ON the gilded, starry-night cover of The Lost Spells, the gorgeous new collection of “charms and blessings, lullabies and psalms”, from Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, there’s a barn owl. She’s hovering mid-air, with her eye on something below.
In Scottish Gaelic, she’s cailleach-oidhe gheal, the white old woman of the night, one of my favourite creatures in life and myth, a harbinger of both birth and death. She’s there on the frontispiece too, and just before the endpapers, clutching a golden key. The key she holds is to seek, speak and find the richness of life beyond our own human existence. “Let the world’s whisper call you in,” urges the barn owl charm at the heart of this book’s 21 spells.
If it’s about attentive listening, The Lost Spells is unapologetically also about making sound. These are spells to enchant, to conjure and to sing out. They’re not of the page but intended to fly.
The Lost Spells is the pocket-sized “little sister” to 2017’s The Lost Words, Robert and Jackie’s acclaimed and hugely popular project to conjure 20 common nature words and species back into everyday life from the edges of modern disuse and disconnection. The Lost Words was instigated by the excision of many flower, tree, bird and animal nouns from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, bumped out in favour of newcomers from our 21st century technological lexicon.
Those nature words and the life they illuminate across the vast airy pages of the book, are at the heart of much of my own writing and singing and the familiar landscapes that inform them. Heather and Heron. Lark and Wren. They’re the pulse of my outdoor life at home too. Bramble from the burnside boiled into jam. A Starling murmuration that swirls around our village at dusk each winter. For me, this is true of almost all the words and species in The Lost Spells. Silver Birch and Beech. Curlew and Daisy. Gannet, Gorse and Goldfinch.
But not everyone’s life is like mine. And amongst the many injustices unveiled by this Covid era, is our unequal access to land, and to non-human life, and the judgement that attends our human-animal need, and right, for outdoor space.
The Lost Words burst beyond its pages in wild and unexpected ways, speaking with colour, rhythm and attentiveness to our precarious moment of ecological unravelling. The book sparked thousands of creative environmental projects in schools and local communities, and found its way into palliative and dementia care settings too. Jackie’s vivid images now grace the walls of several hospices and hospitals.
The spaciousness of word and image in The Lost Words left ample room for musical responses too, amongst them, Spell Songs, an ensemble of eight folk-inspired writer-musicians, and the most beautiful collaborative writing project I’ve ever been part of. Working with Robert and Jackie, we have together already transmuted some of The Lost Spells into song. Grey Seal is one such:
Go now, selkie boy, swim from the shore
rinse your ears clean of human chatter
Scottish folklore, and especially the traditions of the Hebrides and Northern Isles, is rich with the lore of selkies, those shapeshifting creatures that slip their skins between land and sea. Gaelic singer, Julie Fowlis, and Orcadian songwriter, Kris Drever were then the perfect humans to whittle Robert’s half drowning, half dreaming spell into music.
Julie describes the process: “Late one night, after dinner, Kris Drever, and I found a quiet corner and ploughed through chords, riffs and ideas. We must have tried at least 30 little musical notions, but the moment he played that hypnotic progression to me – which became the opening sequence – I knew we had found the musical core for the lyrics. The top line melody came in full and instantly, and ‘Selkie-boy’ was born into song.”
All musicians know this kind of alchemy, when something seems to write itself. It’s the product of decades of embodied craft and knowing, trust and instinct. But it feels, and sounds, like magic.
There’s a poignancy in the lost spells’ encouragement to speak and sing out these spells for the more-than-human lives around us. I’ve been offering digital school workshops recently. Ordinarily, I’d work with communal song and massed rhythmic incantation, but school children are not, for now, allowed to talk above speaking pitch, let alone to sing. A certain kind of bold embodied enchanting is impossible. Whilst this is a collective health imperative, it robs us of something vital too. We need the visceral power and wild magic of our voices now, and the immanent sense of something bigger than our individual selves.
I’d been dipping in and out of The Lost Spells for a fortnight before I thought to peek beneath the shiny barn owl dust jacket. It reveals a lush blue hardback debossed with the wings of giant moths. Flocks of wee multicoloured moths flit across the endpapers too: Willow Ermine, Feathered Thorn and Seraphim. The little-known names for these lesser loved, or even noticed, creatures are delicious on the tongue. And moths themselves, in the charm to celebrate them, persist at the edges of consciousness, like “distant memory, half-forgotten grief”.
It’s a spell for another barely noted species of the edges that resonates most strongly with me right now: the hardy sea pink or Thrift, which clings to our coastal fringes. “Thrift knows hardship is a limit not a failing,” it declares. As the Marcus Rashford free school meals furore shows, these desperate economic times give fresh impetus to those who view hardship, poverty, and the limits of reasonable human thrift, as a form of individual moral failure rather than an occasion for collective societal care. Disregard for human life mirrors disregard for the non-human realm that sustains us all.
The spell for Thrift concludes:
Thrift persists against all odds,
and Thrift’s gift is – Thrift’s grace is –
to give a glimpse of hope in the tightest
of spots, the toughest of places.
I’m no longer sure what it is to hope, when loss is, as Robert and Jackie describe it, “the tune of our age”. But still, let’s hope.
The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton, £14.99
The Spell Songs album (featuring Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Jim Molyneux, Beth Porter and Kerry Andrew) is available now.
The Spell Songs ensemble will perform a live concert broadcast from the National History Museum in London, on February 2, 2021. Tickets available now.