As It Happens

The Lost Spells conjures up the magic of everyday nature

The Lost Spells, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, features 21 poems or "spells" to conjure up the incredible magic of everyday plants and animals. The book is a followup to the bestseller The Lost Words.

New poetry and picture book is a followup to bestseller The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

Jackie Morris illustrated this own for the book The Lost Spells, created in collaboration with writer Robert Macfarlane. (House of Anansi Press)

Read Story Transcript

The Lost Spells is best read aloud, says author Robert Macfarlane.

The picture book features 21 poems or "spells" to conjure up the incredible magic of everyday plants and animals, each illustrated by artist Jackie Morris.

"These are spells in the old sense that spells have an oral magic to them. They're almost always written to be uttered. And I think that's true of a lot of poetry, and it's certainly true of the language that I try to use here," Macfarlane told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I want it to jump around in the mouth like an otter tumbles in a stream."

A snippet of Macfarlane's poem about the jackdaw, illustrated by Morris. (House of Anansi Press)

The Lost Spells — aimed at children aged "one to 100" —  is the much anticipated follow-up to Morris and Macfarlane's bestseller The Lost Words, an illustrated book about the nature-related words that were cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, starting with "acorn" and ending with "wren." 

For this book, the British collaborators chose subjects that were closer to their hearts, and closer to their homes. 

"This one is partly creatures and plants that Jackie and I love and know," Marfarlane said. "But also, they're everyday."

There's a spell for the red fox, for example, and one for the woodpecker, and another for daisies — "and it names them and seeks to conjure them in image and word," Macfarlane said. 

Morris and Macfarlane created The Lost Spells, a picture book to conjure the magic of everyday plants and animals. (House of Anansi Press)

There's a propulsive and almost rap-like tongue twister about the western jackdaw, a European crow, which British schoolchildren have been memorizing and performing. There are wistful ballads about the swallow and the goldfinch, respectively inspired by Macfarlane's sleeping child and dying grandmother. 

"These aren't the snow leopards. These are not the wild parakeets. But they're the nature we live with," Macfarlane said. 

Also unlike The Lost Words — which was a massive, glossy hardcover — The Lost Spells is a little more compact. The idea, says Macfarlane, is for people to take it outdoors with them and read it as they connect with the natural world — an experience many are turning to during the pandemic. 

"I hope The Lost Spells will be something people can carry with them in these difficult times, as a place for the mind to rest," Morris told the Guardian. "I hope it will help children to re-enchant their parents with the wild wonder and beauty of the world around them."

As a species, we will not save what we do not love, and we rarely love what we cannot name.- Robert Macfarlane, The Lost Spells author 

Macfarlane's poems connect the magic of the natural world to deeply personal and highly human observations. He wrote the words for Swallow while watching his young child sleeping. 

"There's the moment I remember so clearly when you have a very young child by your side, and [they're] the most fragile and beautiful thing you've ever seen. And they breathe out and then they breathe in. And then there's a pause, and in that split second, you think they might never breathe out again. And then they do," he said.

"And I suddenly thought that that split second is an abyss. It's a chasm into which you topple. And down there, there's no light. There's no growth. There's nothing. It's this tiny, tiny death that is reversed and you step out of it."

While reading Swallow aloud, the reader finds themselves transported to this dark, lifeless chasm, until they are rescued by a swallow. 

"In this spell, which is really a parent's spell, a swallow swoops down into the chasm and lifts the speaker out and sows shut the chasm. And then everything begins again. Plants grow. Stars shine. The planet turns. And the child breathes out."

In The Lost Spells, a swallow rescues the reader from the dark abyss between a sleeping child's breaths. (House of Anansi Press)

It's a spell that is intentionally very dark, yet also hopeful — which is how Macfarlane said he feels about the state of the natural world and the work people are doing to preserve and restore it.

"We see this all of these extraordinary restoration programs," he said. "Give nature a chance, and it will flow back. It will surge back."

It's something that takes hard work, he said. And, of course, magic.

"As a species, we will not save what we do not love, and we rarely love what we cannot name," he said. "And so we circle back to the idea that there is a profound goodness in knowing and naming with love and with care and with honour  the creatures and the plants that we share the world with, and that this is the acorn that grows change."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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