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By Lynn Grimes
2nd Place, Education Article, 2020 NMPW Contest. All-ages picture book revisits nature terms removed from children’s dictionary.
“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children.”
This is the ominous beginning of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ beautiful picture bookThe Lost Words, published in Great Britain in 2017 and North America in 2018. The “lost words” refer to nature words that were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007, in order to make room for words the publishers said were more commonly used by children today. Words such as acorn, otter and willow were removed and replaced with words that included attachment, blog, cut-and-paste and celebrity.
News of this word substitution caused an outcry among those concerned about the decline in outdoor play and children’s relationships with nature. A group of well-known authors, including Macfarlane and Margaret Atwood, wrote a letter pleading with the publishers to put the nature words back in, stating, “the link between nature and culture is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture and the natural environment”—not to mention to the detriment of the well-being of children who’ve become increasingly disconnected from the natural world.
Author Macfarlane and illustrator Morris created a book with a mission to stop the unravelling and to conjure the nature words back into use. The Lost Words is a book that can help people of all ages engage in language and art about nature, and help society establish stronger connections to the natural environment.
The 20 “lost words” of the title are brought back to life with acrostic “spells” and rich watercolors backed in gold. Many of the nature subjects are well-known to adults—such as heron, willow and ivy—but might not be known to children. Other words, such as conker and adder, are less common in North America, so there are new words to learn here as well.
The large format of the book creates a mini-natural environment that wraps around and invites you to dive into each picture and poem. Pages are filled with paintings of branches, ferns, forests, critters, falling leaves, mixed-up letters and distinct negative shapes of missing items—providing a magical space for exploration and imagination. It’s a book to slow down and spend time with, in order to discover meaning in both the words and pictures. And it is also a book to be read out loud, so that the spells, “by the old, strong, magic of being spoken aloud,” will summon the lost words back into use.
The Lost Words can be used as a tool to bring wonderment back into the world, as the words themselves often express meaning and poetry that’s been lost. The spell for dandelion tells of the ancient root, dent-de-lion (diente de leonin Spanish), which means lion’s tooth, so named for the sharp, jagged edge of the leaf. Macfarlane also proposes new, more contemporary names for the dandelion:
I would make you some, such as
Bane of Lawn Perfectionists
Or Fallen Star of the Football Pitch
Or Scatterseed, but
Never would I call you only, merely, simply “weed”.
And in his spell for the kingfisher, he tells of poetic, magical names the bird has been called:
Halcyon is its other name—also ripple calmer, water—nester
Evening angler, weather—teller, rainbringer and
Rainbow bird—that sets the stream alight with burn and glitter!
Here in the Land of Enchantment, The Lost Words can be an inspiration to deepen connections to the local environment and make sure the words that name our natural surroundings do not disappear from use. After taking time to read and explore the book, children can create their own spells and images for words that are in the book or words more specific to New Mexico, such as yucca, prickly pear and arroyo.
At Santa Fe’s Turquoise Trail Charter School, Jill Miyagawa’s second-grade class wrote acrostic poems and made colorful drawings this spring about nature words they chose from their own experiences. Some were inspired by observations right around the school. Outside the window of the classroom there are ravens--not crows!--who hang around the Dumpsters and have made a large nest on top of the school’s water towers. There are cottonwood trees on the periphery of the parking lot and meadowlarks and prairie dogs in the fields. And beyond the school’s fence, there is a herd of pronghorn antelope that can often be seen from the highway on the way to school.
At first glance, children might think there’s not much out there in our high desert environment, but once they start paying attention, excitement and awareness will grow. Time spent with The Lost Words has also inspired the children to tell stories about their encounters with nature, about such things as snakes, lizards and birds building nests in places around their homes. It takes a little while for the realization to dawn that they dohave a relationship with the outdoors.
The book then becomes a jumping-off point for writing, research, science and art projects, as well as learning new words. Most importantly, it sends them outside to make new discoveries and more connections to the surrounding natural world.
The Lost Words has become a phenomenon among educators, artists and lovers of nature. Entire school districts in the United Kingdom have purchased the book, and public readings have included music specifically composed to accompany poems and paintings in the book. The John Muir Trust, a UK organization whose mission is “to work with others to inspire people to get close to wild nature,” has extensive lesson plans, activities, posters, poetry and art related to the book, as well as a wonderful nature and literacy resource guide, at www.johnmuirtrust.org/initiatives/the-lost-words. Their Explorer’s Guide to The Lost Words offers research and creative ideas for each word, as well as connections for further reading and viewing. These resources are not just for teachers. They are useful for anyone who wants to delve in and find more ideas to extend the meaning and influence of the book.
The Lost Words is a book that can be shared in families, schools, camps or nature centers, outdoors or indoors. It is a book that inspires us to learn the names of the natural things around us, see the world anew and get closer to wild nature. Every child, every person, can look at something like a dandelion with fresh eyes.
It’s not hard to go find a dandelion and pick it. Look closely and notice the details. Describe it. Wonder about it. Speak The Lost Words’ spell aloud. Say the name in Spanish. Google it! Did you know it came from Europe? Did you know you can eat the leaves? Smell it, taste it, touch it. Draw it—composite flower, leaves like a lion’s tooth, seed head of tiny parachutes. What does it remind you of?
Make up a new name. Write a new spell, a poem, a song. Tell a story, create an artwork. Speak with the power of your unique perspective and conjure the lost words back! It might be fun, it might make the world more interesting, and it might help you and others become more connected to and enchanted by the natural world outside your door.