‘Once upon a time, words began to vanish. They disappeared so quietly that almost no-one noticed. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conkers – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words are becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.’
It is this perceived loss that is so eloquently addressed in the current exhibition at Compton Verney by writer, Robert Macfarlane, and artist, Jackie Morris. In this magnificent exhibition and in the wonderful book that they have produced, they draw attention to the danger that these words might be lost to children forever and they endeavour to make good the damage, conjuring back these lost words by the magic of their painting and poetry.
I grew up in the 1950s and was lucky enough to be one of the last generation to enjoy a ‘wild childhood’, free to roam woods and parks looking for conkers, pick blackberries in the hedgerows, wade in brooks and ponds looking for newts. I was intensely aware of the passing seasons and what they would bring: the conkers and turning leaves of autumn, bryony beading the hedgerow; the prospect of snow in winter, watching robins and bluetits feed in the garden; snowdrops, celandine and coltsfoot promising spring and the summer to come. We were free to be out all day, only returning when hunger called us home. We were in tune with the world around us: the plants, trees, birds, animals. We took it for granted. I saw ‘the elm tree bole in tiny leaf’ and knew what the poet meant, but that life has gone with the elm trees themselves.
Today’s children rarely go out unsupervised, some rarely go out at all. This exhibition is a response to the shocking research findings that British children are more familiar with Pokemon characters than British wildlife and, as
Robert Macfarlane points out in his article: Guardian - Badger or Bulbasaur - have children lost touch with nature?, all the centuries long associations that native flora and fauna have acquired through legend, myth, folklore and story are lost, too.
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris explore The Lost Words from Acorn to Wren. Each bird, plant or animal is shown in the same way. No matter how humble or ordinary, each is reverenced in an icon: a numinous depiction in gold leaf and exquisite jewellike water colour. It is then shown within the wider context of its natural world and then, finally, by its absence. This last is particularly powerful and poignant. Starlings are shown by an empty wire, raven and heron by a fallen feather, the magnificent otter by a line of paw prints. An achingly eloquent expression of loss and impoverishment, both to the world: if this creature had never been, or if we were to lose it, how much poorer would we be? And to the individual: if you don’t know something is there, then it does not exist for you and your world is somehow diminished.
Jackie Morris’ pictures are accompanied by Robert Macfarlane’s acrostic poems or ‘spells’.
My companion at the exhibition, friend and fellow writer, Linda Newbery , observed that:
'Robert Macfarlane's 'spells' are clever, striking and energetic - not a lazy phrase to be found. As well as being acrostics they also use a formal patterning of repetitions and echoes which makes me think of the Welsh 'cynghanedd' found in Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's especially lovely to hear Robert Macfarlane reading them aloud - they are meant to be spoken, after all.'
Should green-as-moss be mixed with
blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold
you'd still fall short by far of the -
Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and
gloss of starling wing.
There are drawing and writing materials, paper, crayons and pencils, so young visitors can take inspiration and make their own books. Robert Macfarlane's desk is in the last but one room. When I went in, a child was sitting on a little chair, leaning on this desk, hard at work with crayon and pencil. I'm sure that both the artist and writer would smile to see her there, and consider part of their work done, for the exhibition is an inspiration, an invitation, not just to admire their work, but to go outside and pay attention.
If you can't get to the exhibition, you can buy the book: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, published by Hamish Hamilton. It is beautiful and would make a handsome Christmas present for anyone.