The Lost Words: on the Importance of Spending Time Outdoors

By Sanniah Hassan

The Lost Words: A Spell Book is a joint venture of Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris. According to the Penguin books, it [The Lost Words] is a beautifully illustrated book that “conjures lost words” and forgotten “species” back into everyday life. When asked about the inception of the book, Jackie Morris stated, “The seeds of the idea for The Lost Words came from Robert’s earlier book, Landmarks. My idea was simple: to take some of the nature and landscape words from that book – common words that were falling from common usage – and make gold leaf, icon-like images on one page, with the dictionary definition on the opposite page. A wild dictionary, if you like.”

Morris continued, “I wrote to Robert to ask if he might write the introduction. And this is where the book grew, because he saw something more, asking if I might work with him on a book. So, it was Robert’s idea to make this a ‘spell-book’ – to have three spreads per word, the first marking a loss, a slipping away, the second being a summoning spell, and the third being the word spelled back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”

The Otter description from The Lost Words

McFarlane has authored multiple bestselling and prize-winning books about the relationships between nature, place, language and people. Some of his notable works include, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, and Landmarks. Jackie Morris apart from co-authoring and illustrating The Lost Words has written and illustrated approximately 40 children’s books such as Tell Me a Dragon, West of the Moon, and The Wild Swans. According to McFarlane, the primary aim of writing this book was to “conjure back the common words and species” that are or already have “steadily disappearing from everyday life – and especially from children’s stories and dreams.” He claims that in a study by the Cambridge University, British conservationists found that students are “substantially better” at identifying Pokémon species than they were species of common British wildlife. He gives the following examples; Weasel becomes Weedle, Peewit becomes Pikachu et cetera.

In a YouTube video posted on the 5th of December, 2017 by the BBC Newsnight, Robert McFarlane discusses the importance of spending time outdoors and the impact of outdoor activities on children and adults alike. Although the dangers that triggered the inception of this wonderful book meant to entertain while simultaneously teach people of all generations about the importance of outdoor activities, echoed in a recently proposed idea of the indoor generation by Velux [the indoor generation phenomenon is one which ascribes the future of mankind as devastating unless we drastically change our routines and lifestyle]. McFarlane discusses in the video how “a basic literacy of the living world” is “slipping from us”, he continues by describing kids to be “wonder-bots” curiously examining nature. For instance, the analysis of a worm’s movements carried out by the kids in the video, is an essential example. The children describe it as “pointing into its own body”. This description could not have been possible in the absence of acute observation. The concept of the wonder-bot is one of kids exploring, learning and reveling in nature. It helps them thrive in their surroundings and gives them an experience of living things other than human beings. McFarlane highlights that the need to connect with nature is ever present because we are losing nature not just the different names of nature.

Furthermore, this concern of declining nature is the cause of drastic climate change which in turn triggers the need for massive migration. As McFarlane says, “if we do not know the names we do not care for it, and if we do not care for it, we do not save it.” Nature is deteriorating due to a lack of care around the globe, with little to no efforts being made. We need plants, trees and other living beings to complete the ecosystem without which the world will result in Armageddon. Countries that once thrived and excelled are facing devastating circumstances of extreme climate change. Syria and Pakistan are two such examples of countries undergoing climate change. If we don’t take a few minutes out of our daily routines to plant trees today, the possibility of a future is bleak. According to recent studies, Pakistan may very well be without water by the next decade.

The final cover page of The Lost Words compared with the first draft by Jackie Morris

Embracing nature, caring for it, protecting and maintaining it ensures the possibility of a future. We need to educate the common man of the evils of climate change. Perhaps it is time that we put aside our differences with each other and focus on saving the planet we call home.