It seems a long time ago. It certainly is many paintings back in time. Robert Macfarlane and I tentatively began a working relationship around the re-wilding of language. At least I think that is what is was about. I know the roots of the book stretch deep. I can only speak now of what it has done for me.
I’ve worked as an artist all my life, as a writer for some of it, but I have never worked like this. People ask me sometimes if I went to college or am self-taught. I do not really understand the definition. I chose the route of college into becoming an artist and was guided by tutors, and I am still learning.
This is what The Lost Words has given me, taught me: a sharper focus on the world around me, the wild at hand, from listening to and hearing the background of wrensong as I write this, to looking at the individual plants that make up a field, a hedge. I’ve learnt the shape of a dandelion seed, the scent of a conker, the space an otter takes in a river, the parts of a feather, how the shell of a guillemot’s egg is being used in textile science to make coats more waterproof. Focus. It has given me focus, on the shape of a wren, the flight of a raven, the song of a lark. And when your research is walking and listening and looking, growing the brambles in your garden, watching as magpies come and build your research outside your studio window, you know your heart is in your work and wild magic is your companion.
Next week The Lost Words comes out into the world with a flight of finches. It’s a heartsong from us both. Robert has written a wonderful essay about the roots of the book and the why and the wherefore. He references academic studies that will make you weep at the disconnection that has grown up between ourselves and the world. Our hope is that, with many of the other wild writers out there, from Nicola Davies to Gill Lewis and SF Said, Mimi Thebo, Katherine Rundell, so many more, we can turn this tide and help people to see the real gold in the world.
If you can, please go to Compton Verney to the exhibition of work from the book. It’s a perfect marriage of images and words in a beautiful setting. Check their website for opening times. The exhibition will be moving to The Foundling Museum in London in February and hopefully will tour to other venues.
And what else have I found in the making of The Lost Words? Well, new friends. Hamish Hamilton have at all times been a joy to work with, listening at all times to mine and Robert’s vision, giving us the tools and the time to make it and shape it into a reality. From the moment Simon agreed to publish this book, so unlike anything that ‘fits his list’ ( oh how many rejection letters have I had that say “thank you but your work, your book, your idea, does not fit with our list”), with Hermione’s wonderful project management of both myself and Robert, the design team, everything, and Anna and Rosie working away, Alison who designed the Lost Words typeface, so elegant, and all the media team helping us to make the book visible in a sea filled with new books being published, it has been a pleasure. Team work. That’s what makes a book. Together we hope we have made something that will sing to the wild dreaming hearts and minds of others. It may be mine and Robert’s names on the cover, but this book comes from all of us.
Robert and I have met only twice. Once in London when we first took our work to show to Simon and Hermione in Penguin towers, meeting beside a polar bear then navigating our way through city streets. The second time was last weekend when he came to stay and we walked with The White Cat, went to The Pale Moon Cup, talked in conversations that were punctuated by pointing to ‘heron’ ( flying over Abereiddi), raven ( all around), wren, dandelion, starling and the biggest charm of goldfinch, until I felt as if we had made the largest I Spy book in the world.
In London we were both so nervous. In his small notebook was the first spell, Kingfisher, unfinished. In my big folder, tucked under my arm were two paintings of kingfishers. Two, because I was unhappy with the first. Always hard taking those first steps into a book and even at this early stage emails had flown back and forward as we tried to catch sight of this wild thing we were trying to work on.
How I loved that Robert, too, was so nervous of showing this early work.
I brought out my kingfishers. He was reluctant to read his writing, saying, it’s not finished, it’s early stages. Desperate to hear the piece I asked him to pass me the notebook, but though I could make out the word ‘kingfisher’ the rest was impenetrable. So Robert had to read it. There was a silence in that room that was very special. Even in its early, unedited form I knew that I was going to have such words to work with, and as they landed over time in my inbox, and we shaped and grew the book, and resonated image and words, well, words fail me. Doesn’t often happen. But I guess it’s because everything is in the book. It’s a wild thing.
I repainted the kingfisher a third time, placing it, caught on the snag of a stick. He edited it again, again, again..
We are both still learning, every day. New ways of looking and seeing.
We walked with The White Cat, Ivy and Crazy Pi and Mr Robin.
Rob searched the hill top where raven pellets can always be found, feather and fur, skin and bone.
Rob did a bit of work in my studio, writing on a painting for me. It seemed much more fitting, this meeting of minds in the wilder places. And Robin cooked us wonderful food and knocked up a mean gin and tonic!
Oh, and we popped down the mill to do a guerrilla book signing. Lovely that Robert’s first meeting with the book in number was in a wild place. And Anna had dressed the mill so beautifully.
Anyway, soon it’s time to travel. I don’t want to use up all my words about the book. Just to say, it’s good to find new friends, and reading this article in The Guardian I feel rather proud of my friend.