Lost words, lost worlds
Do you think that things need a name in order to exist in our minds?
This was the question I posed to the senior girls in Assembly last week. Many philosophers would argue that things for which we have no name do not exist as fully in our minds as things that have a name.
‘What’s in a name?’ says Shakespeare’s Juliet
But the fact that she is called Capulet and he is a Montague makes all the difference in the world to this couple, and seals their fate.
‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’ she adds.
But when planting my garden, I need the word rose. More, I need the name of the rose – the taxonomy of roses, no less.
If you lose the word, then, you lose the world of which it is a part.
Seven years ago, a big thing happened in the naming industry of this country, when OUP published a new Junior Dictionary. To make space for newly-emerging words – analogue, broadband, chatroom – the publishers removed words which they thought had fallen into disuse, including acorn, buttercup and conker.
A furore followed; not because the technology-related words were seen as bad but because many people felt that losing the nature-orientated words would mean that the link between the future generation and the natural world would be lost.
In fact, many people believe that the link has been lost already and that the natural world has become a lost world to the young. For example, Tanya Byron’s influential report ten years ago concluded that the radius of activity outdoors for children had declined by almost 90% in a generation. The term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – coined by Richard Louv, in 2005 – has now been widely taken up to describe the detrimental effects, on physical and mental health, of children’s disengagement from nature. Louv defines it thus,
‘Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses’
The stats paint a concerning picture – with a third of under-16s being overweight or actually obese and an ‘epidemic of mental illness’ afflicting the young (leading to around 35,000 children in England being prescribed anti-depressants). In response, many organisations and individuals have sought to re-engage children with the Great Outdoors. The National Trust’s ’50 things to do before you are 11 ¾ ’ programme aims to ignite a love of nature in children before they reach the age when it is too late while an illustrated book of poems, entitled ‘The Lost Words,’ has taken the literary world by storm, scooping the Kate Greenaway Award and inspiring a campaign across Scotland to get a copy placed in every primary school nationwide.
Schools are, of course, crucial to the success of this endeavour. At a time when many are struggling to hold onto their green spaces, as a result of funding pressures, and other agendas are vying for attention, we are fortunate at the High School to enjoy superb resources, physical and human, for outdoor learning and can make good on the promise to keep the words and the worlds of nature alive and vivid for our students.
Forest School, led by Mrs Waters, is a brilliant starting point. Much more than an outdoor education programme, it is a fully integrated and structured programme of activities, underpinned by research and risk assessment, and combining elements of bushcraft, skills-building, environmental awareness, character education and personal well-being. Beyond that, in junior school, flower beds and vegetable patches, mud kitchens and bug hotels, sensory beds and sandpits, bird feeders and barometers present endless possibilities for exploration. For the seniors, the tranquil gardens of Cripps Courtyard provide a sunny haven in summer and an arena for snowballing in winter while Derngate Courtyard hosts intriguing biology experiments and offers shady nooks. By the time they are 11 ¾ our girls have enjoyed yearly residentials focused on outdoor learning and have cut their teeth on the Confidence and Challenge Programme amid the splendours of Snowdonia and the Carding Mill Valley.
This week the U4s have been in Cumbria, braving the elements and drinking in the fabulous scenery on Outward Bound. The calendar says summer but the barometer says monsoon. No matter – our motto remains ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing!’ Before the year is through, we shall have seen L5 and U5 through D of E Bronze and Silver expeditions while groups of our most adventurous seniors will have had an encounter with the wonders of Zanzibar, Thailand and Cambodia.
In these, and countless other ways, the High School ethos and experience encourage girls to embrace citizenship of the natural world and to gain fluency in the words of its language. The rewards are rich indeed – and will last a lifetime.
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris ‘The Lost Words’