Melissa Harrison reviews The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris — our second Book of the Month for October — along with Emma Mitchell’s Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months
Sometimes, when it comes to the natural world, words aren’t enough; and sometimes there aren’t enough words. Sometimes it’s better to put down the books and go out and have creative dealings with the outdoors; but sometimes the words must be recovered before we can even engage. These two beautiful hardbacks share a highly visual approach to inspiring their readers, and while it would be easy to say that one is for adults and one for children, that would risk doing both a disservice.
Happily, beautiful, large-format hardbacks have been enjoying a revival of late, particularly those aimed at younger readers and those, like me, who are young at heart – I’m particularly thinking of Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s brilliant Animalium, Botanicum and Historium, but there have been many others in recent years. Now Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s foot-and-a-half-high The Lost Words: A Spell Book (Hamish Hamilton) joins this pleasing tradition.
We know by now – or we should do – that words for the natural world are being lost from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (and others), and lost from the mouths and minds of children, too. It is that loss that The Lost Words aims to address.
“Two years and a summer ago I began work with the artist Jackie Morris on a book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, about the magic of naming and nature,” Robert wrote in the Guardian last weekend. “When we began, we knew only that we wanted to make a modern-day spell-book for the natural world – a book that might go some small way towards conjuring back the words, names and species that were being lost…Jackie and I chose 20 common names of 20 common species of creature and plant. For each name I wrote a summoning spell, structured as an acrostic, to be read aloud by child to grown-up, grown-up to child, or even grown-up to grown-up…For each name she first painted its absence or lostness. Then…came the conjured-back creature or plant in the form of an ‘icon’, set against a shimmering background of gold leaf. Finally, she painted a double-page spread showing each species back in the landscape of which it was intricately part.”
The result is beguiling. Jackie Morris’s creaturely paintings seem shamanistically charged with life – ‘thisness’ flames out, ‘like shining from shook foil’ – and there isn’t a page here that doesn’t demand to be pored over and absorbed; even the pages from which the animal or plant species is absent seem haunted and immanent. Robert’s accompanying ‘spells’ – poems, really – avoid the pitfall of being over-intellectual; these are simple to say (or chant), simple to learn and full of fun. For instance:
Out of the water creaks long-legs heron, old-priest heron, from hereon in all sticks and planks and rubber-bands, all clanks and clicks and rusty squeaks.
It’s a given that literate, nature-loving adults will be drawn to this handsome hardback, but what of kids? To find out, I posted a copy to a nine-year-old relative of mine, Phoebe: “Thank you for the beautiful book. I love the pictures and poems and actually everything about it.” she wrote back.
Emma Mitchell’s extraordinarily popular Instagram account has clocked up nearly 100,000 followers, and it’s not hard to see why: a designer-maker and craft teacher, her projects are inspired by the natural world, set out in such a way as to seem doable even for novices, and beautifully photographed. Her book Making Winter (LOM Art/Michael O’Mara), published on the same day as The Lost Words, was conceived from a hashtag, a way for her followers on Instagram and Twitter to sustain positivity and creativity through the dark days of winter when it can feel as though the natural world is in abeyance and spring is a long way away. And as she makes clear, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence to support a belief that having contact with nature, and engaging in creative practices, can affect our mental and physical health. “Making things during winter is a cunning strategy to help replace the feel-good brain chemicals that may falter during these dingier months,” she writes. “Add to this the joy of baking, the thrill of a chocolate fondant made in five minutes, the snugness of a home-made shawl and the deep satisfaction of meeting with friends to make some or all of the above, and the result is a delicious, cosy, baked, yarny toolkit with which to tackle winter’s onslaught.”
The success of this book, for me, comes down to its seasonality. When you collect and preserve autumn leaves, cook with ingredients you’ve grown or foraged yourself, turn the kind of tiny treasures we all pick up on walks into jewellery, make your own Christmas wreath, draw a feather you’ve found instead of discarding it, or grow spring bulbs to enjoy indoors, you’re engaging not only with the natural world but with the year’s cycle in a way that grounds you in time and place and makes something from the here and now, and beyond being an aid for SAD sufferers I believe that’s something that can have vast – and perhaps unexpected – value; in fact, I’d love to see Making Spring, Making Summer and Making Autumn, too.
“Reconnect with nature” is the mantra,” wrote Robert Macfarlane in his Guardian piece. “We load the cant-word ‘connection’ with responsibility, but rarely examine what it means philosophically or practically.” He’s right to question the facile assumptions behind the imprecation to ‘connect’, and from my experience with volunteering, there is a kind of de haute en bas high-mindedness prevalent in much hand-wringing about people and nature that is at best unhelpful and at worst, an active barrier to helping many children and families to engage.
Will either of these books ‘fix’ the disconnect that is impoverishing us as humans and harming the natural world? Of course not. But they are witnesses and waymarks for change, part of a slow but powerful shift in thinking that should not be underestimated. In her recently reissued book Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit talks about the ‘politics of prefiguration’: “the idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded…change happens as much by inspiration and catalyst as by imposition,” she writes. That a book should act as inspiration or catalyst to even one reader makes the writing of it worthwhile. And these two will reach thousands.
Read Jackie Morris’s essay on the creative process behind The Lost Words here.