This is the way, the way through the woods. And Mary and Leopard had promised Little P they would take him, to find the stone seat, the bluebells and some words that were lost.
“Are the words lost in the woods?” Little P asked.
“No,” I said. “But some are lost from the junior dictionary, and some of us who love nature, love words, are concerned. Let’s see what we can find when we walk in the woods.”
We walked through a field where willow were weeping, catkins dangling over a stream that ran by, and into the wood, and here we found violets, purple and shy. Sycamore trees, chestnut and oak fringed the pasture field, dotted with buttercup, daisy and dandelion that led the way to the woods.
Leopard found kingcups, like buttercups, golden as gorse, but bigger.
Panda found moss and fern, ivy growing close to the ground. Little P was excited to walk in the woods, searching the lost words out.
“Where do the words go to?” asked Mary. “Why is it important to know the names of things?”
“Well,” I answered, to give myself time to think. I listened to the birds sing, woodpigeon, wren, rook and jay, and high overhead the dark croak of a raven. “It’s hard to explain in words.” I answer.
“I think it has something to do with understanding the value of things. We name the things we love. Knowing the names of things helps towards seeing them, realising their value, holding them in hearts and minds. Not value as in how much a thing costs, but value as in terms of what a thing is worth and to me a single goldcrest is worth more than all of the gold in the Bank of England.”
Mary and Little P and Leopard looked at me and tried to understand. We walked on.
The bluebells were bringing a soft blue blush to the greenwoods.
“So,” said Little P, “if I find something, but don’t know the name of it, does that mean I value it less?”
“Not if you see it, Little P, if it delights the heart and the mind. But there are things that you might never see, but it is important to know the names of the things. I seldom see an adder, but I love the thought of them in winter sleeping underneath the ground, dreaming snake dreams and waiting for summer. Knowing the snake, that snake, is called an adder makes it live more fully in my mind’s eye.”
We walked on, all deep in thought, to the stone seat.
Ivy found oak leaves beneath her small feet.
The stone seat is a place where magic can happen so we sat for a while and thought about words. This was a place where an elf might live, or a dwarf or a goblin. Ivy and Rosie went off to look for some.
Fallen oak leaves from last autumn made a beautiful brown, copper carpet across the earth. Birds sang in the peace, fern and moss and ivy grew all around. Somewhere a magpie chattered. Little P loved the stone seat. He was so pleased that Mary and leopard had brought him to see it. Last time they came alone, for Little P had not been born.
Further along the path Leopard found more wild garlic, enough to pick a basketful to make into soup for supper.
“Bluebell,” said Mary. “You say that bluebell is one of the words that is lost from the dictionary?”
“Yes,” I answered. We looked at the bluebell, delicate flower of the woodland. Soon the air would be a haze of blue from these flowers that carpet the earth here in the wood at Abermawr. We looked close at one flower. Blue bells hanging, petals curved, perfection and so many shades of blue in one small flower, and we all wondered at the loss of such a word, from the mind of a child, from the page of a book, and also from the woods.
Mary found a hawthorn tree. There were hazel here too. Now a thrush was singing away through the woods, singing the praise of the beautiful bluebells.
“Does the thrush know the name of the flowers?” asked Little P.
“I suppose the thrush has his own language for flowers and all things Little P,” I answered.
“His word for the bluebells is beautiful,” said Mary. Leopard smiled.
Out from the woodland, over more pasture, where bullocks grazed and martins zigzagged paths through the air, we walked towards the sea. Leopard found daisies. Mary found dandelions. There were stepping stones over the brook. The bank by the sea had burrows of sand martins peppering the top, and again the small birds criss-crossed the sky, chittering and chattering in busy flight.
We sat for a while. Behind was the marshland where otter and newt live and kingcups and water creatures.
Back in the wood we found wild white wood anemone, celandine, more bluebells and moss.
The way out of the wood had stone steps, a field, surrounded by tall trees.
Mary said, “Do you know the names of all these trees?”
And I said, “No. I don’t. I love trees, the height of them, the magnificence. I love the way they give home to the birds, the sound the wind makes when it blows through the leaves, the dance of those leaves at the wind’s touch. I love that beneath the trees, in the soil there are fungi that help the trees to grow. Hidden things, sometimes huge. I love to think of the language of trees, how maybe, just maybe they communicate with chemicals, not a spoken language like ours.”
“Perhaps,” said Mary, ” we might learn all about trees, and learn the names of them one by one?”
And I said, “Yes. Let’s do that. It’s time I knew more things about trees. I tell you what, let’s get a book, all about trees.”
NB( The Oxford Junior Dictionary made a decision to replace some words in the new edition. In the story above the lost words are emphasised in italics. Acorn was dropped. Attachment replaced it. Bluebell fell out of place to make room for blog. Conker was replaced by celebrity. Why does this matter? Surely these ‘modern’ words also need to be in a child’s vocabulary? It matters to me because over the years I have see a de-wilding of children’s books happen. There is a trend in children’s fiction towards urban dystopia, away from the kind of books I loved as a child. And a dumbing down of language too. When I was a child I adored Tarka the Otter. Its rich language is so vivid that I doubt the book would make it past a modern editor. And yet it is still in print today when many of the novels published now will be gone in 5 years, or less.
We are a species who think in words. This is almost too obvious to state in words. But that is why words matter. By devaluing these words we devalue the very things themselves.
Other people express what I feel better than me I think. Here Adam Nicholson talks about Robert MacFarlane’s wonderful book Landmarks with its glorious word hoard of natural descriptions.
Here George Dvorsky Talks of the importance of wilding our language and our imaginations.
And here is a link to the open letter to the OUP. Signatories include Margaret Atwood, Mark Cocker, Robert MacFarlane, Nicola Davies, Helen MacDonald and myself. The letter was orchestrated by Lawrence Rose.)
So, how do you explain the importance of such words to a child? Maybe by taking a good close look at the glorious beauty of a single bluebell. Kingfisher. That’s the word that breaks my heart most. Kingfisher. And I can still remember the utter awe I felt in my heart, in my soul when I saw my first kingfisher and it was like meeting something from another world, so bright was its beauty.