Poetry from Stones

[pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ransom]

Out­side my win­dow right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Out­side my win­dow, the leaf­less sweet­gum shows a con­do of squir­rels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the hori­zon indi­cates wind mov­ing in, and a white-crowned spar­row scritch­es under the feed­ers. Bet­ter. Even in win­ter, espe­cial­ly in win­ter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating. 

Candice Ransom
[pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ransom]

In Novem­ber, I taught writ­ing work­shops at a school in a large­ly rur­al coun­ty. I was shocked to dis­cov­er most stu­dents couldn’t name objects in their bed­rooms, much less the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. With­out spe­cif­ic details, writ­ing is life­less. More impor­tant, if chil­dren can’t call up words, can’t dis­tin­guish between things, they will remain locked in win­try indif­fer­ence. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edi­tion of the Oxford Junior Dic­tio­nary swapped nature words for mod­ern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dan­de­lion, nec­tar, and otter. In went blog, bul­let-point, attach­ment, cha­t­room, and voice­mail. Updat­ing dic­tio­nar­ies isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as rel­e­vant as data­base, but it’s cer­tain­ly more musi­cal.  If we treat lan­guage like paper tow­els, it’s no won­der many kids can’t name com­mon back­yard birds.

When I was nine, my step­fa­ther taught me the names of the trees in our woods, par­tic­u­lar­ly the oaks. I learned to iden­ti­fy red, white, black, pin, post, and chest­nut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Label­ing trees, birds, and wild­flow­ers didn’t give me a sense of own­er­ship. Instead, I felt con­nect­ed to the plan­et. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dic­tio­nary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchant­ed by new words. My par­lor trick was spelling antidis­es­tab­lish­men­tar­i­an­ism, the longest word in the dic­tio­nary. Kids can Google the longest word in the Eng­lish lan­guage, but the expe­ri­ence isn’t the same as brows­ing through a big book of words. 

Emer­son wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Lan­guage-mak­er … The poets made all the words, nam­ing things after their appear­ance, some­times after their essence, and giv­ing to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young chil­dren are poets, assign­ing names and mak­ing up words to mark new dis­cov­er­ies. After they become teth­ered to tech­nol­o­gy, they par­rot words from com­mer­cials, pro­grams, and video games. That fresh lan­guage is lost.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imag­ine my delight when I found a new book for chil­dren, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert Mac­Far­lane paired with artist Jack­ie Mor­ris to res­cue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dic­tio­nary. Words like newt and king­fish­er are show­cased as “spells,” rather than straight def­i­n­i­tions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the crea­ture sink deep, while Morris’s water­col­ors cre­ate their own magic.

On their joint book tour through­out Eng­land, Mac­Far­lane and Mor­ris intro­duced chil­dren to words — and ani­mals. On her blog Mor­ris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the book­sellers stopped me. ‘Ask the chil­dren if they know what a wren is, first, Jack­ie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had nev­er seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so per­haps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take chil­dren by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illus­trate our win­ter land­scape. By giv­ing kids spe­cif­ic names, they can then spin a thread from them­selves to the planet.

Ammonite [pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ransom]

Lan­guage is fos­sil poet­ry,” Emer­son con­tin­ues in his essay, “as the lime­stone of the con­ti­nent con­sists of infi­nite mass­es of the shells of ani­mal­cules, so lan­guage is made up of images, which now, in their sec­ondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poet­ic origin.”

Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jack­et and the boxer’s swagger,
Stronger and old­er than peak and than boul­der, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rub­ble of STEM-wor­thy terms. Feel the shape of them, pol­ish their shells, let them shine.

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Tom Dolan
6 years ago

The old­er I get the more fre­quent­ly my vocab­u­lary shows it’s dwin­dling char­ac­ter. Now in my sev­en­ties, I miss all those words that remind me of my aging. Even sad­der had I lived this life with­out their com­pan­ion­ship. It’s a strug­gle to retrieve each word, or to acknowl­edge that strug­gle, but won­der­ful to find peo­ple who write books that help re-enrich that com­pan­ion­ship, like The Lost Words, or The Writ­ing Life, or Like Sound Through Water, or a thou­sand oth­er lovelies.

Candice Farris Ransom
Reply to  Tom Dolan
6 years ago

Tom, you’ve sent *me* search­ing for Like Sound Through Water! I too am los­ing my vocab­u­lary, the trees and birds I once knew so well I some­times have to look up in guides. My reg­u­lar lan­guage has become erod­ed by med­ica­tion (and age) and I hunt for words I know are there, but elude me. So I’ll say the wrong word and hope the oth­er per­son gives me the right one. The worst thing that can hap­pen to a writer – los­ing words. I wor­ry about the kids today who don’t have them to start with.

Michelle Negron Bueno
Michelle Negron Bueno
6 years ago

Loved this review! I had the priv­i­lege to be in Oxford when the writer/illustrator kicked off their tour. The book was show­cased in every book­shop I entered. And just that fed my soul! Thanks for urg­ing the rest of us writ­ers to delve. ‑Michelle

P,S, Your first para­graph show­ing us how this can be done is mar­velous! Thank you!!!

Candice Farris Ransom
Reply to  Michelle Negron Bueno
6 years ago

Michelle, you are very lucky! The book is con­sid­ered the most beau­ti­ful book pub­lished in the UK in 2017. I imme­di­ate­ly got it and the oth­er books by Robert Mac­far­lane. How I wished I was there with you!

Virginia McGregor
3 years ago

Pneu­mo­noul­tra­mi­cro­scop­ic­sil­i­co­vol­canoco­nio­sis (45 let­ters) … longest word. Today I dis­cov­ered your info.
Inspired by your work. Thanks.