TORONTO – British writer Robert Macfarlane has witnessed first-hand the disappearance of certain nature-oriented words from the lexicon of children.
“I’ve been in classes where no child knows what a wren is, no child knows what a kingfisher is,” he says.
“We have spoken with several teachers who hold up an acorn or a picture of an acorn and not one child knows what an acorn is.”
“Acorn,” “wren” and “kingfisher” are among the subjects of the “spells” in “The Lost Words,” a gorgeous coffee-table book written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.
Published earlier this month in Canada after being a hit overseas, the bestselling book is a love letter of sorts to 20 of about 40 words concerning nature that were removed from a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for schoolchildren in 2007.
The words were dropped because the dictionary’s analysis determined they were no longer being used enough by children, sparking outrage among nature lovers. Among the words replacing them in the dictionary were many dealing with technology, including “blog,” “broadband,” and “voice-mail.”
“It’s not the dictionary’s fault,” says Macfarlane, who focuses on landscape and nature as a literature teacher at the University of Cambridge, and as a renowned writer of several award-winning books.
“Blaming a dictionary for telling us how we use language is like blaming a barometer for telling us we’ve got bad weather on the way. It just records the pressure, and the pressures at the moment are that children are thinking less about nature.
“But what it became was a symptom of a cultural estrangement that spoke very, very powerfully to people around the world and made them anxious.”
“The Lost Words” is hardcover and large in size — 27 by 37 cm, “bigger than some of its youngest readers,” jokes Macfarlane — with stunning artwork made with water colour and gold leaf, and poems on words ranging from “acorn” to “wren.”
Macfarlane and Morris wanted to make a book that had “magical thinking at its heart,” so they called the poems in the book “spells” that are meant to be read aloud, as if the reader is conjuring back the lost words and summoning nature.
First published a year ago in the U.K., “The Lost Words” has been called a “cultural phenomenon” by the Guardian and sparked a movement of sorts.
More than 30 grassroots fundraising campaigns emerged to get the book in schools in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Similar campaigns are under way North America. In Canada, Munro’s Books in Victoria is donating $8 from the sale of every copy to the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, in support of their educational programs for children.
The book has also been adapted into music and stage projects, a short film, and is being developed into a feature. It’s also being used by numerous organizations who use poetry as a form of therapy with patients who have suffered trauma or have dementia, Alzheimer’s and other forms of memory loss — patients who have lost their own words and are trying to find language again.
“The names are going because, in many cases, the creatures are going, too,” says Macfarlane, whose great aunt used to live in Vancouver Island, where he first realized he wanted to be a writer after reading a copy of Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams” from a local bookstore.
“I guess that, perhaps, is the explanation as to why the book struck, and continues to strike, such a powerful chord here and increasingly around the world — is that we are living in a time of loss. We have species disappearing around the world and from under our noses and we all feel a great sense of anxiety at that, but we also feel an inability to do anything about it.
“So suddenly the book, I think for many people, has represented a chance to reverse loss — for children particularly.”