Book Review: The Lost Words and Spell Songs

Enough of last week’s bishops—with their tedious, dualistic, patriarchal exclusion. Let’s turn to something more creative and life-giving: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarland and Jackie Morris.

This collaboration between him–a Cambridge professor/naturalist, and her—a skilled, stunning artist–came about when the Oxford Junior Dictionary, widely used in schools around the world, dropped 40 words concerning nature. These “lost words,” no longer used enough by children to rate their inclusion, included: wren, acorn, bluebell, fern, lark, otter, heather and willow. In classroom after classroom, children were unable to name something simple as a dandelion. As Morris asked, “how could we stand by and let this happen?”

They couldn’t. Macfarlane wrote a clever acrostic “spell poem” for 20 common names of ordinary species, designed to speak or sing and summon them back.  Believing that “as artists our main function should be a responsibility to awe,” they saw their work as a “beautiful protest against the loss of everyday nature from everyday lives.”

Their gorgeous book (over-size, full color, Anansi Press, available from Amazon, book stores or libraries) took on life and energy. Grass-roots campaigns to “re-wild childhood” earned enough money to place copies in every primary school in Scotland, half of England and a quarter of Wales, with similar efforts in the U.S.  Every hospice in the UK has a copy, and an Orthopedic Hospital has four levels decorated with the art and spells. Children practicing motor skills can thus be encouraged to “walk as far as the kingfisher,” or “go find the owl.” Like a selkie, it has also slipped its skin and transformed into Spell Songs.

Listening to that lovely music as I drove my granddaughter to camp through misty hills on a cool, grey morning, I felt I’d gone to Ireland without a plane ticket. The accent, the lyric voices and flutes, fiddles, harps underscored our emotional attachments to certain landscapes.  As a Senegalese musician said, “when it’s gone, you never get it back. Your landscape, your horizon is irreplaceable.”  

Many of us survived lockdown by taking daily walks outdoors. The healing benefits proved the truth of a line in “Lark:” “Right now I need you/for my sadness has come again.” To lose words not only impoverishes our appreciation of the natural world; it dilutes our language.

Any of my writing students at the University of Colorado could attest that the specific word is one of the best tools in the writer’s kit. They knew their lazy use of “nice,” “good” or “interesting” would draw a quick and savage strike of the red pen from their instructor. When the names of precious species, unique creations are replaced by blog, broadband and bullet-point, how have we cheated our children?

One response to “Book Review: The Lost Words and Spell Songs

  1. love everything about this, from “re-wild” the child to nature in hospitals. thank you for the recommendation!

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