The Lost Words

House of Anansi Press, 2018. $40, 128 pages. 

THE LOST WORDS is neither a read-on-the-commute book nor a recline-in-bed-and-prop-on-your-belly book. Its weight and unapologetic size demand it be explored on a flat surface; even better, on the floor with you kneeling over it; even better, read aloud; even better, with a child or friend.

Concerned by the removal of nature-related vocabulary from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which they feel is reflective of the disconnect between modern children and nature, British writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris created a “spell book” with the “old magic of naming” they hoped would conjure back names and species headed toward erasure. As Rainer Maria Rilke describes it in “The Ninth Duino Elegy”: “Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland. / Speak and bear witness. More than ever / the Things that we might experience are vanishing . . .”

Macfarlane and Morris’s elegant amalgam invokes twenty organisms, both plant and animal. Each is quickened by a series of three two-page spreads that revive each name from absence to fullness. In the first spread, only a trace—perhaps, in some cases, a spirit—of the creature is intermixed with a jumble of letters, some of which, on closer look, spell out the organism’s name. Turning the page, you discover Macfarlane’s spell opposite the fully realized illustration of the creature, depicted in isolation against a beautiful, yet plain, gold leaf background.

These acrostics attempt to animate the organisms using not only vocabulary but also technical narrative — language’s timbre, cadence, intensity, and color: “When wren whirrs from stone to furze the world around her slows, for wren is quick, so quick she blurs the air through which she flows.” Macfarlane’s words describe wren’s flight, yes, but they also echo it. His spells embrace both dark moments —“I am Raven . . . I steal eggs the better to grow, I eat eyes the better to see” — and playful ones: “‘Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!’. . . ‘Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the unastute coot. . . . ‘Newts aren’t cute: we’re kings of the pond . . . albeit . . . minute.’”

In the third and textless spread, Morris’s sensitive brush realizes the plants and animals in their full, natural context: in conversation with other wildlife and vegetation. Take, for example, her image of the conjured briar, whose berries feed the birds, insects, and rodents who then spread and fertilize the seeds. The work enlivens the idea that plants and animals are not restored as isolated organisms but as part of an ecosystem balanced by interdependence. Her color palette is earthy and tender, evoking a sense of loss, nostalgia, and hope.

As Macfarlane asserts, children do not need names to need nature, but the names we do and don’t remember and speak aloud will form the growing generation’s perceptions of, relationships with, and obligations to nature.