Listening to a Landscape of Voices.

Artist Jackie Morris and writer Robert MacFarlane are the creative duo behind The Lost Words and The Lost Spells. Journalist David Whetstone talked to Jackie about The Lost Spells, the magic of birds, and what inspired the creation of yet another masterpiece…

An illustration of Red Fox by artist Jackie MorrisFox, from The Lost Spells. Copyright Jackie Morris

If you want a story of beauty, hope and optimism, head for The Sill, the national landscape discovery centre in the Northumberland National Park.

There you’ll find The Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices, an exhibition of paintings, words and sounds that celebrates the rich diversity of the natural world so evident in this green place near Hadrian’s Wall.

The exhibition, a wonderful coup for The Sill, follows an earlier one, The Lost Words, whose story has been told before but here it is in a nutshell (that being a word that might or might not appear in the Oxford Junior Dictionary).

In 2007, the dictionary dropped nature-related words like ‘acorn’, ‘kingfisher’ and ‘wren’ to accommodate new words from the online world, such as ‘broadband’ and ‘blog’.

Compilers said the dictionary was reflecting the language used by children today. But it caused a kerfuffle, especially among the children of yesterday.

a photo of the Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices exhibition at The Sill, The Lost Spells book in foreground and art hanging on walls in backgroundThe Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices at The Sill

Artists, writers and naturalists signed a protest letter, saying there was a connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing, and arguing that if a word goes, the thing it represents becomes less visible.

Many things in nature are, of course, already under serious threat.

Among the letter’s signatories were Jackie Morris, artist and writer, and nature writer Robert Macfarlane who collaborated to make a beautiful book called The Lost Words.

Through Jackie’s illustrations and Robert’s poems, attention was drawn to the things we’re in danger of losing along with the words to describe them.

photograph of artist Jackie Morris, in an art studio settingArtist Jackie Morris. Credit Jay Armstrong

The book made a big impact. It spawned the first exhibition which opened at Compton Verney in the Midlands and was due to open at The Sill just as the first lockdown in 2020 brought the shutters down.

“What a beautiful place to be stuck in lockdown,” says Jackie wistfully. “I kind of wish I’d been there.”

She’s speaking on the phone from a basement flat in Hammersmith, cooking breakfast for her daughter who’s recovering from surgery. “Multi-tasking,” she says.

She agrees it’s not her natural habitat. Most of the time she’s in Pembrokeshire where she went “for the weekend” 30 years ago and stayed.

“I’m making the best of it,” she says. “There are green parakeets. They’re gorgeous, like yobbos as they scream around the sky. London is so used to them.

“But it’s terrifying the lack of birds here compared to when I was young and there were sparrows in all the hedges.”

Curlew, from The Lost Spells. Copyright Jackie Morris

She lived in London once. “I realised it wasn’t the place for me. I need space. I love the light you get by the sea and the dark sky. That’s something they have at The Sill.”

The first time she visited, after its cautious reopening, she had been through a dreadful time, losing her father just before the first lockdown. But she wanted to see how her work was displayed.

“I was absolutely blown away by the landscape at The Sill and by the way they’d hung the exhibition, and I loved the connection with the Northumberland National Park.

“I live in a national park and they’re so important for preserving landscape.”

The Lost Words exhibition is still touring (it’s in Bournemouth as we speak) but the project had generated momentum.

She says she didn’t know Robert Macfarlane personally before it all began. “He is, I think, one of the finest writers of his generation and actually an amazing thinker.”

The Lost Spells and The Lost Words

Signing the letter gave her a book idea and she wrote to him asking if he would write an introduction. After initially pleading a packed schedule, he wrote back, saying: “Can’t get this out of my head. Can we do something together?”

Initially, neither knew what would transpire. “But it’s gone out in so many directions and we’re working with so many different people,” says Jackie.

“Now there’s a beautiful thing called The Lost Sounds, an audiobook which is more than four hours of the wild as recorded by Chris Watson.”

He lives in Newcastle, I say. “He’s like a god,” enthuses Jackie.

The project also gave rise to the folk ensemble Spell Sounds which performed at the BBC Proms in 2019 and again at Sage Gateshead just recently, collaborating with new choir Voices of the River’s Edge.

Rachel Newton, of Spell Sounds, performed at The Sill for the opening of the new exhibition when National Park staff and others read poems from the books.

a man with grey hair facing a wall of paintings in the gallery at The Sill in the new exhibition The Lost Spells at The Sill

Jackie says she was so impressed with the way the first exhibition was treated at The Sill that she asked Sarah Burn, Northumberland National Park head of engagement, if a second could start there.

“I asked if it could be a tool for connecting people with the landscape. She made it happen really.”

Sarah, who of course was delighted, recalls: “We brought The Lost Words to The Sill but rather than treat it just as a touring exhibition, we embedded it into our programme.

“We took the key messages and tried to build on them. Jackie was so taken with the environment here that she was keen for us to do something with The Lost Spells which was to be published later that year.

“She has been incredibly generous with her artwork, trusting us to handle it sensitively. Robert, too. We wanted to adopt a more sensory approach, with listening, and make it compelling for children and everyone.”

Fox, from The Lost Spells. Copyright Jackie Morris

This they have done. Along with the wonderful words and pictures there’s a recorded soundscape featuring music, a Northumberland dawn chorus, seals ‘singing’ at Holy Island and the cry of a fox.

“We encourage you to listen with the ears of an owl, look with the eyes of an oak, call to a curlew or swoop with a swallow,” urges the accompanying text.

Children can dress up, write their own spells (poems) or handle the contents of a nature table, and there’s nothing to say adults can’t either.

The great advantage of this location is obvious. Outside lies the wild landscape that’s home to the creatures in the Morris/Macfarlane books and where children can play while relating those ‘lost’ words to what they see.

Jackie, in the basement flat, remembers staying in the inn next to The Sill and being thrilled to find swallows nesting under the window.

“I have my ears finely tuned to birdsong and I could hear them outside.”

two Children enjoying The Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices at The Sill, wearing owl costumesChildren enjoying The Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices at The Sill

The swallows flew into the exhibition as beautiful, intricate paintings, and into another book Jackie has just had published called Feather, Leaf, Bark & Stone, although it contains no paintings.

Beguiling but hard to classify, she calls it “a lullaby in a minor key” and hopes it will find readers amid bookshops’ “cacophony of stories”.

Meanwhile she is collaborating again with Robert Macfarlane on a book dedicated to endangered birds, due out in 2024. No title yet. “But it’s going to get called The Lost Birds, isn’t it?

“What we’re trying to do is make birds visible to people who don’t see them because a lot of people pay them no regard.

“We want to enchant people with the utter wonder of what a bird is and does. People talk about birdbrains but you think, ‘Oh. My God… I wish’. Humans are so full of their cleverness but imagine being able to navigate by scent or the stars.”

Kittiwakes will be included and Jackie had just started sketching them when she had to travel up for a rescheduled Spell Songs concert at Sage Gateshead in June. She was a little perturbed.

An illustration of Owl by artist Jackie MorrisOwl, from The Lost Spells. Copyright Jackie Morris

But staying in the Jurys Inn on Gateshead Quay she was delighted to find them everywhere and awake to a seabird serenade.

“We have kittiwake colonies in Pembrokeshire and I was thinking it was ridiculous to have to leave when they’d just arrived. But they’re on the cliffs and difficult to get close to.

“Sitting on the viewing platform at BALTIC and sketching them for hours was magic. They show utter disregard for humans and I did get pooed on but took it as a blessing.”

The Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices can be seen now and until June 4, 2023. Admission is free and The Sill is open daily, 10am to 5pm. Check for details.

The Lost Spells: Listening to a Landscape of Voices
Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris
In association with Penguin Books
Supported by the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland:

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