Lost Words, Lost Spaces

The recently released The Lost Words is a beautiful book which was developed following the decision to remove a number of words describing the natural world from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of those deemed more contemporary. The book has rightly met with great acclaim as it seeks to re-engage children with descriptions of the flora and fauna many of us once took for granted. But it also prompts reflection on the loss not only of vocabulary, but also of access to the world which it describes for the increasing population of town and city dwellers.

The Book

3D9862FE-7F42-41A8-97AB-E7E71C3C5B21-19813-000004EF966D0EA1The Lost Words is written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. It is a gorgeous publication – luxuriously large in scale – which focusses a sequence of ‘words’ relating to nature such as Starling, Otter and Acorn. For each section there is a poem described as ‘spells’, summoning up the subject in question and with the start of each new line spelling out the relevant word. The poems are linguistic treasure troves capturing the spirit of the species they describe, and around which the beautiful artwork of Jackie Morris is woven. I would heartily recommend that anyone with an interest in nature, illustration, poetry or language seeks out a copy.

The Audience

The book is intended primarily to excite the imaginations of children, though it is equally delightful for adults. It is fair to say that The Lost Words is achieving its objective – to connect children with the natural world. A crowdfunding campaign has succeeded in raising enough money to place a copy in every primary school in Scotland, and this is now being replicated in other parts of the UK. The authors have gone on record to say such schemes are already exceeding their expectations. All of which is tremendous of course, but then I wonder a little about how accessible the words captured in the book will be for those with very limited access to the natural world.

Terrible picture of a Cormorant

We bought a copy with our baby boy in mind, hoping that it will become a treasured feature of childhood, and have already begun reading the poems to him at bedtime. We live in a city but it is small with lots of green spaces: parks, canals, a river, all within walking distance. I have been lucky enough to spot Heron, Cormorant, Kingfisher, and on one memorable occasion a whole flock of Goldfinch sweeping into a field to feed on the late summer grassland seedheads, while meandering around these valuable public spaces. So in short, there is precisely zero chance that a child of mine will grow up unaware of the joy that can be found in nature.

But what about children living in urban settings, who do not have ready access to green spaces or parents determined to introduce them to the living world? Can The Lost Words really capture their imaginations, or will the words and images found in the book remain only abstract concepts?

Lost Spaces

The focus of this blog site is on urban gardening and the importance of green spaces in towns and cities. While there are protections in place for National Parks and the green belt surrounding urban areas, the reality for many is that they spend the vast majority of their time in built up areas. So while trips out to the country and the coast are a wonderful thing, it seems to me that if children, and adults, are to re-engage with the natural world the protection and enhancement of green space in towns and cities is of equal importance. Yet the erosion of such resources almost seems to be a matter of public policy at present. I have previously blogged about the importance of, and threat, to allotments, and contradictions in the approach to street plantings in Sheffield. In my own city there has recently been a successful planning appeal to build on a greenfield site which is prone to flooding, which not only seems madness from a practical point of view, but also erodes another pocket of undeveloped land in the city which can be inhabited by wildlife.

Why is this important?

The concept of Nature Deficit Disorder was the focus of the 2016 RHS John MacLeod lecture given by Dr Ross Cameron of Sheffield University. The argument is that in our increasingly urbanised world we have become disconnected from nature and that this has all sorts of implications for both our own wellbeing and the way we manage the impact of human life on the environment. The positive effect on physical and mental health of engaging with nature and having access to green space is well documented, while the parks, gardens, allotments and street planting of towns and cities also provide a habitat for wildlife and can mitigate to some degree against the effects of urban pollution and climate change.

Which brings us back round to The Lost Words. The relegation of words which describe nature in favour of those which relate to technology may accurately reflect the evolution of language in our changing world but it also reinforces the disconnect between people and planet. It is hard not to conclude that this detachment has resulted in the parlous state of the environment with an unprecedented number of species at risk of extinction, irreversible climate change and chronic pollution of air, water and land. It is vital that this disengagement is challenged for the sake of both our own species and those with which we share this planet.

Green space in towns and cities cannot be regarded as an unaffordable luxury item. Parks, allotments, street planting, and private and community gardens all have a role to play in sustaining wildlife and maintaining our connection with nature. The Lost Words reminds us of the enjoyment that connection can bring, and it is hoped that it prompts a new generation to demand that their access to green space is protected.


For tips on attracting wildlife to your garden see my previous blog

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