved up: they were beautifully illustrated hardbacks, and I have the whole run still. I also loved Observer books, though didn’t collect them. Later came some of the fantasy novels I talk about in the essay, including Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle, Susan Cooper’s magnificent The Dark Is Rising sequence and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, as well as TH White’s The Once and Future King. In all of these books a kind of magical naming is practised, that exhilarated me when I first encountered it (and rather still does).

3. During discussion at the book launch of TLW in London, in response to a question about lack of knowledge of the names of common creatures, plants, trees, etc. you made a point of emphasizing you are definitely not judging people who lack knowledge of these words, and that no one, especially children, should feel ashamed about this.  You also noted there appears to be a hunger to connect with, and learn about the natural world on the part of adults as well. Can you elaborate a little?

Robert: Well, again, the essay linked to above elaborates more fully and formedly than I could here, but yes, I value the chance here to re-emphasise that lack of familiarity with the living world around us is not for a second the fault of a child; and that this separation, if we want to call it that, runs up and down the ages. We’ve had some people scoffing at the idea that a child in 21st-century Britain might not know what an acorn is, or a kingfisher, or a wren. Unfortunately, that scoffing is itself usually a function of ignorance on the part of the scoffer. Access to nature, and knowledge of it, is massively unevenly distributed across our society at present, affected by poverty, ethnicity, postcode and what we uneasily call ‘class’, among other factors. To remedy this we need to restructure our entire relationship with the natural world and the species with which we share our landscapes, building a need for nature into our infrastructure projects, our planning laws, our education system and our culture, seeing it not as a luxury but as a necessity. Again and again research has shown that what is good for nature is almost always good for children, too, growing confidence, happiness, social skills, play, self-awareness…

4. There has been a petition by Mary Colwell earlier this year to implement a GCSE* in Natural History. The idea was to help young people become much more familiar with and knowledgeable about the natural world. The petition says: ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. It is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today.’  The petition got over 10,000 signatures, but was halted due to the general election last spring. Would you be in favour of this?  If so, why, and if not, please elaborate…

Robert: I greatly admire Mary Colwell’s work as a writer, activist and change-maker. She’s inspiring. As it happens, though, I would prefer not to see a Natural History GCSE – my wish would be to integrate ‘nature’ across the curriculum at primary and secondary. Don’t hive it off into a separate qualification, and don’t treat it only as a ‘science’ (i.e. as ‘biology’ or ‘ecology’), but also as something that is vitally part of the arts, the humanities, design and technology, citizenship and of course politics and history. The John Muir Award* is a good example of a game-changing initiative that is making connections across the curriculum, and thereby supporting whole-school priorities. A subset of this: include nature and environmental well-being in Section 78 of the Education Act (‘General Requirements in Relation to Curriculum’). Nature and our relations with it become part of life, behaviour and ethics.

*The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification, generally taken in a number of subjects by pupils in secondary education in England and Wales.

*An environmental award scheme for people of all backgrounds – groups, families, individuals. It’s non-competitive, inclusive and accessible. Here’s a link: https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/john-muir-award

5. You mention the group ‘Action for Conservation’ in some of your interviews. Also, in the book it notes that some of the revenue from The Lost Words will be donated to AFC. Can you talk a little about this organization, how you became involved, and what sorts of programs they create?

Robert: Yes, well, it’s a dynamic young charity on a rocket-shoot to the stars right now. I’m lucky to be a founding trustee, and to have been involved with the charity’s shaping from the beginning. People can find out more here: http://www.actionforconservation.org But briefly, our mission is to work with secondary schools to inspire students to become the next generation of conservationists. Our workshop programmes are led by young conservation professionals working in the field, bring the magic of nature into classrooms and empower students to take action through a range of opportunities. We also run summer camps in conjunction with the National Trust and other organisations. Most importantly to me, our focus is on those schools and students who might otherwise be excluded from access to nature. Conservation is often caricatured as a middle-class need or echo-chamber, but more than 80% of the schools we work with have more than 50% of their students on Pupil Premium. I knew from early on with The Lost Words that I wanted to connect ‘creation’ with ‘action’, and finding a way to return some of any money made from The Lost Words directly to Action For Conservation was the obvious way to do this. It’s been a joy to be able to talk about the charity’s work as part of the discussion that has emerged around the book.

6. There seems to be a very special chemistry between your words and Ms. Morris’ images. Have you considered any future collaborations? Any possibility of a sequel?

Robert: Ha! Well, I’m still writing spells. Five or six more so far, new ones. Goldfinch, egret, beech, peregrine & barn owl among them. Jackie is painting in response to these, slowly, among her many other commitments. And yes, we have one major project in mind, which if it works out might be bigger even than The Lost Words (in outcome if not in size of book). But there are a number of problems to solve with that before we can move forwards with it, so I’d better zip my mouth at this point…

Here is Robert MacFarlane reading a spell from The Lost Words, along with an interview: https://youtu.be/j9WrlGZirPs

Interview with Jackie Morris:

  1. I read you were at Art College in Hereford, Exeter and in Bath….

Jackie: Hereford was where I did a Foundation. Exeter was where I began my degree, but when I realised the college was not right for me, they suggested that I might like to leave rather than transfer as I would never make it as an illustrator. Fortunately I had an interview at Bath Academy and Brian Dunce recognized my absolute hunger to learn. He said he wasn’t interested in talented students as they were often lazy. What he wanted was those students with a desire to learn.

2. Since you and Robert MacFarlane have published several other books on your own, how was this project different, working in collaboration?  What were some of the joys of this project? Did you find there were any challenges?

Jackie: Every book is a challenge. I had collaborated before, with Caroline Pitcher, James Mayhew. And at the time I was also working on a book with James Mayhew, but in that case I had written the text for Mrs Noah’s Pockets and James was illustrating it. I loved seeing how James put the flesh on the bones of my words.

Each collaboration is different, and there was something very different about the way Robert and I worked together, shaping the book, words, images, design, with a wonderful team to back us up, but also I began to feel that we were also working with the creatures and plants we were painting, writing. It sounds strange, almost mystical, but that was how it was.

The joys were being given those incredibly sharp moments of focus that the words give you. And every single moment was a challenge. To live up to the natural beauty of the wild world. How can that be anything other than a challenge?

3. The Lost Words is a book that may become a classic, one of those books that people read or are read to as young children, that stay with them for life, as an immersive introduction into the power and magic of words and images to bring nature to life within the pages of a book… Are there certain books that had a major impact on you as a child? Also, are there any current authors or illustrators you particularly admire?

Jackie: I always loved the work of Brian Wildsmith. I adore the work of Angela Barrett. Clifford Harper has been a hero of mine for years.  Shaun Tan, Nicola Bailey, Pauline Baynes. Nicola Davies is one of the best authors for children working today. She weaves a rhythm around the natural world that slides facts into a child’s mind. She tackles subjects that are so hard, with no sentimentalism, just an honest heart.

As a child I loved the books of Jack London, I loved Tarka The Otter, and My Friend Flicka. I wanted a horse and a hound and a hawk, to walk through standing stones into other worlds. I was a dreamer. I am a dreamer.

4. You two have been undertaken a fairly intensive series of public events since the London launch of The Lost Words. Can you tell us some of the highlights? Were there any surprises?

Jackie: Everything was a surprise to me. From the moment we launched the book, seeing how people took it to their hearts. Walking in to independent bookshops and seeing the book in so many bookshop windows. Meeting so many booksellers I had worked with for years, from Penzance to Carlile who were delighted that the book is selling so well. All the events were wonderful in their way. The pre-launch at Solva Woollen Mill gave us an idea of how things were going to be. We met so many amazing people who waited for so long to get their books signed. The twins, 6 years old, at Hay Winter Festival, were just amazing. They came with parents and grandparents. I had wanted the book to be a book for everyone, not only for children, and people have sent us photographs of readers aged 6 months, to old and wise.

5. Just recently a crowdfunder by Jane Beaton was launched, with the aim of providing every primary school in Scotland with a copy of  The Lost Words. Here is the link: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/thelostwords/? Like many children, I spent happy hours as a child totally engaged in books that a kindly librarian helped me find. Libraries ensure that everyone has access to special books, whether or not they can afford to buy them… How does it feel to have this sort of initiative launched for your book?

Jackie: It’s been astonishing to have worked so long and so hard in isolation, to then have a period of waiting, painting, thinking and then to see our book out in the wild, taking seed in people’s lives. It’s only been a few weeks now since the book was launched in Foyles. It took 2 1/2 years to make, from idea to launch. Jane’s initiative is just an astonishing thing. And I know other people are buying the book for schools too. The book is in some senses a protest, but I hope a different kind of protest. I hope it is a beautiful one.

6. With ongoing news of the effects of pollution, wildlife population declines, global warming and then recent political developments in America and the UK, where do you find hope and refuge, in order to continue your work?

Jackie: In the wild world that gives no heed to the stupidity and the games of humans. Watching birds fly, the movement of water, the slow time of trees. If things get too much I stick my head under water. Now and again knitting helps. But mostly walking, walking and looking and listening to the wild.

Also standing in the dark looking up. Where I live there are no street lights. You can see the stars. That usually puts things into perspective. That and learning things.

And losing myself in paint.

7. Any ideas for future projects, or ongoing ones?

Jackie: I’m working on a novel, with a few differences. Hopefully it will be published early autumn next year. And Robert and I, we have ideas, yes.

 

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Congratulations to you both for creating such a unique, evocative work, invoking the words/world of nature, and the joys it, and reading, bring us all. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions at what must be a mind-bogglingly busy time for you.

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Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author of a number of bestselling and prize-winning books including The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Holloway and Landmarks. His work has been translated into many languages and widely adapted for film, television and radio. The American Academy of Art and Letter awarded him the E.M. Forster Award for Literature 2017. He is a word-collector and mountain-climber – and he has three young children, who have taught him more about the world than any book.

Jackie Morris grew up in the Vale of Evesham and studied at Hereford College of Arts and at Bath academy She has illustrated for the New Statesman, Independent, and Guardian, collaborated with Ted Hughes, and has written and illustrated over forty books, including beloved classics such as The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear, Song of the Golden Hare, Tell me a Dragon, East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Wild Swans. Jackie Morris lives in a cottage on the coast of Pembrokeshire.

 

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