“Protest Can Be Beautiful”: Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, one of the standard reference works ...

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, one of the standard reference works found in primary schools throughout the UK, began removing words from its pages that were no longer being used or read enough by children to merit inclusion—words like “acorn,” “bluebell,” “heron,” and “kingfisher.” It replaced these names for the natural world with entries for the likes of “broadband” and “cut-and-paste,” modern words for our technological age. There was an outcry: what does it mean when nature is deemed irrelevant to children’s language? Among the dismayed was the artist and author Jackie Morris, who began imagining a book made up of the dictionary’s losses, a book beautifully illustrated and written, a book that would summon back the words for the natural world.

Morris approached Robert Macfarlane, one of the most beloved nature writers working in the English language, with her idea—would he be interested in writing the text? He was, and thus was born The Lost Words. It is a stunning book, and large. At 11 x 15 inches, Morris’s illustrations have enough room to become an ecosystem of their own. And Macfarlane’s poems—“spells,” Macfarlane and Morris call them—are invitations to imagine, reflect, and laugh as one’s tongue trips over intricate syllables. Daegan Miller reviewed The Lost Words for Public Books in March 2018; this summer he conducted a follow-up interview with the book’s creators to talk about their collaboration.

Daegan Miller (DM): I want to preface this by telling you a little bit about how I came to The Lost Words. About a year ago, I started seeing Jackie’s painting of the “Kingfisher” pop up all over the internet. I was just stunned by the painting—it’s a spare watercolor of the bird backed by a huge field of gold leaf, and it is astonishing in its gravity and elegance. My experience of reading and gazing at The Lost Words, both on my own and with my children, is that, Jackie, your images, and Robert, your poems, could stand on their own. I can imagine a book filled with just your images, Jackie. I can also imagine a book of just Robert’s poems, which is to say that in The Lost Words neither the images nor the poems is secondary to the other. But they also come together. They work together and they create something new.

In Western culture, we tend to subordinate image to word, even in the process of collaboration. And so I want to ask you both about your method: Did the images come first? The words? Was it more collaborative? How did you both manage to create a book of such integrity?


Jackie Morris (JM): It was a curious experience. I think that what gives the book its strength is the space between the words and the images. Right from the start, we both worked on the book together. The choice of the words came first, as in “newt,” “conker.” In most cases, I waited until Robert’s spells—for this is what we always called them, spells, not poems—just dropped into my inbox. They always came with instructions to read aloud, but that’s what I always do anyway, even in my own longer writing, because you need to hear the rhythm of the words. You need to taste them. You play with them so much. The one time that I did try and go ahead of Robert’s writing was with “Raven”—I live in a cottage by the sea; we have ravens flying overhead. I can hear their conversations. I thought, well, nothing that Robert Macfarlane can write about a raven can make me paint any differently, so I thought, I’m going to paint a raven. That will be easy. I painted this raven and then he sent me the “Raven” spell and I just thought, Oh, right! Okay. Start again. What he had written was all and more than I wanted, dark, playful, the essence of raven.

There was one other spell, I think, where I couldn’t wait. It was dandelions. I was waiting for Robert’s words, and waiting, and waiting, drumming my fingers on my desk. The dandelions were out and it’s better to paint them from life, and I was thinking, they’re all going to be clocked and seeded. “Dandelion” is quite a long spell. So I painted those small “sun in the grass” creatures in all their stages, and I think that helped inform the writing.


Robert Macfarlane (RM): It surely did. Again and again, Jackie’s art has made me see the world differently—more illustriously and stranger and more legendary in its forms, as well as more natural in its nature, as it were. The dandelion—well, this was a spell that I just couldn’t write. It was the last one—I was stuck on the 20th of our 20 words. Then Jackie sent me her extraordinary image of the dandelion as seen from above, and I saw that it was a clock face. We often think of dandelions as timekeepers. We blow the seeds from that glorious spherical hollow seed head, and count the hours as we blow them—but Jackie made me see that they keep time two ways, for if you look at them from above, their leaves are also the hands of a clock turning. Suddenly, the humble dandelion became a double timekeeper, and suddenly the poem, the spell, could come into being as a “tick-tock timekeeping clock.”


DM: Let’s linger with “Kingfisher” a bit longer. I would say that one of the things that characterizes The Lost Words is that there’s a degree of mystery to it. I think quite a lot of writing—children’s literature or “serious” literature, certainly most things academic—very often erase mystery in favor of something more didactic, in favor of obviousness. Jackie, you said something that I really liked, that there’s a space between the words and the images. What’s the importance of leaving space in a book when you are writing or illustrating or creating or dreaming it into reality?


JM: I think the space is a place of respect for the audience. I think editors often try to push you to spell everything out. They don’t trust the reader and the intelligence of the reader—I think especially when it comes to children. I remember very little about being young, but I do remember feeling everything much more sharply. There were times when suddenly something would make sense and you would see the bigger picture with such clarity. I wish people would stop saying, Don’t be so childish, and start saying, Don’t be so adultish. You know, kids, when they’re looking at us, must wonder what on earth we’re doing. Have respect for your audience, imagine that they will not only stack up to what you are trying to say, but they’ll go beyond it. I love that there isn’t anything like a key on how to use The Lost Words. When you give it to somebody for the first time—you give it to a child, and usually by page four, they’ve got it. Sometimes you give it to an adult, they can get halfway through and they still haven’t spotted how the game is played.


RM: That’s wonderful. Yes, “a space not to explain.” I have two things to add to this idea, one metaphysical and one very literal. First the literal one, which is that the space on the page in this very big book is a space that the reader can enter in numerous ways. They can move their fingers, even their hands across it. They can lose their eyes in it. They can swim their minds into it. We’ve been sent now, certainly hundreds, probably thousands of photographs and videos of children and adults reading The Lost Words—and animals, for that matter (I am thinking of one photograph in which a cat clearly wants to eat the goldfinches straight off the cover because they are so lifelike). In the photographs, children are very often trying to enter the book with almost their whole bodies. They are moving their face up to the words, up to the images and touching them with their whole hands. In that sense, the “space” is an invitation, beckoning them to come into the imaginative world of The Lost Words.

My metaphysical addition to the idea of space as unexplained is this: in so many ways now we subordinate “nature” to our own ends with great efficiency. We make it mean for us. In almost all aspects now, we treat it as a standing reserve, as a commodity, as an ecosystem service provider. So to find a language that respects the natural world’s resistance to being known, to being converted to use value, seemed really important to both Jackie and me. As you’ve written, Daegan, there are a couple of spells where the creatures refuse to be drawn into human schemes of meaning. They declare their independence from them, their resistance to translation, and I think Jackie’s work is always performing that resistance as well.


The YA Resistance

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DM: Is there something ecological about this? Does the book you’ve made model a sort of ecological being or ecological politics?


JM: It changed my work. When I was working on this book, I was so much in touch with the land beneath my feet. With the brambles I grow around my house—that’s my excuse for lazy gardening. I have dandelions there as well. The ravens were overhead. The wren followed me on my walks and at times it was almost like being in conversation with nature. My awareness was heightened. I know people call this “frequency illusion.” I call it natural magic. It was something really beautiful. Just yesterday, I looked out my window when I was really struggling, when it seemed like I had forgotten how to paint. I have a weather vane that flies over my house with a woman riding on the back of a bear, from a story, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and sitting on the hair of the woman on the bear was a goldfinch, and it was just like a little blessing. You know? Just calm down, dear. Pull it together. Get on with it. I have today remembered how to paint again, which is quite good. That’s how it is every day. It’s a new sheet of paper. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before. It’s what you’re doing at the time that is important.


RM: There are a couple of things going on in your question as I hear it, Daegan. One is this idea of a kind of ecological reading, i.e., that reading The Lost Words will somehow make you a better citizen of the world. Now I’m constitutionally wary of such suggestions because I think that cultural makers like to claim such effects for their work, because it makes sense of what they—we—do. Anyone who makes things creatively will know the feeling of being continually assailed by self-doubt, because without self-doubt, one is slackening into a complacency. And I think one of the ways we inoculate ourselves against this self-doubt is to say (quietly) that our words will change the world, that our pictures will change the world.

But as you note, Daegan, in the essay that preceded this conversation, “10,000 books won’t save my sons.” So perhaps we shouldn’t think of books as saving the world, but rather as catalyzing uncountable small unknown acts of good. I think that’s perhaps what you circle around to at the end of your essay, Daegan—to think about the ways in which small acts can together, cumulatively, grow into change. In this way we might think of writing as like the work of a coral reef, slowly building its structures through many small interventions, rather than like a single thunderclap or silver bullet. You always are threatened by quietism, but I think that to give up for the lack of a silver bullet is wasteful.

DM: There is a tremendous humility to The Lost Words, and one of the things that I like about humility, especially when we’re talking about our relationship to the world, whether that’s the natural world or the human world, is that humility shares a root with the word “humus,” with the soil, but also with “human.” The stakes of The Lost Words are a little bit mysterious.

There’s also a dark thread here that you both have fingered a couple of times now. You’ve both spoken about struggling to get the words out, struggling to remember how to paint, being assailed by self-doubt—Robert, you used the phrase “threatened by quietism,” which I love. And Jackie, you mentioned “Bramble.” Maybe we can talk about “Bramble” for a second, because another thing that I loved about this collection is that there is a whole range of tones, both visual and textual. “Bramble” is one of those poems and images—we often think of brambles as what takes over old, abandoned farmsteads, or after the clear-cut. On my reading of the poem, there’s almost a little bit of an apocalyptic primitivism—the streets filling with brambles. There is some sadness in the book.


RM: You’re quite right about “Bramble,” though it’s interesting the way you read it. In a sense, I wanted the spell to start exactly like that: what will be left, when we’re gone? But then, actually, what seems threatening to begin with—a bramble, marching out of parks and into cities and down streets and filling our abandoned spaces—becomes at the spell’s end a gift. The seemingly threatening arms of briar reach through keyholes to leave … a bowl full of fruit in hallways “where the light falls.” I wanted, in fact, to turn exactly away from an apocalyptic primitivism after it had been summoned.

Among the many shaping things that Jackie said to me early on in our collaboration was that The Lost Words should be a book “for people, not for children.” She also said that I should write with the full force and range of language, rather than attempt to make my words fit what I imagined a child might wish to hear. The permission that Jackie gave me was huge, and it encouraged me to explore the range of tones within the spells. We wanted comedy and absurdity. We wanted willows that wouldn’t speak to humans, rejecting their advances. We wanted eeriness and intimidation, and we also wanted dazzling wonder and beauty. If all 20 spells had been written in the same tone, the book would, I think, have lapsed into piety.


JM: What I always try to do is get a balance on the pages. One of the reasons I loved working on The Lost Words is that it was so big, and I tried to make the book like a theater where you’re the audience—maybe it’s an audience of three or four, because you’re having bedtime stories and somebody’s reading to you, but it’s like a paper theater that you enter. The images that were the most challenging for me were the absences. This was something that Robert came up with. The structure of the book—it was always going to be three spreads per word. The first was the picture of the absence of the thing. Then comes the spell and the gold-backed image, and then the fullness of the thing in its habitat, where it is spelled back into being. The absences: those were the most interesting bits for me, because how do you paint a wren that is not there? I loved doing that so much.


DM: This book, it’s fair to say, is resonating. Every time I log on to Twitter, there’s a new school or community in the UK that’s raising grant money to make sure that every child gets a copy. I can’t really think of another book that’s done that.


RM: Can I say something about change? The puzzle that is ghosting this discussion is the puzzle, the wonderful puzzle, that Jackie and I confront every day, which is why this book that won’t save the world is nevertheless leading out of itself to really powerful forms of change in the world.

Something has happened whereby a book has broken out of its usual bounds and has opened itself into the world and become a focal point for the powerful hopes and fears that circulate around the questions of our relationship with the living world, our relationships with children and childhood, and our relationship to the future and the Anthropocene, or whatever we want to call the era of planetary-scale environmental degradation.

You kindly mentioned the efforts of schools, but there’s also been intense interest in the book’s relation to the end of life and to older-life communities. There’s a just-launched campaign to get the book into every hospice in the UK. It’s already in every care home in Wales. It’s being used by dementia charities who are working with that very literal sense of lost words brought about by Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. Jackie and I, predominately Jackie, have just been commissioned to provide the interior murals and text for three floors of a major new orthopedic hospital in London. We are also working with a hospice in Oxfordshire, which is opening a new wing, and art and spells from the book will be on the walls there too; the palliative care specialists are also using the book with patients.

Then there are, as discussed, these campaigns across schools, including in some of the most deprived areas of Britain, to get the book into schools and to work with communities to bring nature back into childhood, and particularly into the childhoods of children who don’t have easy access to nature. It looks currently as though The Lost Words will be one of the first books, arguably since the Oxford Junior Dictionary itself, to end up in every primary school in the UK.


JM: This is why I don’t just do books for children. People have said to us, “I’ve spent the best time in years with my father, with my mother, just lost in this book.” It’s that literal sense of lost words, where people understand losing their own language, their own way of naming things, and this book is getting through to them in a way that I never imagined but kind of hoped it would, cutting through to those memories. When you’ve got people in a hospice spending the last moments of their lives in your book, you can win every prize under the sun, but it doesn’t even touch that honor. People are using the book, every day, and every day teaching us more about it.

RM: It’s always important to me to insert at this point that though we narrate these things with pleasure, I really don’t want it to sound as though we are accruing the credit for this to ourselves or to our book. It is clear to me that The Lost Words just happens to have spoken to a much wider world of needs and worries and loves that are at work in our climate, as it were, at this moment. The “movement” around The Lost Words is about something much bigger and more powerful than just one book.

I’m reminded of something Jackie said quite early on in our collaboration: “Protest can be beautiful.” I thought, Ah, that’s right. The Lost Words is, we hope, a beautiful protest. In its quiet way, it’s a furious book. Yet it doesn’t let the fury rampage through it. Something about it has given it more ability to drive change in the world than anything I’ve ever written or ever will write. I still don’t know quite why that is, but I do now know that, as Jackie says, protest can be beautiful.


JM: I think The Lost Words is taking back politics, actually. From what I’ve come to see, I think the kind of party politics that we are living with is such an enemy of democracy. I think to take democracy back to its roots, to bring in natural metaphors again is what we need to do, because party politics is sending us up shit creek without a paddle—for want of a better analogy. The Lost Words is real politics.


RM: Can I tell you a story about the spell “Conker”? Or what you in North America call a “buckeye,” I think. The “Conker” spell ends:

… conker cannot be made,
however you ask it, whatever wood or tool you use,
regardless of decree. Only one thing can conjure
conker—and that thing is tree.

Well, a week ago I was contacted by somebody whose father I went on a walk with 11 years ago, a man who has since passed away. This father had been a woodworker, and he was a wonderful, gentle, humble man. One of the things he had made as a woodworker, late in his life, was an imitation of a conker. He made it out of horse chestnut wood. I have it here in front of me as we talk. It’s a very beautiful thing. It’s lathed. It’s sanded. It’s stained. It gleams and it glows and it has the feel of treasure to it. It was sent to me by his widow, the mother of the person who contacted me. She said: “We read your “Conker” spell and although this isn’t a true conker, it was made out of love for the thing itself. We want you to have it.” So I have this conjured conker in my hand. It was conjured by imagination and by dream and by love and by craft. Those are some of the things that we do best, it seems to me, as a species.


The Lost Words will be published in North America by Anansi International on October 2, 2018.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

Featured image: Jackie Morris, Portraits of the Interviewees