Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis and Jackie Morris on The Lost Words

We speak to Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis and Jackie Morris about The Lost Words: Spell Songs, and how art and music can form an act of rebellion against climate change

Feature by Amy Hill | 09 Jul 2019
  • Spell Songs at Hay Festival 2019

"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 a stone."

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began a process of replacing words concerning the natural world with words deemed more relevant in the 21st century. Among the erased were bluebell, dandelion, otter, kingfisher, willow and heron. When Robert Macfarlane published his much-acclaimed book Landmarks in 2015, he included an introduction illustrating how this decision re-edifies an increasing tolerance of the "outdoor and the natural" being replaced by the "indoor and the virtual."

Upon reading this, a spark of inspiration entered the mind of artist and illustrator Jackie Morris. "When the Impressionists first took their paintings to be exhibited they were all rejected, so they had this kind of exhibition of refused paintings," she says, "and I thought you could do something similar around these words."

She soon wrote to Macfarlane with her ideas, and the result was 2017’s The Lost Words, a large, captivating book consisting of a series of acrostic poems ("spells") by Macfarlane, which aspire to summon these words back to life. Each poem is accompanied by a triptych of illustrations by Morris: the first tells us of a world without, the second a calling back, and the third a celebration of return.

The reception that followed the book's release was huge, with a Crowdfunder beginning in Scotland that has successfully delivered a copy to every primary school in the country. Now, serving as the birds in the trees of The Lost Words’ forest, the book has been transposed into music.

'Enter the wild with care, my love, and speak the things you see / Let new names take root and thrive and grow'

On 12 July The Lost Words: Spell Songs, a collaborative album inspired by the book, will be released. The line-up of artists involved is dizzying with Scottish folk musicians Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart, Rachel Newton and Kris Drever working alongside London-based composer Kerry Andrew, kora virtuoso Seckou Keita, cellist Beth Porter and multi-instrumentalist Jim Molyneux.

The idea of a musical adaptation began to take shape when Macfarlane and Morris were approached by Caroline and Adam Slough, directors of Folk by the Oak festival, and coordinators of a variety of collaborative musical projects. In September of last year, they invited Macfarlane, Morris, and a curated group of musicians to the Lake District, to climb mountains and figure out how this project might take form. They were chosen based on a variety of qualities, including a concern for conservation, a love of nature, and generally being ardently talented.

Karine Polwart tells us how excited she was at the prospect, having been aware of The Lost Words before being asked to get involved. "I really loved the book and saw the recent exhibition of its work at the Botanics [in Edinburgh]," she says. "I actually performed in the wee space when it opened. It really speaks to a lot of the things I explored in my recent album Wind Resistance, which is all about land and language and how culture is embedded in landscape."

After this initial meeting, it was decided that the album would be both recorded and written as part of a residency in Herefordshire, with Caroline and Adam working out the logistics (and the food), and the musicians bringing the creativity. "Going into that first day I was quite apprehensive about the whole thing," explains Julie Fowlis. "Knowing that there had been a promise to make an album, and more importantly that there were five sold-out shows already booked, definitely made me feel that pressure. By the time we got together in January we hadn’t written a note, and yet we knew we had to make it work somehow."

Those nerves soon began to settle, though, as the musicians were brought together the night before the songwriting started. "Caroline and Adam put on this amazing meal of foraged foods by Liz Knight," explains Fowlis. "It was really amazing, and kind of like an edible reflection of The Lost Words. It brought everyone together, talking and chatting, when it would have been easy to sit and get worked up." When the musicians woke up the next day, Fowlis explains that "everything just started rolling out of us and it was kind of unstoppable."

'Would you rest your axe a while and sleep? / Listen to the song I utter / Hear my Heartwood weep'

The subject matter provided fertile ground for creativity. Polwart leads on opening track Heartwood, written by Macfarlane as part of a protest that took place in Sheffield last year. "Heartwood is rooted in this city-wide uproar about the maintenance of the city’s trees being contracted out to private companies," she says. "This has led to the indiscriminate chopping down of trees because it’s convenient. That’s really part of the political context for all of this."

Polwart and Fowlis took a lead on The Snow Hare, written about the mountain hare, the only Arctic mammal that resides in Scotland. "I guess [The Snow Hare] is one of the [songs] that most explicitly nods to climate change," says Polwart. "The snow hare has evolved over vast periods of time to go white in the winter. But then what’s the point of going white if your landscape no longer goes white?"

Fowlis explains that her experience of singing in Gaelic means that she’s no stranger to writing about the natural world. "To me it feels totally natural. Gaelic songs are so rooted in the environment around us. There’s that sense of songs being of a place, both geographically and historically. On this project it just became that Robert’s words were the way in.

"If you don't know the word for say a bluebell or a conker, then you don't see them, they’re not on your radar. Therefore you don't care for it, you don't know if it's gone," Fowlis continues. "These are big, weighty topics, and yet they’re packaged so simply around the image of a dandelion or an acorn. It’s so beautifully simple, it just whacks you between the eyes."

"The whole book seems to sit on that line between hope and despair," muses Polwart. "It’s not trying to say that everything’s going to be ok, but it’s more about the generations to come, this idea of being a good ancestor. It’s kind of saying that things might be shit, but if we remember to notice these things and know what they are, and if you speak and sing about them, then you can love and care about them."

'What goes far from the eye will go far from the heart'

"I’ve been told before that it’s all very well doing these books with art and poetry," says Morris, "but what we need is people out marching on the street, we need anger – time’s running out. And, well, I realised that this is the shape of my anger. A protest doesn't have to be ugly, you don't have to shout. And I think in these times when you see people using such ugly language, then trying to make things as beautiful as possible can be an act of rebellion."

"When we’ve performed the songs live, there have been people weeping, and it’s palpable in the room," says Polwart. "Yet they don’t go away feeling depressed, or sad. It’s a funny feeling, I don’t quite know what it is. But it’s what music does, and it’s one of the most powerful things that music can do."

"It’s the most simple message, but it’s so powerful," says Fowlis. "Just care for what is there because we can’t ultimately recreate it."

The Lost Words: Spell Songs is released on 12 Jul