Spells and Magic of the Wild and Green Kind

This is a tale of some magic.

An elemental story.

It concerns an event that took place on Saturday in Cambridge when Robert Macfarlane and I got together for Cambridge Literary Festival to talk about the extraordinary wild life of The Lost Words.

But the story began a couple of days ago when Robert went to gather wild water for me to paint with.

Now, this is water that probably has not yet met with the shape of an otter, coming as it does from a chalk spring, rising out from the earth, pure and clear, a mirror for the sky.

Gathered into a gin bottle, nestled in the beech leaves.

Robert lives in Cambridge. I live in Pembrokeshire. Across two countries we worked closely together on making and shaping The Lost Words.

He wrote of “the moment of gathering, the landscape – in its full sense – of gathering.”

“As I filled the bottle with water for you to paint your otter with I could hear: four skylarks torrenting their song down, a woodpigeon, the rusty hinge-creak of a pheasant, a blackbird, a chaffinch, the London-Cambridge train passing a hundred yards away, a light wind in the tops of the trees around, a great tit, the clang of construction ongoing at Addenbrookes hospital, the caw of rooks, a small plane flying over…. This is very much an edgeland wood, but it is also a special place, made so by the ordinary miracle of springs rising from bedrock, and by the clarity of the water that flows through it (clear, with just a faint blue tinge; rather like gin, in fact, which is appropriate as I gathered the water into a cork-stoppered former gin bottle…), and because its interior belies in volume the extent of the wood as seen from the outside, as with all woods, really. May its springwaters flow through your brush and enter without falter onto page as otter.”

Then the water waited, caught in the blue of a Harris Gin bottle, to be freed with the mixing of ink, while my mind’s eye churned and turned with otters.

And meanwhile I struggled to work out how the otter would sit with Robert’s words on a page of heavy textured Arches watercolour paper.

I wrote the otter capitals, drove to Cambridge, where Robert inscribed the otter spell, and then, at The Cambridge Union, in front of an audience, I ground ink made from pine soot into the water from the spring at Ninewells, freeing the dark pigment to swirl, and part way through the talk, using water and ink, words and the memory of the shape of otter, unleashed a creature from the mind’s eye and onto paper.

This piece is the first made together that will be offered for sale. There are others. Peregrine is still travelling I think. Barn owl was worked into a sketch for Suffolk Wildlife Trust and has another destination as its resting place. Wren was a gift to those who had worked so hard to shape our book, a single painting with the wren spell written on it, cut into four. And Goldfinch can be found in Elementum Journal volume 3.

The resulting artwork is now being auctioned, to raise money for a new campaign, launched also at the event, to raise money to place a copy of The Lost Words in every school in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.  The auction will work in this way:

The piece is on heavy (640) watercolour paper, 76 cmd x 56cms. Ink, pencil, gold leaf, signed by Robert and myself.

This auction is now closed.


If you wish to donate to the Cambridgeshire appeal you can do so here: CambridgeCandi. 

Cambridge Candi are a registered charity so if you wish you can gift aid your donation.



About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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29 Responses to Spells and Magic of the Wild and Green Kind

  1. Terra says:

    Where ink meets paper, I like that, and the pure wild water you will paint with.

  2. Lisa Quattromini says:

    Wishing you both all the fortune of the wild spells – how I wish I could be in Cambridge to see the magic…

  3. Bernie Bell says:

    That bottle is a beauty – look at the light in it.
    And…water…different kinds of water, from different places………….

  4. Emma Radford says:

    May magic flow from your brush to paper, and the wonderful Otter come to life, with enchanting tales to tell, blessings to you x

  5. Bettina Evans says:

    Thank you so much, Jackie, for sharing your process of conjuring otters and other wild creatures. Your writing and pondering about that brings your images alive even before they are created – how wondrous! As an arts therapist I work with others who use art making to help heal themselves from whatever ails them, and it is mostly the process of making art rather than the end product which achieves this. It is so inspiring to me to see how much emphasis you (and Robert) place on the process, how every sound and voice, every leaf and glint of light is part of your beautiful art. I think you are not just an outstanding artist, but also a spell weaver and healer. Thank you again. In admiration, Bettina (I am so sad I live in NZ, too far away to come to any of the talks you and Robert do. Any plans to wing it across the big water and do it in New Zealand?)

    • Jackie says:

      Thank you so much. No plans at the moment. I want to cling limpet like to home. BUT, there might be film of making the otter in Cambridge. Hope it goes ok.

  6. Gina says:

    I would have loved to come along on Saturday being local to Cambridge, but unfortunately I’m working. I hope it goes well for you.

  7. Lynn P says:

    Hello from Texas. I will start the bidding at the reserve price of £100. Beautifully done, Jackie and Robert. The Lost Words is one of my favorite books.

  8. Morganne MacDonald says:

    This project and its goal are so inspiring. The book is lovely, as is its purpose. I hope to share it with my small corner of the world.

  9. Alicia Fourie says:


  10. Anne Dunn says:

    I got to see the finished painting close-up. So beautiful.
    I bid £150

  11. Cecilia Hewett says:

    I would like to bid £300 please.

  12. Lili Taylor says:

    I would like to bid 350 pounds please.

  13. Sara R. says:

    Dear Jackie,
    Well done to you and Robert. It sounds like a magical day in Cambridge. It will be wonderful to share the magic of nature, words and fine art with young people. I’d like to offer otter a home with me, my dog and partner here on a river off the Thames. £250.
    Best wishes,

  14. Jackie says:

    Current bid is with Lili Taylor at £350.
    I will be out for a few hours now, but will action comments when I return.

  15. HENRY STIRMAN says:

    I would like to bid 425

  16. Kate Shore says:

    I’ll bid £550. I’ll worry about having no space left on the walls if I’m lucky enough to win!

  17. Nick G says:

    Hi there. It’s me again! Can I bid 700 please. Nick G

  18. Adrian Reith says:

    I was present in the Cambridge Union. I witnessed the magic – it was wonderful to see so many children in there, of all ages, and to hear the younger ones read the spells. Whoever wins the artwork will be spell bound, and it was a special thing to see it breathed into life by Jackie as she recited the Otter poem. Twice.

    Well done for what you and Robert are doing on our behalf.

  19. Richard Malton says:

    Hi Jackie

    I’d like to bid £1000 please.

    As an aside your work with Robert has hit a nerve amongst many. Absolutely superb.


  20. Ceri says:

    May we bid £1050 please? Lost Words has inspired so many children we know and we have given it many time over – this piece is stunning, it’s journey to the paper dazzling x

  21. Richard malton says:

    We will bid £1100 please.


    • Jackie says:

      Well, Richard, I think the auction is now closed and the otter is all yours. I will email you a contact at the Cambridge site. Thank you. Hope she will be very happy with you.

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