The power of language to shape our sense of place and the people we become was excellently explored in Robert Macfarlane’s last book, Landmarks. The introductory essay, ‘The Word-Hoard’, went viral and was partly prompted by the loss of words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (2007 edition) – everyday words such as acorn, bluebell and conker had been omitted. “For blackberry, read Blackberry”, he wrote. “A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages”.
His wonderful new book, The Lost Words, is Macfarlane’s response. “We poured our hearts into this book”, he tells me. The “acorn of the book”, he explains, was an alphabet of the words “but it grew and grew and became a huge book, bigger than some of its readers – the idea was that readers would feel a sense of walking into the book, like a landscape”. Beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, enchanting acrostic spell-poems – each devoted to one of the vanished words – succeed in vividly conjuring them to life. “We wanted to make a spell-book in two senses – in that children spelled these words and then this magical sense of enchantment; that old magic of speaking things aloud.” He read the book out to his three children – Will, 4, Tom, 11, and 13 year-old Lily; at first they were embarrassed (it was the equivalent of “dad-dancing”, he laughs) but soon fell under its spell and Lily became very involved and at every stage would look through every page.
I am walking through Wandlebury woods with Macfarlane in the countryside nearby his Cambridgeshire home, the first time the author of such classic books as Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places has done an interview here but a place whose pathways he knows deeply. As Autumn sunlight breaks through huge yew trees, he points out the large Iron Age ring-fort, wide meadow rising into a chalk down, and Roman road along which he walks in his bestselling book The Old Ways. Wandlebury woods also features in Landmarks and is filled with children’s dens, a secret garden, and his own children love it here, too.
Throughout our walk he points out acorns, ivy, a magpie – some of those lost words. “The nature of childhood is changing dramatically. We know the surveys for that – the increase of screen-time and decrease in roaming radius” – caused both by parental fears and because there are less wild places for children to play. “And the inability of children to name even nearby nature. It’s not about snow leopards and jungles and remote mountaintops – it’s about the living world with which we share our living days. It got me thinking about names and the magic they weave, about what it means to grow up with even a basic literacy of nature and the sense that these words were vanishing. I really wanted this to be a book about everyday nature”.
A proportion of the royalties from each copy will be donated to Action For Conservation: the charity, which does work with disadvantaged children, is dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural world, and to the next generation of conservationists. Macfarlane is a founding trustee and wanted the book to inspire action and change: “There’s a huge inequality in distribution of access to nature – I think it’s really important to recognise that. We need to find ways of addressing inner city and otherwise socially excluded children. Ethnicity and class and postcode play huge roles. Things like Action for Conservation and the John Muir Trust award target children who wouldn’t otherwise get into nature.”
Green places are good places and “do wonders for wellbeing”, he insists. He mentions the Welsh phrase “dod yn ôl at fy nghoed”, which means “to return to a balanced state of mind”, but literally means “to return to my trees”. He believes the government certainly has a role to play and could increase available green space near to home for all children, and include nature and environmental well-being in Section 78 of the Education Act (‘General Requirements in Relation to Curriculum’) so that “nature and our relations with it become part of life, behaviour and ethics”. He adds: ”I don’t want a nature tsar – I want a Minister for Nature.”
He reflects: “The books we read as children take root in us and they can grow through us for the rest of our lives”. Keen to get this book into as many children’s minds as possible, he and illustrator Jackie Morris are drawing up teaching notes for schools and running writing competitions. He believes that ‘nature’ should be integrated across the curriculum, and that learning outdoors in nature could more deeply be ingrained into the education system. He admires the Forest School movements’s ethos: “Hearteningly, it has come to understand it needs to extend that ethos out to children who might not easily find their way to green places or into regular contact with nature”.
He is keen that “one generation doesn’t patronise the next” and does understand the disinclination to get outdoors (indeed one of his teenage memories is “sighing when mum said take the dog for a walk”). “My daughter went on this conservation camp for the first time this summer and she’d been sighing about going but rang me on the first night in West Wales and said ‘Dad – you know all that nature stuff you’ve been talking about my whole childhood – I used to think that was baloney but now I get it’. And I thought wow it took a day! That’s all it took – without parents and without screens there. I loved that moment.”
Does he limit his children’s screen/social media time? “I think I’m probably worse at it now than they are!”. Six months ago he joined the Twittersphere and has amassed a huge following – his Word of the Day tweets take his project of ‘rewilding the language’ and prizing its biodiversity, into cyberspace – something he finds an “utter joy” and “daily gladdening”. There’s “a complex relationship” between nature and technology, and cyberspace “can be a way of sharing and connecting places and people and language”.
Macfarlane wrote poetry in his teens and is an admirer of Hopkins, Hughes and Heaney. There are also echoes of Edward Lear and Edward Thomas in some splendid spell-poems. “I wanted to catch the eeriness and strangeness as well as comedy and magic and beauty of nature. And with each spell I tried to capture what Hopkins calls the ‘this-ness’, the quidditas, of each creature and what makes it astonishing to be close to”. As we walk, he delights in naming the creatures we see, soaring in the sky or scuttling on the earth. We forage for food and devour delicious blackberries and apples.
“There’s so much layered history here”, he says as we stand upon an enormous tree stump and survey the land, “this high-ground has been inhabited since the neolithic age, so we’ve got 5000 years of continuous human habitation here.” He also delves into his own history. Born in 1976 he grew up in Nottinghamshire and, as chronicled in Mountains of the Mind, it was his grandfather and parents who passed onto him a passion for wild places. He shares with me his earliest memories of the natural world: “I remember seeing a golden eagle for the first time and was amazed that a bird could be so big”.
On we walk through the woods. “This thing is called the understorey”, he says, pointing down at the growth below the canopy, “and I just love that word”. Walking through the understorey calls to mind his next book, scheduled for 2019, Underland, which, he tells me, is about the literal, metaphorical and mythological worlds beneath our feet. He stops to take a photograph holding my iPhone through a coppice pointing skywards – a technique Bill Bailey shared with him during a recent walk they took, which produces a remarkable image.
His talent for working in different mediums is also on display in the film he has written, Mountain, which has its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. He worked on The Lost Words and Mountain during the same time-period. “They’re both arriving within the same four days – that’s absolutely thrilling. When Willem Dafoe came on board I was like that’s my dream, I can die happy now with my words spoken by Willem Dafoe. It’s an experimental film in a way – 90 minutes long but the script is 820 words. We wanted to create a dreamscape, almost like a film poem”.
Does he have hope for the future? “The bigger picture is dismal. Plastic pollution, climate change, extreme weather events, environmental degradation – that’s the Anthropocene, a geological epoch defined by human activity”. Contemplating the seriousness of planetary scale problems, though, can throw people into paralysis and paralysis, he says, is truly hopeless. “Small acts of care and small acts of hope and good are also crucial – grassroots charities, individuals, books, words, are doing magic work – so to say there’s no point is an abandonment of everything. Hope is a greater agent for change than despair”.
Published in The Telegraph, Friday 29th September
The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane illustrated by Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on 5th October
Mountain premieres at the London Film Festival on 9th October.