The gilded, starry cover of The Lost Spells, the stunning latest book of “spells and blessings, lullabies and psalms” by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, features a barn owl. It is floating in mid-air, with one eye on something below it.
In Scottish Gaelic she is cailleach-oidhe gheal, the white old woman of the night, one of my favorite beings in life and myth, a harbinger of birth and death. She also appears on the cover and just before the endpaper, carrying a golden key. The key she holds is the key to searching, communicating and discovering the richness of life beyond our own human nature. “Let the whisper of the world call you,” advises the barn owl charm at the core of this book’s 21 spells.
If it’s about careful listening, The Lost Spells is also unapologetically about making sounds. They are spells to enchant, to conjure, and to sing out. They are not intended to fly off the paper, but to fly.
The Lost Spells is the “little sister” to 2017’s The Lost Words, Roberts and Jackie’s critically acclaimed and wildly successful project, which was about conjuring 20 common nature words and species from the margins of modern disuse and disconnection back into everyday life. The Lost Words was caused by the deletion of several flower, tree, bird and animal names from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favor of modern additions to our 21st century technical lexicon.
These nature terms, and the life they illuminate in the book’s broad, airy pages, are at the heart of many of my own lyrics and songs, and the familiar landscapes they form. Heather and heron. Lark and wren. They are also the pulse of my outdoor life at home. Blackberries from the forest boiled down to jelly. The murmuration of starlings that buzzes around our village every winter at dusk. For me, this is true of almost all the words and animals in The Lost Spells. Gold birch and beech. Terrific curls and daisies. Gannet, broom, goldfinch, broom.
Not everybody’s life is like mine, however. And our unequal access to land and to non-human existence, and the judgment that follows our human-animal need and right to open space, are among the many injustices this Covid era has revealed.
In wild and unpredictable ways, The Missing Words bursts off the pages, talking with colour, rhythm, and attention to our delicate moment of ecological unraveling. In schools and local communities, the book inspired thousands of innovative environmental initiatives, and also made its way into palliative and dementia care. Vibrant pictures of Jackie now grace the walls of many hospices and hospitals.
In The Missing Words, the kindness of words and pictures also left enough space for musical answers, including Spell Songs, an ensemble of eight folk-inspired writer-musicians, and the most beautiful collaborative writing project I have ever participated in. We’ve even converted some of The Lost Spells into songs when collaborating with Robert and Jackie. One of those is the Grey Seal:
Go now, boy Selkie, swim away from the coast,
Secure from human gossip, wash your ears
Scottish folklore is rich in the lore of the Selkies, those shape-shifting creatures that slip their skins between land and sea, particularly the traditions of the Hebrides and the Northern Isles. Therefore, Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and Orcadian songwriter Kris Drever were the ideal individuals to transform the half-drowning, half-dreaming magic of Robert into music.
Julie describes the process, “Late one night, after dinner, Kris Drever and I found a quiet corner and plowed through chords, riffs, and ideas. We must have tried at least 30 little musical ideas, but the moment he played me that hypnotic progression – which became the opening sequence – I knew we had found the musical core for the lyrics. The melody of the top line came immediately and completely, and ‘Selkie-boy’ was born as a song.”
The kind of alchemy, when something appears to compose itself, is known to all musicians. It’s the culmination of decades of art and experience, trust and instinct embodied. It looks and sounds like sorcery, however.
Lost Spells encourages us to speak and sing these spells to the superhuman life around us. I’ve been offering digital school workshops lately. Normally I would work with communal chanting and massive rhythmic incantation, but school children are not currently allowed to speak above the level of