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The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

From acorn to wren, a vibrant encyclopedia of enchantments reweaving our broken web of belonging with the rest of nature.

The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf’s melodious voice unspools in the only surviving recording of her speech — a 1937 love letter to language. “In each word, all words,” the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot writes a generation later as he considers the dual power of language to conceal and to reveal. But because language is our primary sieve of perception, our mightiest means of describing what we apprehend and thus comprehending it, words also belong to that which they describe — or, rather, they are the conduit of belonging between us and the world we perceive. As the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer observed in her poetic meditation on moss, “finding the words is another step in learning to see.” Losing the words, then, is ceasing to see — a peculiar and pervasive form of blindness that dulls the shimmer of the world, a disability particularly dangerous to the young imagination just learning to apprehend the world through language.

In early 2015, when the 10,000-entry Oxford children’s dictionary dropped around fifty words related to nature — words like fern, willow, and starling — in favor of terms like broadband and cut and paste, some of the world’s most prominent authors composed an open letter of protest and alarm at this impoverishment of children’s vocabulary and its consequent diminishment of children’s belonging to and with the natural world. Among them was one of the great nature writers of our time: Robert MacFarlane — a rare descendent from the lyrical tradition of Rachel Carson and Henry Beston, and the visionary who rediscovered and brought to life the stunning forgotten writings of the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd.

Troubled by this loss of vital and vitalizing language, MacFarlane teamed up with illustrator and children’s book author Jackie Morris, who had reached out to him to write an introduction for a sort of “wild dictionary” she wanted to create as a counterpoint to Oxford’s erasure. Instead, MacFarlane envisioned something greater. The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library) was born — an uncommonly wondrous and beguiling act of resistance to the severance of our relationship with the rest of nature, a rerooting into this living world in which, in the words of the great naturalist John Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” just as each word is hitched to all words and to the entire web of being.

While children’s experience is at the heart of this quiet masterpiece, MacFarlane and Morris intended the large, lavishly illustrated book for “children aged 3 to 100” — a book “to conjure back the common words and species that are steadily disappearing from everyday life — and especially from children’s stories and dreams,” a book “to catch at the beauty and wonder — but also the eeriness and otherness — of the natural world.” What emerges is a lyrical encyclopedia of enchantments, radiating the sensibility of classical natural history illustration but illustrating a more natural future for the generations ahead.

Each word occupies three lavishly illustrated spreads: a poetic “summoning spell” in the form of an acrostic to conjure back the lost word in a rhythmic incantation composed to be read aloud, a wordless visual eulogy for its vanishment, and a typographic botany of letters spelling it “back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”

Half a century after Rachel Carson painted in the opening of her epoch-making book Silent Spring a dystopian future bereft of birdsong, MacFarlane opens with an image of a world — this world — bereft of the words for birds (and plants, and other beings), and thus bereft of the regard for and concern with them:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances. It is told in gold — the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms — and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.

Complement The Lost Words, the splendor and enchantment of which no digital screen can convey, with Susan Sontag on the conscience of words and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit the lovely Lost in Translation — an illustrated dictionary of beautifully untranslatable words from around the world.

BP

Keats on Depression and the Mightiest Consolation for a Heavy Heart

“I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence…”

Keats on Depression and the Mightiest Consolation for a Heavy Heart

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh described depression in a stirring letter to his brother. “The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote a century later in his classic masterwork giving voice to the soul-malady so many of us have suffered silently.

Before Styron, even before Van Gogh, the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) painted an uncommonly lifelike portrait of the malady throughout his Selected Letters (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Keats on what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne.

Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression, for which he found a salve in creative work. “Life must be undergone,” he wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.”

Life mask of John Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816 (National Portrait Gallery)

In May 1817, Keats confides in the artist Benjamin Haydon, who had just cast the young poet’s life mask and who would later succumb to depression himself, taking his own life at the age of sixty, having outlived Keats by a quarter century:

At this moment I am in no enviable Situation — I feel that I am not in a Mood to write any to day; and it appears that the loss of it is the beginning of all sorts of irregularities… You tell me never to despair — I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying — truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals — it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear — I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment. How ever every ill has its share of good — this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself… I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine.

The following spring, an even darker cloud of despair enveloped the poet. His now-iconic poem Endymion — which opens with the famous, buoyant line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — was published to scathing reviews. One of his brothers suffered a violent hemorrhage. Another announced his abrupt plan to marry and emigrate to America. This swarm of instability and the attacks upon his primary psychological survival mechanism plunged Keats into a deep depression. Long before the clinical profession and the modern memoirist made the illness their material, Keats describes it exquisitely in a letter to his closest confidante, Benjamin Bailey:

I have this morning such a Lethargy that I cannot write — the reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling — I wait for a proper temper — Now you ask for an immediate answer I do not like to wait even till tomorrow — However I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence —

John Keats by William Hilton, 1822 (National Portrait Gallery)

Nearly two centuries before scientists began illuminating how body and mind intertwine in mental health, Keats adds:

My intellect must be in a degenerating state — it must be for when I should be writing about god knows what I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body — for Mind there is none.

With the cool, helpless lucidity of the depressed, he recognizes that the darkness is temporary — that when it finally lifts, one is left asking oneself, in the words of another great poet, “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?” — and yet the recognition, in depression’s cruelest twist, fails to serve relief:

I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top — I know very well ’t is all nonsense. In a short time I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my Book — in vain have I waited till Monday to have any interest in that or in any thing else. I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding. All this will blow over — all I am sorry for is having to write to you in such a time — but I cannot force my letters in a hot bed…

One beam of lucid light punctures the inky fog of inner desolation — one point of recognition does bring relief:

There is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends — ’t is like the albatross sleeping on its wings —

“I could not live without the love of my friends,” Keats writes in another letter. And indeed, it is in a letter to his dearest friend that he articulates the mightiest — perhaps the only — antidote to depression. More than a century before Styron himself, at Keats’s age, located happiness and the respite from despair in the capacity for presence, the despairing poet writes:

You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.

Complement this fragment of Keats’s thoroughly rewarding Selected Letters with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, and Jane Kenyon’s transcendent poem about life with and after depression, then revisit pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright on how REM sleep mitigates our negative moods.

BP

Relativity, the Absolute, the Human Search for Truth: Nobel Laureate and Quantum Theory Originator Max Planck on Science and Mystery

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

Relativity, the Absolute, the Human Search for Truth: Nobel Laureate and Quantum Theory Originator Max Planck on Science and Mystery

“The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Carl Sagan wrote as he marveled at our relationship with mystery a century after Walt Whitman serenaded it in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Midway in time between Whitman and Sagan, another colossal mind clasped its tentacles around this slippery perplexity with equal parts scientific lucidity and poetic luminosity: the great German theoretical physicist Max Planck (April 23, 1858–October 4, 1947), laureate of the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of energy quanta, which originated quantum theory — the most radical leap in science since Copernicus.

Max Planck, 1930.

Planck held at the center of his credo the conviction that the pinnacle of scientific progress is the discovery of a new mystery just when all the fundamentals are assumed to be known. This, perhaps, is why he was among the first in the scientific community to recognize the epoch-making genius of Einstein’s relativity theory — a theory Einstein began devising just as the venerable Lord Kelvin was taking the podium at the venerable British Association of Science to declare that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.”

Planck saw in relativity a strange and wondrous double portal into greater knowledge and greater mystery. In his 1932 book Where Is Science Going? (public library), he dispels a common misconception — one that persists to this day, particularly in the dangerous misapprehensions and appropriations of science common in New Age circles — by pointing out that relativity, rather than having refuted the absolute, “has brought out the absolute into sharper definition.” He writes:

That we do not construct the external world to suit our own ends in the pursuit of science, but that vice versa the external world forces itself upon our recognition with its own elemental power, is a point which ought to be categorically asserted again and again… From the fact that in studying the happenings of nature we strive to eliminate the contingent and accidental and to come fully to what is essential and necessary, it is clear that we always look for the basic thing behind the dependent thing, for what is absolute behind what is relative, for the reality behind the appearance and for what abides behind what is transitory.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by physicist Alan Lightman.

With an eye to this interplay between the relative and the absolute, Planck cautions against the hubris of certainty. Half a century before Karl Popper asserted that “knowledge consists in the search for truth… not the search for certainty,” he writes:

In no case can we rest assured that what is absolute in science today will remain absolute for all time.

He lays out the fundamental framework of the scientific worldview:

We see in all modern scientific advances that the solution of one problem only unveils the mystery of another. Each hilltop that we reach discloses to us another hilltop beyond. We must accept this as a hard-and-fast irrefutable fact… The aim of science… is an incessant struggle towards a goal which can never be reached. Because the goal is of its very nature unattainable. It is something that is essentially metaphysical and as such is always again and again beyond each achievement.

Curiously, Planck’s most precise and poetic remark on the subject comes from a conversation with Einstein, who admired him as a mind that “has given one of the most powerful of all impulses to the progress of science,” replete with ideas bound to remain valid for as long as physical reality exists, and yet who himself believed that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” In a Socratic dialogue with Einstein, included as an appendix to Where Is Science Going?, Planck reflects:

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

Complement with future Max Planck Medal recipient and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, Stephen Hawking on what makes a good theory, and Richard Feynman on the Zen of science, then revisit Thoreau on the splendors of mystery in the age of knowledge.

BP

Alexander Chee’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Books Save Us

“A book to me is like a friend, a shelter, advice, an argument with someone who cares enough to argue with me for a better answer than the one we both already have.”

Alexander Chee’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Books Save Us

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Franz Kafka wrote to his childhood best friend. For Alexander Chee, another writer of titanic talent, Kafka’s metaphor came alive in his own childhood when his family moved from Guam to America, relinquishing the warm seas of the South Pacific for the frozen seas of Maine in search of a better life. Reading became a portal to places in the outside world he missed, places in his inner world he was only just beginning to discover.

Chee tells the story of the singular role books played in his self-creation in his lovely contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, philosophers.

Art by Taeeun Yoo for a letter by Alexander Chee from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Chee writes:

Dear Reader of Tomorrow (and Today),

When I was your age I had an agreement with my mother: Whenever she went shopping, she left me at a bookstore or a library. Wherever we were in the world, that was our arrangement, and it made us both happy. As a result, I didn’t complain about how long it took her to shop, ever. If anything, when she came to get me, even though I loved her, I was a little sad.

They called me a bookworm when I was your age. I taught myself to read and walk at the same time so I could read more while I walked to school. My mother was always telling me I was going to ruin my eyes by reading so much but I am still the only one in my family who doesn’t need glasses — it may be I even strengthened my eyes.

I started reading so much back then because we had just moved to Maine and I had wanted us to stay in Guam. Maine seemed hard, cold and hopeless compared to the beautiful South Pacific island with warm seas and colorful fish that we had left behind. And while there was no way for me to return, in books I found doors to other worlds besides the one around me — and many other lives. Pretty soon, I was sneaking away to read, and it was because each of these books I loved felt like a present left behind for me by a stranger who somehow knew exactly how I felt.

I learned, gradually, to love Maine as much as Guam. But I read now for the same I reasons I read then — to feel less alone. But I read for more than that: Reading teaches me the answers to problems I haven’t had yet, or to problems I didn’t even know how to describe. And when I feel less alone with what troubles me, it is easier to find solutions. A book to me is like a friend, a shelter, advice, an argument with someone who cares enough to argue with me for a better answer than the one we both already have. Books aren’t just a door to another world — each book is part of a door to the whole world, a door that always has more behind it. Which is why I still can’t think of anything I’d rather do more than read.

Yours truly,

Alexander Chee

For more excerpts from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful letter about how books solace, empower, and transform us, Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding, Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a book saved actual lives.

A selection of the original art from the book is available as prints, also benefiting the public library system.

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