Reclaiming Enchantment with Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris’ The Lost Words

After the COVID-19 lockdown two springs ago, I began taking the children in my counseling groups outdoors when school reopened in the fall. Noticing nature offered them the calming reset their minds and bodies needed. I needed it more than ever as well.

On those brief walks outside, I allowed the boys and girls to gather a few of creation’s gifts along the way: gold aspen leaves from the lawn, cones from the blue spruces in front of the school, quartz chips whose shimmer had caught their eye.

We bagged their treasures in ziplocs and they took them home with an excitement that revived my flagging spirits.

There is a research base to support our brief afternoon walks. “Thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can…be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies,” notes Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.

But I learned how important the experience was for my groups one afternoon when we’d stayed inside and played a card game designed to teach anger management skills and a dark-eyed first grader looked at me with longing as we put the game away.

“Can we go get some nature now?” she pleaded. “I live in a building. I never get to go outside!”

Deprivation isn’t always about lacking money for food and clothing.

We went for a quick “wonder walk” before returning to class.

I thought of that moment when I discovered Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ lavish children’s book The Lost Words. This oversized beauty was written and illustrated in response to the The Oxford Junior Dictionary’s release of its 2007 edition.

While words like blog and broadband had been added to the dictionary for children, the editors had dropped a number of words whose inclusion they deemed unnecessary since children no longer use them much.

We’re talking basic backyard wonder words here, words like dandelion, acorn, raven and fern.

In response, twenty-eight noted writers, artists and naturalists (including Macfarlane and Morris) signed an open letter of protest to the Oxford University Press.

“This is not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters,” the letter declares:

There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing. Compared with a generation ago, when 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while another 40% never play anywhere outdoors. Ever.

Macfarlane and Morris protested even more powerfully, however, when they reclaimed the lost words by collaborating on a sumptuous volume of art and poetry (spells, rather) dedicated to each word the dictionary excluded. Speaking these words anew, we re-enchant a child’s world, and our own as well.

Furthermore, as this review in The Guardian points out, Macfarlane and Morris gave The Oxford Junior Dictionary a taste of its own medicine by not naming it in their book. The Lost Words begins instead with the spellbinding language of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stones….You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back those lost words.

The Lost Words lives up to the invitation.

Last week a first grade boy was brought to my office. He’d been caught saying a “bad word” on the playground and he was crying and out of sorts. Talking about it would have done no good until he was calm enough to name his mistake.

So rather than questioning him about what happened, I handed him The Lost Words and invited him to sit and look at its glorious pages for a few minutes until I was ready to visit with him.

The book’s sheer weight is enough to strike a child’s fancy. And its height. It’s huge, by intent I’m sure. In a few minutes the playground offender had calmed himself. Then we sat together while I read a few of Robert Macfarlane’s magical phrases and we examined Jackie Morris’ lush illustrations together.

“Do you know what this is?” I asked on the dandelion page.

“A rose?” he guessed with endearing innocence. He, too, lives in “a building” and rarely goes outside.

“It’s a dandelion,” I replied, and he said he’d seen one before.

A few pages later he interrupted my reading, suddenly recalling that he’d been brought to my office to discuss his playground infraction.

“Wait! Why are we reading this?” he asked. Then, with a sudden aha, he said, “Oh…are you trying to cheer me up?”

“I guess so,” I admitted. “Are you ready to talk about what happened at recess?”

He was. He told me what he’d said and then he made amends to the classmate harmed by the words he’d spoken.

We agreed that The Lost Words had made us feel better than the other kind of words, the hurtful ones.

I hope to share a few more pages in this magical book with my young friend before the school year ends.

And I bless Macfarlane and Morris for responding to a most unfortunate dictionary deletion with a beauty that may allow hidden wonders to re-enchant the world for a new generation of children.

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You might also like Tolkien, Trees and a Naturalist’s Notebook: Noticing Nature while Mordor Looms and The Blessings of Birding by Ear: Tips for Identifying Birds by their Song.

Macfarlane and Morris repeated their feat in 2020 with the release of The Lost Spells so we can now conjure red foxes, jackdaws and birches for our little ones and ourselves.

Photos by Saad Chaudhry and Elijah Hiett on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Reclaiming Enchantment with Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris’ The Lost Words

  1. The Joni Mitchell song, The Big Yellow Taxi, came to mind. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

    It also brought back memories from my childhood. I remember fondly those days in which I love to play in the ditch, collect cool rocks, and dry branches that had wonderful shapes.

    In a sense, your peace is an invitation to revisit those days.

    Thank you. God bless you.

    1. Jerry that is a wonderful connection. “Paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” I had a blast playing it ditches too! Thanks for this. Time to revisit that song…and blow a wish on a ball of wild fluff.

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