A grassroots movement is getting a book celebrating ‘lost words’ of nature that have been cut from junior dictionaries into hundreds of Yorkshire schools. Chris Burn reports.
It is an organic campaign that has become a natural phenomenon; an inspiring book celebrating the disappearing words of everyday nature, from ‘otter’ and ‘raven’ to ‘conker’ and ‘bluebell’, is finding its way into hundreds of primary schools, thanks to the efforts of a grassroots movement sweeping Yorkshire.
Campaigns are under way in East and North Yorkshire, York, Hull, Bradford and Sheffield to raise the necessary funds to supply local schools – and libraries, GP surgeries and children’s hospital wards – with copies of The Lost Words, a book of poems by award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane.
Illustrated with paintings by acclaimed artist Jackie Morris, the ‘spell-poems’ focusing on 20 words such as ‘kingfisher’, ‘dandelion’ and ‘bramble’, are designed to celebrate and retain them in the minds and imaginations of children.
The different campaigns in Yorkshire are all at varying stages but each has been inspired by the success of Stirling-based school bus driver Jane Beaton, who was moved to start raising £25,000 to buy enough copies of the book to get a copy into every school in Scotland.
The book, which was published last October and has been named as a joint winner of the Children’s Book of the Year prize at The British Book Awards 2018, came about after a group of prominent authors including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion protested in 2015 at the “shocking and poorly considered” removal of dozens of words associated with the natural world from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which limits itself to 10,000 words per edition and is aimed at seven-year-olds.
Out had gone ‘cauliflower’, ‘chestnut’ and ‘clover’; replaced by more modern phrases like ‘cut and paste’, ‘broadband’ and ‘blog’.
By last December, more than 50,000 people had signed a petition calling for the reinstatement of words like ‘otter’ but publisher Oxford University Press stood firm, saying it still includes about 400 words focusing on the natural world and its dictionary was “relevant and beneficial”.
Morris and Macfarlane were among the 28 authors involved in the 2015 protest and the pair, who had never previously met, decided to work together to create a unique book with an ambitious aim of capturing the beauty and wonder, but also the eeriness and otherness, of the natural world. The intention was that it would not be a children’s book, but something for all ages – or at least “children aged three to 100”.
Following the success of Jane Beaton’s campaign, other crowdfunding efforts have sprung up to take the book to a wider audience – including an effort to get the book in every care home in Wales. School schemes have covered 24 English counties and large parts of inner-city London. Now a series of ambitious projects are taking place in Yorkshire.
In Sheffield, £3,200 has already been raised to supply the book to all of its 145 primary schools. Joanna Dobson, who works in English language assessment, linked the effort to the ongoing campaign to save thousands of mature trees in the city from being felled and in particular the 150-year-old ‘Vernon Oak’, an historic tree that is among the thousands listed to be axed by the council.
“When I found out about The Lost Words, I knew it would be a fantastic book,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of Robert Macfarlane’s writing. I knew these particular nature words were disappearing from children’s vocabularies. Some of these words were things that were commonplace, things like bluebell and conker.
“I thought it was such a fantastic and creative idea to make this book a spell book so children are exposed to these words and the beauty of the illustrations is breathtaking. The words will become part of their language and won’t be lost.”
Inspired by what had happened in Scotland, she decided to try it herself in March and the money was raised within four weeks once a crowdfunding website went live.
“I would never have had this idea myself but when I heard about it, I thought wouldn’t it be nice to do this in Sheffield? It became one of those ideas that didn’t go away. It was amazing, by the end of the first 48 hours of the campaign, we were 50 per cent of the way to our target.”
In Bradford, French teacher Vicky Cooke has been leading a campaign to raise £1,300 to get the book into all of the city’s primary schools – supported by The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, which has donated five copies to the cause. “People of all ages will enjoy this enchanting book but I hope it will encourage a new generation of young readers to discover a love of language, art and the outside world,” she says.
In Hull and East Yorkshire, efforts are being led by Yorkshire Wildlife Trustee and former school governor Paddy Hall. He got his grandson a copy of the book for Christmas - only to find his wife had got him the same present.
“I thought this is a brilliant book and should be everywhere,” he says. “It just touched a real nerve to hear the junior dictionary had lost a whole lot of words and were replacing them with things like ‘blog’.
“For kids to be in touch with the natural world, they need the language to describe it.”
He says he thought of starting a campaign to get the book distributed to local schools – finding to his surprise that he was not the first to consider it. “I thought it was a super book and kids would love it. I looked online and up came the Scotland project. That made think it was possible. The Lost Words started off as a book and has now become a movement. It fits with the psyche of the times with David Attenborough’s call to arms over the environment and plastic. The public are beginning to see we ought to be doing something.”
Paddy is part of a wider Yorkshire effort co-ordinated by nature writer Amy-Jane Beer to get the book into every primary school in Hull, East Yorkshire, York and North Yorkshire. They are looking to raise an initial £7,500 and if a further £2,500 can be collected, the book will be distributed to GP practices and children’s hospital wards.
Macfarlane says: “From an acorn of an idea from Julie, this wild wood has grown out of it. It has been the most extraordinary experience of my writing life, nothing like it will ever happen to me again. No one has ever seen anything quite like this before. It has been a grassroots movement.
“It speaks to a lot of hopes and fears about our relationship with nature. I have no problem with blogs or broadband, I’m actually very grateful to broadband, not least because Twitter is one of the ways in which this movement has spread. I don’t think technology and nature are opposed to each other, just like I don’t think the city and country are opposed to each other.
“It is important because we are not just losing the names for these everyday species, we are losing the species themselves in many cases. Sky-lark numbers are down 50 per cent, the newt population is crashing, starlings are down. Everyday nature is slipping from our lives and we are not really noticing it. Just having a basic knowledge of names is vital. We have heard from schools where not a single child in the class knew what a wren was. That is not the children’s fault, nature plays less of a part in more and more people’s lives.”
Macfarlane says it has been inspiring to hear of how the book is making a genuine difference. Among the many messages and photographs he has received was one about a school in Whitby in which 170 children left the classroom for a day to visit the woods, beach and riverbanks nearby.
Morris says: “It is absolutely wonderful that our work has been taken into people’s hearts in such a way. It is such an unusual and beautiful thing. We have had stories of people whose very ageing relatives are spending their last days looking through this book, that is what gets me the most when people have such limited time that they would choose to do that.
“I’m meeting children who have never picked a blackberry off a bush and don’t even know you could do that.
“What I love about these campaigns is how they connect people. I love the fact all this wildlife is free while things like Pokemon you have to pay for.”
Amy-Jane, who has been coordinating efforts in Yorkshire to get The Lost Words into almost 500 schools and around 100 hospital wards and GP surgeries, says it is hoped the book can also be placed in libraries, hospitals and nature reserves.
“The book is magnificent to read, and especially to read aloud,” she says. “It’s a brilliant campaign, but like various other campaigns to rewild the child, that they are necessary is depressing. We are all wild things. How can we have forgotten? Children spending no more than a few minutes of the day outside is a disaster – for their mental and physical health, and ultimately also for the nature they are missing, because how can they appreciate what they don’t know? How can they love what they can’t name? Losing the language with which we articulate nature is a tragedy.
“We want to get children into bookshops, libraries and nature reserves, so we’ll be organising distribution events in such places across the region in the autumn. Schools will be invited to send representatives to collect their copy of the book.
“Our campaign has three pillars, or branches – Wildlife, Words and Wellbeing or nature, education and health. The three are closely linked. There’s abundant evidence to show that just a few minutes connecting with nature improves our mental wellbeing. Hospital patients with a view of trees convalesce fast that those without. In Japan, therapeutic excursion into nature, known as ‘forest bathing’ are prescribed for everything from depression and anxiety to diabetes and heart disease. It does us good to be reminded that being human is just one way to be alive.”
Macfarlane says he is particularly impressed by what is going in Yorkshire and the commitment to “getting change and access to nature in some really hard-to-reach communities”.
“They are really focused on that, it is very inspiring.”
New poem for Sheffield tree campaigners
Robert Macfarlane is writing a new poem to support tree campaigners in Sheffield.
He intends to publish the poem online in the near future in support of any tree that is being “unjustly felled”.
“I have got the first six lines,” he says. “I’m going to release it online for Sheffield and those who are protecting the Sheffield street trees but is really open to anywhere in the same situation.”
Sheffield Council has caused considerable controversy with its ongoing attempts to fell thousands of street trees in the city and replace them with saplings as part of a secretive highways improvement contract with private company Amey.
The work is currently on hold and under review following a national outcry against the policy.