“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” the young Walt Whitman sang in one of the finest poems from his Song of Myself — the aria of a self that seemed to him then, as it always seems to the young, infinite and invincible. But when a paralytic stroke felled him decades later, unpeeling his creaturely limits and his temporality, he leaned on the selfsame reverence of nature as he considered what makes life worth living:
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
In span and in size, our human lives unfold between the scale of leaves and the scale of stars, amid a miraculous world born by myriad chance events any one of which, if ever so slightly different, could have occasioned a lifeless rocky world, or no world at all — no trees and no songbirds, no Whitman and no Nina Simone, no love poems and no love — just an Earth-sized patch of pure spacetime, cold and austere.
The moment one fathoms this, it seems nothing less than an elemental sacrilege not to go through our days — these alms from chance — in a state of perpetual ecstasy over every living thing we encounter, not to reverence every oak and every owl and every leaf of grass as a living benediction.
A century and a half after Whitman, writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris — two poets of nature in the vastest Baldwinian sense — compose one such living benediction in The Lost Spells (public library). A lovely companion to their first collaboration — The Lost Words, an illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature as an inspired act of courage and resistance after the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped dozens of words related to the natural world — this lyrical invocation in verse and watercolor summons the spirit of the living things that make this planet a world, the creatures whose lives mark seasons and measure out epochs: the splendid “hooligan gang” of the swifts that have crossed deserts and oceans to fill the sky each spring, the ancient oak “stubbornly holding its ground” year after year, century after century.
A century after the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted that we need “a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” observing how “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Macfarlane and Morris bring us the mystery and wisdom of wild things as complementary and consolatory to our tame incompleteness.
I am Red Fox — how do you see me?
A bloom of rust
at your vision’s edge,
The shadow that slips
through a hole in the hedge,
My two green eyes
in your headlights’ rush,
A scatter of feathers,
the tip of a brush.
What emerges from the consummately illustrated pages and rhythmic incantations is a charm against the curse of civilization, of exploitation, of apathy — the curse by which we unwilded beings have come to see the wild world, in the poignant image of the poet Denise Levertov, as a world parallel to our own, separate, a place to sojourn to less and less frequently, even in our imagination. These painted verses sing and shimmer with a magical exuberance that renders the wild world not parallel, not foreign, but proximate, beckoning, native to our own souls.
Out on the hill, old Oak still stands:
stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned,
stubbornly holding its ground.
Poplar is the whispering tree,
Rowan is the sheltering tree,
Willow is the weeping tree —
and Oak is the waiting tree.
Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die —
nine hundred years alive.
Complement The Lost Spells, to the lushness of which no screen does justice, with naturalist Sy Montgomery’s poetic memoir of what thirteen animals taught her about being a good creature, then revisit Macfarlane’s enchanting narrative journey into the hidden universe below the world we walk and Morris’s enchanting pictorial journey into the hidden universe beyond the waking world.
Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova