Robert Macfarlane: how The Lost Words became songs to save the countryside

It has comforted the downtrodden, inspired Britain’s schoolchildren and even been sprayed as graffiti. Now, the book has shifted shape again – into music

It felt like the folk music equivalent of Avengers Assemble. Last September, I found myself sitting at a wooden dining table in the Lake District with multiple superheroes of British folk. Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Beth Porter, Rachel Newton, Kerry Andrew, Jim Molyneux – could they really all exist in the same room together? Or would their convergence in a confined space cause a small black hole to open somewhere near the Keswick Tesco?

Karine, trying to find the beginnings of a shape for the performance we were planning, pulled out a notebook and asked people to say what they could play or do. Remarkable answers were modestly given; most people there had three instruments minimum, plus voice; all were also songwriters and composers. Rachel and Julie were bilingual in Gaelic and English; Karine and Kris sang in Scots. It came round to me. “Um … grade-one recorder? Backing kazoo? Also, I once sat on my brother’s oboe and broke it in half.”

WH Auden once compared being a poet in the company of scientists to being “a shabby curate in a roomful of bishops”. I had something of that shabby curate feeling in the Lakes that weekend. It didn’t help that I was sleeping in a room that had once been Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s study; no pressure for a writer, then. But it also thrilled me to be around musicians to whom I’d been listening for years, and to hear them responding to work of mine.

For the Avengers had assembled to develop a project called Spell Songs – a folk-musical adaptation of The Lost Words, by me and the artist Jackie Morris. The subtitle of The Lost Words is A Spell Book; it was our attempt to make what Jackie calls “a beautiful protest” against the depletion of the natural world that is under way quietly and hourly all around us. The “lost” words of the book’s title are 20 of the names for everyday nature that are slipping from daily speech and knowledge, to the extent that they were dropped from a widely read children’s dictionary due to under-use. Those words form a crooked almost A-to-Z, from “Acorn” through to “Wren” by way of “Bluebell”, “Kingfisher”, “Lark” and “Otter”, among others.

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