Lost Words

A research paper by Cambridge University conservationists found that children are better at identifying Pokémon characters than real animals and plants. In a 2008 National Trust survey, only a third of eight- to 11-year-olds could identify a magpie, though nine out of 10 could name a Dalek. A 2017 RSPB “Birdwatch” survey found that half of 2,000 adults couldn’t identify a house sparrow, a quarter didn’t know a blue tit or a starling, and a fifth thought a red kite wasn’t a bird. In a 2017 Wildlife Trusts survey a third of adults were unable to identify a barn owl, and three-quarters unable to identify an ash tree.

Why am I telling you this? Because yesterday I attended a beautiful exhibition called ‘The Lost Words’ that attempts to “conjure back the magic, beauty and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us”. Devised to take children and adults on a journey through 20 ‘lost words’ from ‘Acorn‘ to ‘Wren‘, each word becomes an acrostic spell written by Robert Macfarlane. Each of the twenty plants or creatures has been painted three times by artist Jackie Morris: first absent from its habitat (e.g. pawprints in the snow or a lone feather), then its return (generally painted on a gold background), and finally in its natural environment (see for example the Kingfisher). Below are some of the poems and paintings:

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

© Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane

The other Lost Words not shown above are:  BluebellConkerDandelionHeronRavenWeaselWillowWren.

The book Lost Words: A Spell Book by Macfarlane and Morris was published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton. The exhibition I saw is in Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh until 2nd September 2018.

Anyone with an interest in nature, words and images, and who wants to explore further some of the ideas and creatures conjured up by ‘The Lost Words’ can download a free explorer’s guide from the John Muir Trust here.

I’ll end with this quote by Macfarlane:   “Language is written deeply and richly into our relationships with landscape and with nature: there as the place-hames on our maps, and the many names of species, common and rare, with which we share our lives “

See also:

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