The lost words of nature and a Norfolk book called Leaf

PUBLISHED: 08:12 20 October 2017

Conker. Picture: David North

Conker. Picture: David North

David North

Making sure children recognise kingfishers, conkers and catkins as well as Pokemon

Acorn, adder, ash and beech. Blackberry, bluebell and bramble. These are just the beginning of the list of words which have slipped out of a dictionary aimed at seven-year-olds over the last few years.

They continue with catkin, clover, conker and cowslip, and the complete list reads like a poem. Or perhaps an elegy, mourning lost connections with nature.

When I was in primary school we had a weekly test – six wild flowers, or hedgerow fruits, or leaves, or catkins, brought into the classroom on a Monday for us to learn to identify by Friday. It was a country school so we also saw acorns, buttercups, celandines and the rest all around us in season, an ABC of natural world.

My own children were brought up in the city and, despite my best intentions, I never once assembled jam jars of twigs or flowers to help them identify our native plants. And, unused, some of my own childhood knowledge is slipping away too. I’m not sure I could still confidently tell the difference between beech and birch, alder and elder, weasel and stoat.

When a survey revealed that children can name Pokemon characters more accurately than they can identify a primrose, a kingfisher, or an otter, I felt more guilty than surprised. My boys were definitely more familiar with Pokemon Go than poplars and goldfinches, even though both spend a fair amout of time outdoors.

Does it matter? It definitely does. Names are important. It is harder to be bothered about the devastation of our ash trees, if we did not know what they looked like in the first place. It is less awesome if great oaks from little egg-shaped thingies grow.

A French naturalist diagnosed a generation with nature deficit disorder 12 years ago, but it is easy to cure with a prescription of fresh air.

So where should we take our children to play with acorns, collect conkers, listen out for an exaltation of larks (gloriously, that is the official collective noun), or marvel at a murmuration of starlings?

Well, one of the “disappearing” words is heron, and one of the places I have seen a heron is in a city park in Norwich. It was standing on the pond in Eaton Park, looking exactly like one of those ornamental statues, until it moved. Oak trees are easy too, and so, it turns out, are kingfishers. “You are almost guaranteed to see a kingfisher at Lackford Lakes,” said Matt Gaw of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Starlings, long-tailed tits, great tits and goldcrest are also all regulars at the nature reserve near Bury St Edmunds. And for trees, oak, ash, hazel and many more, he recommends Bradfield Woods, also near Bury. For peak cuteness, it even has thriving (but nocturnal and about to hibernate) hazel dormice.

In Norfolk, Foxley Wood, near Reepham, (open daily except Thursdays) has acorns and conkers on the ground, buzzards, long-tailed tits, goldcrest and jays in the trees, and a woodland including field maple, wild service-tree, small-leaved lime, and Midland hawthorn.


The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris is a collection of glowing pictures and “spells” celebrating the natural words, and world, we are in danger of forgetting. It was published by Hamish Hamilton this month.

Robert calls it: “A modern-day spell-book for the natural world – a book that might go some small way towards conjuring back the words, names and species that were being lost.” He and Jackie chose 20 common names of 20 common species of creature and plant. And alongside his words she painted first the absence of each name, perhaps as a silhouette, or a ripple in water, and then the conjured-back creature or plant.

Life Cycle

As the autumn leaves swirled down Andrew Bickerton was captivated by the glowing colours.

One in particular caught his attention. “It was a dead leaf but looked so alive,” said Andrew, a retired English teacher who lives in Great Massingham, between Fakenham and King’s Lynn.

That single leaf was the inspiration for his first book, written for children and telling the life-story of a sycamore leaf.

“It aims to introduce children to the concept of the life cycle and the importance of seemingly insignificant things to our environment,” said Andrew. “I am very concerned that our children are increasingly divorced from the environment and reading for pleasure.

“They don’t play out in the countryside any more – although I took an assembly recently and they were quite knowledgeable about conkers!”

Artist Sue Kingston, who lives in the same village, has illustrated the book with delicate water colours of trees and birds.

The story begins: “In the middle of a village green stood a tall tree. The tree had stood there for as long as anyone could remember. At the top of this tree, at the very end of a branch and at the very tip of a twig, was a little bud. It was spring and this little bud was about to burst into life. But this little bud had to face many dangers…”

Andrew has written and directed village pantomimes and plays and his first book is aimed at children aged five to 10.

Leaf, by Andrew Bickerton and Sue Kingston, is available for £6.50, with £3 going to village organisations including the primary school, church and historical society, from Andrew on 07765946668.

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