Not Reliquaries

‘To celebrate the lexis of landscape is not nostalgic, but urgent,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks. ‘Nostalgic but urgent’ is a surprisingly apt description for Macfarlane himself: the over-spilling shelves of his study, which leave books stacked in piles on the floor, suggest a fascination with language and an urgency about his search for lost knowledge. A Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Robert Macfarlane is a writer, literary critic and conservationist, and has written a number of bestselling books, including a trilogy about landscape and the human heart – Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Wild Places (2007) and The Old Ways (2012) – and, more recently, Landmarks (2015) and The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017). He is currently working on a book called Underland.

In 2007 OUP published a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, removing dozens of words relating to the natural world including ‘acorn’, ‘bluebell’, ‘cygnet’, ‘heron’, ‘otter’ and ‘willow’. The replacement words included ‘chatroom’ and ‘cut-and-paste’. A 2017 petition to reinstate those words got more than 50,000 signatures – for fear, perhaps, that as acorns and otters escape our vocabulary, they might also disappear from the world around us. These are what Macfarlane aims to restore to life in The Lost Words. Written by Macfarlane alongside its illustrator, Jackie Morris, the book is structured around 20 names dropped from this dictionary. Each of the words has a dedicated illustration and poem, or spell. ‘It is told in gold,’ the book claims,  ‘– the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms – and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.’

Both of his latest books, The Lost Words and Landmarks, attempt to bring little-used words back to life. I ask him in what exact way the words are lost. He explains that lexicographers often determine inclusion or exclusion of words from a space-limited dictionary through ‘corpus analysis’ – they will use software to assess the usage-frequency of words across a vast corpus of selected texts. ‘Other research backs up the “lostness” of these names of everyday nature,’ he continues. ‘Cambridge research found that 8-11 year-olds in Britain were “substantially better” at recognising common species of Pokemon than common species of British wildlife. For “badger”, read “Bulbasaur”; for “weasel” read “ “Wigglytuff”.’ He adds in horror that a third of British adults, in a 2017 Wildlife Trust survey, couldn’t name a barn owl; three-quarters couldn’t name an ash tree.

The words are not removed from the dictionary out of some sort of malice towards nature: their removal is an example of a highly logical approach towards lexicography. But relinquishing these words is a surrender of sorts, and Macfarlane tries to show us that this is not a battle we should give up on so quickly. ‘I’ve worked with primary-school teachers in classes where out of 30 children not one knew what an “acorn” was, did or looked like,’ Macfarlane continues. ‘We should be unsurprised that nature’s names are vanishing from children’s mouths and minds’ eyes, for nature itself is vanishing.’

He explains that we are presently living through the ‘sixth great extinction’ or ‘Anthropocene extinction’, which refers to the ongoing extinction of species during the present Holocene epoch. One of Macfarlane’s main fears is that as nature thins, our memory of it thins accordingly. ‘Shifting baseline syndrome’ refers to the gradual lowering of standards resulting from each successive generation lacking the historical knowledge of the original, and presumably more natural, condition of the environment: we come to accept what we are used to, and fail to feel the real extent of the loss.

Do the books find the words again? Or are they lexicons of what is passing before it is gone for good? ‘No,’ he tells me, ‘these books are very much not intended as reliquaries, but rather as rewildings: the release of language, image and idea back into culture, where it can thrive and grow and change the ways we think and speak about the living world with which we co-exist and the landscapes we inhabit, and rebuild what the anthropologist Beth Povinelli calls “a literacy of nature”.’

Another British writer calling for rewilding is George Monbiot. His book Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life (2013) concerns actual rewilding of the landscape, and suggests that we have wolves, beavers, bison and lynx once again roaming Wales – and much of Europe, too. Macfarlane takes the notion of ‘rewilding’ and applies it to lexicography. One could suggest that in the face of Monbiot’s practicality, the rewilding of words becomes naive and even a little futile: a mere academic posturing at actual conservation. But The Lost Words is sincere in its ecological ambitions. Earlier this year, Jane Beaton, a school bus driver and travel consultant, was moved to raise £25,000 to put a copy of the book in every primary school in Scotland. Books have been placed in various areas across Wales, England and parts of North America, too.  In the light of this, it becomes easier to hope that as we regain words for nature we will regain nature too.

‘Are words necessary to enhance social consciousness, consciousness of nature being an example, or does social consciousness create words?’ I ask Macfarlane. This question alludes to the Sapir-Whorf debate, about whether linguistic structures can cause deep-level cognitive changes or shapings. ‘I am not a linguist,’ he warns, ‘but I am a literary critic as well as a writer, and I guess I would propose a shallower version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is to say that of course the “metaphors we live by”, to borrow the title of Lakoff and Johnson’s famous book, shape the ways we imagine and behave towards the world. There is a lot of fascinating work being done in conservation at the moment around “framings”, and while “nature deficit disorder” clearly needs political and legislative fixes, it also needs creative and linguistic ones.’ Macfarlane references George Monbiot’s essay on natural naming and conservation discourse: ‘We are blessed with a wealth of nature and a wealth of language… [so] let us bring them together and use one to defend the other.’

Both are true then: nature and language tangle together in that we create words for what we have noticed, but also notice things more intently once accompanied in our consciousness by words. There are perhaps times when nature seems to elude human naming: in the film Mountain (2017), for which Macfarlane wrote the screenplay, he says that ‘mountains exceed our command. They slip our grip.’ By putting a name on something, is it forced into a box? Does it lose its wonder? What is the mere word ‘mountain’ compared to the feeling of standing at one’s peak? On the other hand, there are times when words exemplify wonder and demand its attention. The little-used, semi-lost words from the glossaries of Landmarks are fine examples of this. Ammil is ‘a Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw’. Roke is an East Anglian term for the ‘fog that rises in the evenings off marshes and water meadows’. I grew up in East Anglia myself, and only now that I know the term roke have I especially noticed how the fog does this. Similarly, anyone who has sat beside a river for any length of time will hear its sound more clearly in their memory once they know that threeple or tripple is a Cumbrian term for the ‘gentle sound made by a quick-flowing stream’.

If The Lost Words is a spell book, then the author is a magician. But Macfarlane rejects the idea of being a magician, and claims to be a ‘devoted amanuensis’ instead, who watches, listens and writes down. ‘In each of the spells I wanted to catch something of the “thisness” of each creature or plant, to lean a little into their unique lifeworlds, and see if I could give that play on the page in a way that would come alive to children – or readers of any age – when the spells were spoken aloud, as spells must be. Spells often have powers and outcomes that exceed those of their makers; that is part of their magic, and that has certainly happened with The Lost Words.’

Macfarlane refers to the dozens of crowd-funded campaigns getting the book into primary schools and care homes; to its adaptations for theatre, film, dance, spoken-word performance and choral work; and to the hundreds of letters and photographs he and Jackie have received from teachers and children across the country. Seek, Find, Speak, for example, is an outdoor-theatre adaptation of The Lost Words premiering this July. ‘That’s a kind of magic,’ he tells me, ‘and I feel very fortunate to have been a small part of it.’

Macfarlane’s current project Underland examines the ‘lost worlds beneath our feet’. There is only one little letter between ‘lost worlds’ and ‘lost words’, and I wonder how Underland fits in with his work so far. ‘Underland represents a substantial “turn” in my work, and perhaps that’s why it’s taken me six years to (almost) complete it. A turn towards darkness, death and the underworlds; towards questions of what we inherit and what we will leave behind as a species… Underland is my Anthropocene book. “Nature” is one of the things that the Anthropocene has rendered unnatural, so if this is in any sense “nature writing”, it’s of a very strange and uncanny kind. The book is, though, perhaps predictably, fascinated throughout by language; how we name or even speak basically of this (vastly problematic) new earth-epoch we have made and are inhabiting.’

Macfarlane’s first book, Mountains of the Mind, is subtitled ‘a history of a fascination’. If mountains exist as a composite of all the sediments that form them, the product of aeons of uplift and erosion, then words are surely very similar: they are monuments to an accumulation of human thought, which encounters similar changes through time. There are mountains of words to be discovered, and their discovery is urgent. Macfarlane quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson in Landmarks: ‘Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.’

‘Without a name made in our mouths,’ as Tim Dee, author of Four Fields (2013) puts it, ‘an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.’ Language and the natural world are deeply intertwined: inseparable, in Macfarlane’s view. They are our history and our future. But both are under threat, and only through a supreme effort of imagination and of will can we save them.