Robert Macfarlane: 'We’ve almost run out of language to describe and evoke breakdown and warming'
Language is key to understanding our environment, says Robert Macfarlane, and if we want to reconnect to nature, all we need to do is tune in
by: Kat Lister
21 Apr 2022
Dandelion by Jackie Morris was commissioned for hospital wards, now displayed at The Lost Words exhibition
EXHIBITION ORGANISED BY COMPTON VERNEY
When Robert Macfarlane talks about nature, a beatific glow spreads across his face. It’s a look of unfeigned delight, a smile that brims with wonder.
“Every morning I take five minutes to sit in the garden, close my eyes and try to unweave the many threads of song and sounds around me,” the author says on a Zoom call from his home in Cambridge. “This morning it was the bin lorry,” he laughs. “But it was also the two goldfinches and the wood pigeon.”
Ask Macfarlane what language means to him and he’ll answer that it’s an ecology – “a complex system of interconnections”. This philosophy underpins each of his books, wild terrains that transport us from beneath the riven ash to the peaks of the polar snow in order to bring us closer to something: the natural world around us and the intimate spaces within. “How do we make visible that which has been forgotten?” he asks.
In 2017, Macfarlane answered his own rhetorical question, publishing The Lost Words, an illustrated collection of “spell-poems”, conceived alongside the acclaimed artist Jackie Morris, in response to the removal of the names of certain plants and animals from children’s dictionaries due to their lack of everyday use. Lost words such as “acorn” and “bluebell”; disappearing names such as “kingfisher” and “wren”.
“Jackie calls it a beautiful protest,” Macfarlane says as we discuss the book’s runaway success. It won Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2018, and kicked off ‘the Lost Words movement’, a campaign that raised thousands of pounds to send books to school libraries. In Scotland, for example, over £25,000 was raised so every primary school in the country would have a copy.
Morris was commissioned to create artworks for hospital wards, and the book is now the inspiration for an exhibition at the Russell-Cotes gallery in Bournemouth, featuring 20 of Macfarlane’s spells and 50 of Morris’s watercolour and gold-leaf paintings.
“Saying something out loud has a power, it’s the old form of magic. It speaks to memorising something, to oral cultures that vastly predate written ones,” he says. This kind of physicality is also present in the language Macfarlane has chosen to describe the book. Words like “releasing” and “rewilding”; phrases such as “imaginative circulation”. In this sense, his spells are airborne – they can be felt. “To sound something in the mind’s ear is a wonderful thing, but to speak it with bone and larynx and tongue and mouth is to feel it differently,” he adds.
In light of recent events, it now seems prescient that The Lost Words was structured around absence and loss. We all became ear witnesses during lockdown, Macfarlane says – a transfiguration that was largely indebted to the overnight disappearance of what could be described as “artificial” sounds; the vibrations caused by cars and planes and construction sites. Forced to retreat into the home, our parks and fields became imbued with new meaning.
It’s now been over a year since England’s third lockdown. Have we held onto that sense of appreciation and wonder, I ask. Macfarlane frames the bigger picture versus the local. On the one hand, Covid has radically reduced our vantage points, he replies – to the next few weeks, the next month. “And these are not the timescales that bring the climate crisis into focus. It’s not visible at that perceptive depth. It has to be seen and thought about in bigger units and deeper time than that.”
And yet, there are wonderful signs too, he adds – on a smaller, more intimate scale. “We saw whole communities who hadn’t been to their local green space, who hadn’t been nourished by these astonishing neighbours that we live with, who aren’t humans but are trees and birds and flowers. A lot of it has stayed.”
Macfarlane talks about us growing out of the ecological crisis – and the key to this growth “begins with the youngest, it begins with the acorns who will become our future forests”. Time has never been more urgent. “We’re speaking, what, a week after Antarctic temperatures peaked at 40 degrees above average?” he asks.
Macfarlane likens this number to tapping the measuring instrument and wondering if the machine is broken. He says, “Partly it’s a linguistic problem. We’ve almost run out of language to describe and evoke breakdown and warming. The superlatives have all been used up by science. I don’t quite know how we remake a language that is adequately answerable to the new climatic regime.”
Which is why these spells and stories are so important, especially for the next generation. “We’ve seen children who aren’t literate, seven-year-olds who haven’t got reading skills, fall into the visual world of the books,” he says. “There’s an access and a democracy to image, I think.” You could call Morris’s paintings secular iconography – “the trialectic between absence, wonder and restoration” as he calls it. “What would it look like not to have acorns?” Macfarlane asks. “Well, you wouldn’t have the oak tree, and you wouldn’t have the 2,000 species that interact with it. The icon is the acorn.”
Fifty years since James Lovelock fathered the Gaia Theory, a hypothesis that proposed that Earth is a self-regulating entity, questions of cycles and regeneration are now common to any discussion of our future.
Can language be a part of this ecosystem, I wonder? “Definitely,” Macfarlane replies. “I’ve called language one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene. It has such power to determine the histories we construct and the futures we imagine for ourselves.”
The next book he’s working on will centre around rivers, forests and “the rights of nature”. How do we determine what is alive – and what isn’t? Macfarlane is interested in how the age of capitalism – something he later refers to as the “thingification of everything” – has resulted in a collective disenchantment where “we’ve successfully deanimated the world, reducing the scope of what is alive, of what is Gaia, so drastically”.
His new nature film, River, explores this too; combining words, imagery and music in order to capture the wildness of our riverscapes, making the case for what he calls “downstream thinking”. It’s a phrase one could use to describe any facet of Macfarlane’s incantations.
“I think the words are being found again,” he says, “and sung and spoken and danced and heard. New ones are being made as well. It’s not that you have to have a particular code of knowledge to meet the living world. It’s more an act of tuning in – anyone can do it.”
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