The Lost Words is a collaboration between myself and Robert MacFarlane, author of Landmarks and The Wild Places. It grew out of a letter I was asked to sign, by Laurence Rose and Mark Cocker.
It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone. The letter was a request for words culled from the Oxford University Press Junior Dictionary to be returned. These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.
It wasn’t the fault of the dictionary that these words were not included, but the culture in which we live which seems to give more importance to the urban than the wild. The dictionary was a symptom of this, and a timely reminder that we should take a good, long look at what we value.
It was a simple response to this request, to sign the letter, that seeded our book in my imagination. How could these words be removed? What did that teach children about the importance of wild places. When you work in the world of words, language, such things have power. How can we teach children that bluebells are important, that acorns have value, if the words are not important enough to be in the dictionary found in most schools?
I took courage in both hands. I emailed Robert MacFarlane to ask if he might be interested in working with me. At the very least I wanted to do a series of paintings to make into a book, with dictionary definitions beside them. I never imagined that he would wish to make the book something much much more than this. It turned out that he too was thinking of something, trying to form a book in his mind also. His desire is to cast spells of language to summon the words back into common usage. A ‘spelling’ book in more ways than one. He announced at Hay Festival that we were working on the project together, but we had still to find a publisher who would take the idea and run with it.
(So, confession time. He talked of making a book for children. My hackles went up, just a little. Next thing I did was email him saying I didn’t want it to be a ‘children’s book’. Just a book. When adult authors write for children, they often get it quite wrong. And then I started suggesting that he made no compromise in how he writes in order to create a book for children. I remember pressing the send button on the email, then thinking, oops. Erm. Was I telling Robert MacFarlane how to write a book? Oh dear. It was ok though, because he started telling me ways of drawing the pictures too. Which was fine. We have a joint vision for this book. This is the first time in years I have collaborated with a writer and now that I have stopped telling him how to write, well, even when I did, that is what it is. Words and pictures. We thought it best that he do the words and I do the pictures but I confess, I haven’t yet seen his drawings. They might be as wonderful as his words.)
Robert put together a proposal and his agent took the proposal to Hamish Hamilton who straight away saw the value of such a book. And how exciting it is to be working with them on such an amazing project.
Two years on, and my hope is that between us we have a book for all ages, a book that reads aloud to delight the ear, with images that dance in the heart. Spells for sleeping and dreaming wild places deep into the dreams of people.
I still remember when I saw my first kingfisher, that heart stopping, breath taking moment of magic. Listening to Robert MacFarlane read his spell of a kingfisher in the offices of Hamish Hamilton gave me that same sense of wonder. What an utter delight it has been to work with his words.
The book evolved over time. This, then, is the cover.
The book is about lost and found, about words, about the wild. This is one piece. It’s a large book. A book to lose yourself in.
Click on the image to read Rob’s words.
The Lost Words now has wonderful Explorer’s Notes for teachers, educators and parents, to enable a deeper exploration of the book. They can be downloaded free from the John Muir Trust.
Since its publication in October The Lost Words has been awarded:
It has also been shortlisted for The Nations Favourite Nature Book.