Book Review - The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane
Updated: May 24
By Donna Livingstone, Whyte Museum Chief Executive Officer
“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children.”
So begins this generous book of spells, poetry, charms, and illustrations. To British author Robert Macfarlane, the warning signal was when the 2007 Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped forty commons words concerning nature. Words like acorn, adder, bluebell, and dandelion. Apparently, they were no longer being used enough by children. They were replaced with words like blog, broadband, bullet-point and voicemail.
To Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris, these were more than lost words, they signalled a displacement of the outdoor and the natural by the indoor and virtual. And marked the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world. They responded with their publication of poems, The Lost Words, which conjures up twenty of these lost words, and the beings and plants they represent. Writers like Margaret Atwood soon joined a grassroots movement to re-wild childhood across Britain, Europe, and North America, drawing on The Lost Words for inspiration.
This is a book to ponder. It’s big. Twelve inches wide by 16 inches tall. It is meant to be held in a lap and read with a curious child turning the pages. It is meant to slow you down and take your time with each section.
As much as this book is about a connection to nature, it’s also about a love of words and language. The feel of words in your mouth as you say them out loud, the look of them on the big generous spaces with room for your mind to roam.
Each section begins with a scattering of letters hidden in the landscape, waiting for you to find the word that is lost, and to use the rest to create your own spell or anagram with clues only you can understand.
Each section is a poetic conversation that reflects the personality of the creature or plant: the coyness of the newt, the cocky rapper wound of the raven.
In "Newt" the newt protests all the cuteness associated with his kind:
… for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the
duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit, it’s true, he paused – minute.
In "Raven" you can hear the bird’s throaty belligerence:
Rock rasps, What are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the
boxer’s swagger, strong and older than peak
and then boulder, raps Raven in reply.
There are games within each section. The initial name of the animal or plant is used to create the rhymes:
I am ivy, a real high-flyer
Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire
You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.
The use of words is rich and expressive and makes you realize how lazy we’ve become in our appreciation of imaginative language. The adder is introduced as a “hank of rope in the late hot sun.” For the otter, the playful words splash into meaning: “Ever dreamed of being otter? That utter underwater thunderbolter, that shimmering twister?”
Joni Mitchell in her 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi warned that “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Fifty years later, The Lost Words is a reminder, a warning of how much can be lost, and how easily.
Pick up a copy of The Lost Words for yourself at the Whyte Museum Book Shop, located at 111 Bear St. in Banff.
Image 1: Whyte Museum CEO Donna Livingstone with The Lost Words book by Robert Macfarlane.