In 2015, a published version of the first chapter in Robert Macfarlane’s last book, Landmarks, went viral. In it, the nature writer and academic talked about the deep, historic connections between language and landscape and mourned the loss of certain everyday words from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.
Acorn, bluebell, conker: all had been omitted. “For blackberry, read BlackBerry,” wrote Macfarlane. “A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.”
His wonderful new poetry book for children, The Lost Words, is Macfarlane’s response to this vanishing language. It’s a collection of acrostic spell-poems, beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, each one devoted to a word removed from the OJD.
“The idea was that readers would feel a sense of walking into the book, like a landscape,” says Macfarlane. “We wanted to make a spell-book in two senses – in that children spelt these words but that there was also this great sense of enchantment; that old magic of speaking things aloud.”
I am walking through Wandlebury woods with Macfarlane in the English countryside near his Cambridgeshire home. As the sunlight breaks through huge yew trees, the author of such classic nature books as Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places points out the large Iron Age ring-fort, a wide meadow rising into a chalk down, and the Roman road along which he walked in his bestselling book The Old Ways.
Wandlebury woods also features in Landmarks and is filled with children’s dens, a secret garden, and his own children – Will, four, Tom, 11, and 13-year-old Lily – love it here, too.
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