A wholesome and necessary thing*

Mr Bookwagon and I have been reading up a storm. Super Thursday, October 5th, was followed by a slightly less super Thursday (12th) and, this week, a slip of a slightly super Thursday; the Bookwagon trolley is full of ‘must read’ new books.

I had the good fortune to teach last week in a school that necessitated a 45 minute drive each morning and evening. I began to relax into the journey, and look forward to the changing scenery. Many years of darkening mornings, misted windscreens and a packed seasonal work and home schedule had me dreading autumn.  However, with a change of career, something has lifted. It’s aligned to a year where our only travelling has been within Britain. I’ve been reminded of the awe I felt when I first came to this country, when my sister-in-law’s generous parents insisted upon and supported my explorations- particularly South-West England, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Sussex, Kent and Wales. I was dumbstruck by the beauty of these areas, and again, when I travelled north, Suffolk, Shropshire, Cumbria and to Scotland.

Mr Bookwagon took delivery of ‘The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton). As a keen British birder, Mr Bookwagon was offered the first opportunity to read the book, although I had heard the ‘buzz’ about it, read Jackie Morris’s blog, heard its writer, academician Robert Macfarlane, explain its initiative on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme.

Jackie Morris had been contacted by Robert Macfarlane to make a children’s book offering meanings and images for twenty words from the natural world erased from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They were considered no longer relevant, no longer within ‘the current frequency of words in daily language of children‘.

The result, The Lost Words , is one of the most wonderful books I have ever encountered. It is breath-taking. From its lush gold lustred pages, to proud A3 stature, this book is a monument. It defies a categorisation; it is not a children’s book, a natural book, a poetry book, a picture book – it is a testimony to all that is free, awesome and wild in our world.

Together, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a brave book composed of swirling verse, with each of the twenty subjects announced as an illustrative acrostic containing tear-jerking, spring sampling language. So a conker is announced as a ‘cabinet maker, could you craft me a conker?‘ An ‘i’ included in magpie is- ‘interrupt, interject, intercept, intervene!’ A kingfisher is declared a ‘the colour giver, fire bringer, flame flicker, river’s quiver.

Each creature or object is announced in a declarative illustration of its name’s letters, before a glorious page of illustrative text alongside a single portrait image. To conclude each entry is a double page painting. It is almost like the most luscious dessert Versailles could contemplate.

Bramble, bluebell- Lost in the depths, drowned in the blue’, an ‘air eating’ weasel, a shape shifting, heart stopping otter, newts who are ‘kings of the pond, lions of the duckweed, dragons of the water’.

I am alight with this book, this treasure trove of magic, yet…. it follows a week of teaching, a week of outdoor shoes, padded overcoats, jumpers, fleeces, holding hands in safe columns, of children who have never picked up feathers for ‘fear of touching dirt.’ They are not exceptional. A National Trust survey in 2016 discovered that while 96% of parents thought ‘it important that children had a connection with nature and playing outdoors was important‘, children play outside for just over four hours a week, compared to their parents’ 8.2 hours. A poll last year, sponsored by Unilever, undertaken by Sir Ken Robinson, discovered that 1/10 children play in wild spaces only, that 3/4 of British children spend less time outside than prison inmates – ‘many children don’t get to be outdoors in a natural environment in any regular or meaningful way.‘ United Nations’ guidelines insist that prisoners require at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily, yet just 74% of children spend less than an hour outdoors every day. Meanwhile, we have warnings that severe Vitamin D deficiency in this country, caused by an absence of natural light, is increasing noticeably.

I recognise that Britain’s weather, about which there is so much conjecture and derisory comment, alongside its equally tempestuous political climate, can make a dash abroad feel a necessity, but, to quote a New Zealand jingle from my childhood, ‘Don’t leave home till you’ve seen the country.‘ It would  sadden me when Year 6 children on a school journey, were dumbfounded to discover the sights and spectacle of Somerset or the Isle of Wight on our annual pilgrimages; some had never ventured out of London, yet had travelled business class to Florida, Mauritius or Dubai.

It doesn’t have to be a big journey to the country. Our towns and cities are full of countryside, places to explore, get dirty, have an adventure, make discoveries and get close to nature. While the Forest School initiative is a superb inclusion in the curriculum, and cycling is a healthy pursuit, neither are constant or even frequent, while a good dig in the garden, outdoor chores, a seasonal walk, a pond dip, a little bird spotting or natural collecting, are timeless, free and a forever plaster. ‘Children don’t have enough idle time to think on things. There is too much frenzy, too much scheduled activity‘- said children’s laureate, and mother, Lauren Child, last week.

I am in awed gratitude to Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris for their magnum opus. It is a work of great wealth, worth and quality. It merits a place in every home and school. It’s message meanwhile, of the wonder of our outdoors and the respect and attention it merits, must be realised.

“The Lost Words” is available from Bookwagon with a new delivery charge of £1.25 only

*It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the Earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility’– Rachel Carson, ‘The Sense of Wonder

4 thoughts on “A wholesome and necessary thing*

  1. I have so looked forward to this publication being a huge fan of Jackie Morris and having been enthralled by the radio 4 program. This book will be a gift first to myself and then to people I really care about. Also very much looking forward to the exhibition of lost words at the wonderful Compton Verney. A perfect marriage of a love of language and nature.

    1. Annette, it exceeded anything I could contemplate. It is absolutely superb, a masterpiece.

  2. Amen to all your comments on the power of fresh air. I sat in shenley park yesterday as the girls played a game in the orchard – something to do with bewitched apples – that gave them much needed time and space to just be little girls exercising their limbs and their imaginations. They came home happy and pinked cheeked. In the hecticness of term time schedules, we parents need to factor in fresh air unstructured play.

    We have no hesitation popping puddlesuits on little ones but seem to stop outdoor play as they grow up. They need it more than ever as an antidote to the pressures of daily life. In the same way there seems a huge rush to move from picture books to chapter books. It is as if the word count or font size is an indicator of IQ and future life success.

    As parents we need to be in the moment. We need to nurture souls that can be stamped on in the march for progression. We need to read books that make us happy and play games that make us whoop and shriek and laugh out loud. We need to live like no one is watching or grading or judging. Then we will be happier and healthier and more successful.

    1. Dear Claire,
      I whooped and shrieked reading your wonderful feedback. Thank you. Amen to this; there are too many pressures in daily life, too much choice and too many voices. Bronnie

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