Lost Words by Emma Shelly

Archived in the category: Featured Writers, General Info
Posted by Joyce Rhyne on 18 Jan 18 - 0 Comments

grackle
Over the past weekend I read a book called “Lost Words” by Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane. It took me less than an hour because it’s a big, illustrated book filled with poems in huge font meant to be read aloud to kids. The subject of these poems: ferns and kingfishers, ivy and heather, herons and owls. And more so than the poems (which were quite fun) and the illustrations (which were very beautiful), I found myself interested in the why of the book and what it all means.

Morris first got the idea for the book when she was asked to sign a petition to return words that had been culled from the Oxford University Press Junior Dictionary. These words included bluebell, acorn, heron, and the one that she said cut the most: kingfisher. It wasn’t the dictionary’s fault that the words were cut, “but the culture in which we live,” Morris writes, “seems to give more importance to the urban than the wild.” She wondered how could these words be removed? “How can we teach children that bluebells are important, that acorns have value, if the words are not important enough to be in the dictionary found in most schools?”

Indeed, there’s been a lot of debate about whether the kids of today are more removed from nature than their predecessors and a lot of the research suggests that yes, yes they are. They spend less time outside, participate in fewer hiking and camping excursions, and don’t have the same exposure to the great outdoors. One study demonstrated that they can name cartoon characters more easily than they can name the plants, birds, and bugs in their backyard; they can tell you that the bright yellow rodent with the red cheeks and pointed ears is Pikachu, but struggle to call to mind the word “weasel.” Or “milkweed” or “egret.”

Morris would argue that those are some more lost words.

This past weekend I was in the Walmart parking lot and one of the grackles there was making a racket. They can be super noisy birds and this one was whistling and squawking away under a car so loudly that I had to take a peek to make sure it wasn’t hurt. Besides me there was one other person drawn to the bird – a five or six year old boy who was so curious he went down to his hands and knees so he could get a look at the feathery loudspeaker underneath the vehicle. “Mom!” he said, “Look at this bird? What’s it doing?”

“Being loud,” his mother said. (Accurate.)

“What kind of bird is it?” the kid wanted to know.

“Just one of the black birds that hang around here,” she replied.

The lost word here, of course, was “grackle.”

But why does it matter, knowing exactly what it is? Mom was technically correct, wasn’t she? They are black birds and they do hang around in urban places like parking lots and parks and beaches. Why can’t we call them “just a black bird” and move on?

Because then all birds become “just a bird,” and all trees become “just a tree.”

Things start falling into the broadest categories possible and what’s the point of stopping to look at that perching hawk when a hawk is just another bird? What’s the incentive to know your garden plants when all flowers are just flowers? Interchangeable, unremarkable, “just” another bit of nature that crosses your path here and there.

There’s a kind of magic in a name. Morris knew this and when it came time to find an author to pair with her illustrations, she contacted Robert MacFarlane. MacFarlane immediately pitched a children’s book filled with poems that he doesn’t refer to as poems but as “spells of language.” It’s hard to read the poems and not think of the animal or plant they are describing – a swift, fast-flowing poem for the kingfisher, a rolling, softer touch for the heather, as they work to summon these words back into our everyday language.

I’m nowhere near as talented as MacFarlane but here’s my own little homage to that noisy grackle of this past weekend – one of Lake Jackson’s very own lost words.

Grackle, grackle, dart and cackle,
With a whistle and a squeal!
You’re a city bird, an asphalt bird,
A bird of concrete sky.
A black bird, some say a haughty bird,
A bold swagger that flies.

Emma-ShellyEmma Shelly is the Education and Outreach Manager of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast, and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.

 

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