NOAH RICHLER: Hello and welcome to Pivot. I’m Noah Richler. What is the faculty you’d dread losing most of all: to hear, to see, to speak? It must be a particular hell, if you’re a writer to lose the ability to summon words. whether you express these with your voice, in writing, or in sign language. The failure of memory and difficulty with speech that dementia brings on will lead to this—to the loss of the bridge between us, the bridge between the sufferer and loved ones, and the world as it used to dependably be known.
Some of us will succumb to dementia; some of us may already know a loved one who’s in its diminishing throes. But I still have my words, and to describe the world of someone losing words as a “particular hell” or its throes as diminishing can only be presumptuous. There’s information to be shared in that window when dementia is coming though not yet dominating the mind, so when I learned that the condition was progressing in Graeme Gibson, the naturalist, bird watcher, novelist, anthologist and long-time companion to Margaret Atwood, I wanted to listen to what Graeme would tell me of his experience, of his altering relationship to the world and how he was living it. What I found was a man not disturbed in this late moment of pivot, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. It was Gibson who, among other things, had first spoken to me so eloquently of the virtues of “forest bathing,” of solitary walk in the woods, and several times of the company of birds that has meant so much to him all his life.
GRAEME GIBSON: My name is Graeme Gibson, and I was a writer for about thirty years, and then I became quite preoccupied with birds to explore them whenever I can and by myself some of the time, but the most…the nicest ones on some level are with a number of other people
NOAH RICHLER: I want to talk about your interest in birds today, also the decisions you make, and and the fact of your dementia.
GRAEME GIBSON: It was almost fourteen years, I discovered I was missing a lot of words…not dramatically….But it was going on enough that I thought I’d go see my doctor (terrific guy), and he gave me a humiliating little list of things to say—all of them totally simple, about a list of words this way, and then repeating it from the other end, and I had too many errors…not till that point was anything else recognition that I had dementia
NOAH RICHLER: What was your reaction, do you remember?
GRAEME GIBSON: Uh…a lot of them, there are a number of them of course, and it wasn’t a really fast one, which was good.
NOAH RICHLER: So the progress would not be fast?
GRAEME GIBSON: That’s right. First of all, I somehow wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t that bad, what I heard, I thought so…in a way, or else I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor.
The other thing that happened was that I wasn’t afraid. It seemed to me that at that age…of eighty or whatever the hell age I was at that time…that I had a pretty good life already, and I wasn’t going to fall over immediately, and there wasn’t really any pain, and so I had to think about it, of course. And I began to think, well, what am I going to do about this? I wasn’t writing anymore, uh, and I wasn’t reading as much as I usually do. Uh, I spent a lot of time in nature, and I thought, Well, this is something that I have discovered, and so far as I know, there’s nothing I can do about it, except my behaviour
NOAH RICHLER: I’m trying to understand your very mature acceptance of the idea. You say you had a good life
GRAEME GIBSON: I’ve always known that I was not going to live forever? I don’t know if I said this directly, but I said, OK it’s begun. This is what’s going to do it. And out of that came a really interesting sense that this is better than horrible diseases, pain and all of that, and also as I went along, it was looking as if I was going to be given time
NOAH RICHLER: Do you mean, when you say you were given time, do you mean given time to prepare for…death?
GRAEME GIBSON: Yeah, but also, living the way I wanted to live, and the changes have become, more significant. I don’t talk as much as I usually do…I go out and see friends uh…I forget their names. One day, fairly soon probably, I will not know what your name is. I won’t know who you are.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you think that many of us are unprepared for our mortality?
GRAEME GIBSON: I think so, on some level..because I can see the changes that are going on, and I’ve got little notes saying ‘You’re gonna die,’ right? I don’t think my death bothers me, nor gave U ever. I don’t think I…afraid of death. At some point when I was younger, I must have. But a lot of my friends have died, my parents have died, I became a soldier, and was trained to be at war. What perhaps um…troubles me…uh, is that I’ve got a young young grandson, wonderful, really impressed by him, I probably won’t see him five years, or maybe even three.
NOAH RICHLER: You’re a man who makes decisions. You decided at a certain point not to write anymore. Did this lead to any particular decision?
GRAEME GIBSON: No…no, I never really liked writing. [Laughs] Because, I had, for a novel, what my sense of those four books because it took me a long time, all of them except the second one. And torturous. What I was doing is trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing, so all those four books are all about me. If that makes any sense.
NOAH RICHLER: Did you find out?
GRAEME GIBSON: Yeah. Getting into the birds, I then added to it the birds. I became really interested in the animals and birds. And what was happening to them. I think because they have been around years and years and years and years before uh humans arrived.
NOAH RICHLER: You write in the Bedside Book of Birds that being mindful of birds, is being mindful of life itself… What does birdwatching give to you?
GRAEME GIBSON: I didn’t get into bird watching until I was thirty something or other. When I was very young, I used to go in the night when I was maybe eight, and creep out at night and I would explore the city in the dark.
NOAH RICHLER: You wanted your own space?
GRAEME GIBSON: I guess so, it’s hard to say
NOAH RICHLER: Do you remember in your history of bird watching a particular moment in which maybe you realized it was a passion
GRAEME GIBSON: Yeah. Me and Peggy, and a bunch of people in a boat, it was down in the South America on the island. We were on a small boat about twelve of our friends and the sea was pounding around everywhere, and everybody was inside and I was out standing on deck, and this beautiful big bird came up over the water out over the water, in the middle of the storm. It just simply appeared suddenly in the spare and it went right by me and it was horrendously powerful and beautiful.
NOAH RICHLER: You have an interesting quote, Graeme, that you use as the epigraph in the Bedside Book of Birds, from Ruskin. He writes, “I have made a great mistake, I’ve wasted my life with Mineralogy which is led to nothing, had I devoted myself to birds, their life, and plumage, I might have produced something worth doing.” How does that speak to you?
GRAEME GIBSON: It was my growing sense that nature is what we should be dealing with.
NOAH RICHLER: I assume you’re also forgetting the names of birds…
GRAEME GIBSON: Yeah. Well, I don’t even ask for them in a way. you know. It’s the birds I’m interested in, not their names.
NOAH RICHLER: Is your memory of images affected? Like the image of a bird in flight?
GRAEME GIBSON: Well, I can’t remember the one I was trying to tell you about…[laughs].
NOAH RICHLER: But you remember seeing it.
GRAEME GIBSON: Oh yeah. Yeah. I have a very clear sense of it all. It’s language is one of my main problems. What I haven’t fully worked out is what are the priorities that’s going on in me? You know? I’ve shut down on my computer…I don’t read novels anymore, I read very little…as you just saw. And those things don’t necessarily trouble me.
NOAH RICHLER: Not just individuals, but communities lose their words; whole communities do too. When Jackie Morris, the extraordinarily talented English illustrator and writer who, discovered that common words describing everyday flora and fauna were so infrequently being used that the world’s most renowned publisher of dictionaries, the Oxford University Press, had dropped words like “heather,” “raven,” and “otter” from its children’s dictionary and replaced them with 20th century others. She became duly alarmed. Morris contacted Robert Macfarlane, who calls himself a “word-collector and mountain-climber,” and is the author of The Old Ways, a travelogue of Britain that depends on a kind of archaeology of trails and persistent traditional means for him to know the land he calls home. Out of the pair’s virtual meeting, an extraordinary partnership ensued. Morris and Mcfarlane worked together to create Lost Words, a magnificent oversized illustrated book of spells, Macfarlane calls them—poems in which the first letter of each line spells out the lost word, in naming things, we affirm them, and in forgetting the names we lose a vital connection. That’s the lesson.
And so when I was in England this last spring, I went to hear Morris and Mcfarlane speak at the Cambridge Union packed with readers and admirers of all ages, from school children to pensioners, and all rapt. We’d chatted beforehand, I started by asking Jackie and Robert if their success was surprising in any way.
JACKIE MORRIS: Is there any way? Is there EVERY way.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: [Laughs] I’m always reaching for etymology, but “wild” goes back to the Old Norse villr, meaning self-willed, takes on a life of its own, it acts independently. And it feels like this book has been wild in that way. Not really to do with us, it’s become a condensation point for all of these feelings of hope and anxiety.
NOAH RICHLER: So what’s happened?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Well, it started with the photograph, of children reading, dogs reading
JACKIE MORRIS: Very small children, children smaller than the book
ROBERT MACFARLANE: And videos came children speaking spells aloud, reciting spells
JACKIE MORRIS: Lovely, lovely teacher who said “my reluctant readers were so upset because they just got to the end of your book.”
NOAH RICHLER: Tell me Jackie, how this project came about?
JACKIE MORRIS: 2015, I think it was, I was asked to sign a letter which was to be sent to the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in 2007 they released a new dictionary and some words had been dropped from it and others had been put in. And the ones that had been dropped were nature words, they were words like bluebell, adder, conker, and I was asked to sign this letter, and for me, I grew up loving the natural world. And I thought, Yes, okay very easy thing to do, sign a letter. Didn’t think really think much about it afterwards, but there was something going around in my head that maybe there was a small book in that, in all the words that’d been dropped, just on their own as an addendum to this dictionary.
“The Otter,” from Lost Words.
Otter enters river without falter – what a supple slider out of holt and into water!
This shape-shifter’s a sheer breath-taker, a sure heart-stopper – but you’ll only ever spot
This swift swimmer’s a silver-miner – with trout its ore it bores each black pool deep and deeper, delves up-current steep and steeper, turns the water inside-out, then inside-outer.
Ever dreamed of being otter?
That utter underwater thunderbolter, that shimmering twister?
Run to the riverbank, otter-dreamer, slip your skin and change your matter, pour your outer being into otter – and enter now as otter without falter into water.
NOAH RICHLER: How did you notice the omission of these words? Do you go through it every year?
JACKIE MORRIS: No. It’d been picked up by
ROBERT MACFARLANE: By a reader from Northern Ireland, a mother who’d turned to look for acorn and acorn wasn’t there. Acorn was lost, and she started to check back to the earlier edition. And this is a very widely used children’s dictionary
JACKIE MORRIS: It’s in a lot of schools in Britain.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Used in primary school five to seven year olds age group. It’s not the dictionary’s fault these words had gone, they have a limited number of words in that dictionary. It was an attempt to reflect language as it’s being used by children and in the text that children read. So they did a frequency analysis, and they said these words are being used and these ones are. So out came acorn, in went analog , out went bluebell, and in went broadband.
NOAH RICHLER: It still sounds crazy to me, no matter how many times I hear it.
JACKIE MORRIS: What I didn’t realize when it was published, the first name was Margaret Atwood. But also on the signatures was Robert, and I then emailed Robert and said I’ve had this idea to do this book. Robert had already come up with this brilliant idea, where you have three double page spreads per word. And the first spread describes an absence of the thing, the second is like this spell, to spell it back onto the tongue, into the heart into the minds and mouths. The third is the thing that’s spelled back in. It’s that first one that’s the really difficult one, how do you describe, visually, an absence of something? That was for me the key to the whole book, that was the bit I enjoyed the most. Robert was saying, well maybe you can draw an oak tree and just leave out the acorn. The problem with that kind of thing is how do you draw landscape with no otter in it? Some of the things were much easier. It dawned on me it’s actually the things that went missing, they were missing from dictionary, made out of twenty-six letters, it’s the alphabet that they’re missing so if we could take the letters back so that they become these symbols, scattering of letters over the page and then some kind of icon, simple drawing.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: There’s another kind of loss there, they’re not just lost from language, not just from story, which is what their omission from the dictionary reflects this decreasing frequency in children’s stories and speech. Many of them are being lost from the landscape as well, skylarks beautiful birds at the heart of the book. They’re going fast. That is another really important kind of loss. When we lose the words, we lose the creatures, we lose the creatures as we lose the ability to notice them, care for them, act on their behalves. It was a wish to reanimate.
JACKIE MORRIS: Refocus.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Refocus. The mouth, the mind’s eye. Who knew what would come from that.
JACKIE MORRIS: The first school I went into, when the book was published, I was just about to read the wren’s spell to the children and the man that had taken me into the school said, Could you just stop a minute to say to the children, do you know what a wren is, and not one child in class of thirty knew what a wren was, which means they never seen that little bird, in a hedge, never heard that bright song, cause that focus wasn’t there.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you imagine, Jackie, in the future, illustrating a volume of those new words.
JACKIE MORRIS: I have no interest in that. I think I have a love of natural non-human world really. Whilst I’m sure somebody could do very good dictionary of broadband, chatroom, blog, and other words like that, it wouldn’t be me as an artist.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: I’m always keen to de-antagonize technology and nature, these things are very complexly tangled. We need both.
JACKIE MORRIS: We certainly use it a lot.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: This book was made through email, ravens would come to me in pixelated form, and I would send my spells to her, said to be read aloud by email. Let diversity thrive! Our children need to be ecologists of the technoscape as well. But. When it’s a neither or situation, when acorn is going and we heard from a primary school teacher in the northwest of England who said, f my thirty-two children in an overstocked class, not one knew what an acorn was. Of course these forms to knowledge, these accesses to nature, inflected by income, postcode, background, ethnicity, it’s very complex, uneven situation. But to have thirty-two children who don’t know what an acorn is, is another of these symptomatic moments. So there is some correction that needs to be made.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: I’m always keen that this isn’t considered a nostalgia for a barefoot childhood. I don’t think these are things we once had that we should be at ease with losing. I think these are forms of naming knowledge, access to nature that we should fight for. Because they are good for children, they’re good for all of us, and they’re very good for nature.
NOAH RICHLER: Robert, are you familiar with the term Japanese in origin, forest-bathing? And what is that idea?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Yeah, shinrin-yoku. In Japanese culture it has a more than homeopathic, increasingly medicalized basis, which is that the air-borne resins, chemical aerosols, of particular pine forest, actively good for the body and by extension for the spirit for the soul, as it were. There are prescriptions of nature cure. One doesn’t need to make it clinical to nod in agreement. Green places are good places. And I find many things are solved or bettered by time spent in woods.
JACKIE MORRIS: What astonishes me is since the book was published, it’s had this strange, magic, wild life of its own. So we’ve been sent messages, a woman said, I read the otter spell three times, and I’ve never seen an otter in the wild before. But she went for a walk, and she showed us a photograph she took of these otters playing. They were almost in the same position as in the picture.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: So many letters like that. And we know what’s not happening is true magic.
JACKIE MORRIS: Yeah, it’s called frequency illusion. To look, so instead of walking across that bridge with your head inside and all your worries, you’re just looking over on the off chance there might be an otter.
NOAH RICHLER: It’s interesting to me because where I’m from, Canada, Turtle Island, has a largely oral history/culture. There is a sense of a name providing knowledge and experience, as you’ve described it, but also perhaps petrifying it, there is a power in naming things, undermines the idea of evolution or some other way of knowing. Like you finish a thing when you name it.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: Or you open it. There are many types of naming, and I think you’ve described two ends of the naming spectrum. One is the end of mastery, and the other is the end of mystery. There is a very colonial, very determining form of naming, which, as you say, finishes a thing, memorably strong way of putting it and it can end things. Stops their potential for growth. There’s another form of naming, which I think of as a leaning into the mystery of the other, where to speak a name is to relish its resonance to allow its growth to happen, those of the forms of naming we’re celebrating, rather than finishing.
JACKIE MORRIS: It’s a different form of ownership, isn’t it? There’s ownership where something is yours, and there’s owning something which has a lot more honour. I think we need to have a change in language, how we talk about things, certainly when I see birds, I go, Who’s that? And people expect me to be pointing at a person. I think if you look at trees at being a who rather than a what, you’d be less inclined to treat it as a commodity.
NOAH RICHLER: The company of birds that has been a constant to Graeme Gibson in his dementia is the gift of groundedness, that nature provides. The Canadian novelist Kyo Maclear discovered this groundedness, too. In a year of revelation, Maclear became acquainted with birds, and a natural order previously not revealed to her in Toronto, she discovered the virtue of slow. Did her own forest-bathing. Birds Art Life is a meditation and a balm.
KYO MACLEAR: I’m Kyo Maclear, and I’m the author of several novels, also a children’s author and mostly the author of Birds, Art, Life, a hybrid memoir
NOAH RICHLER: Do you remember the moment when this idea came to you?
KYO MACLEAR: I do. My husband is a composer for film and television. He was scoring a documentary called 15 Reasons to Live, directed by Alan Zweig. There was a story about a thirty-something musician named Jack Breakfast, who, after years of struggling creatively and personally, had suddenly lost his heart to birds. There’s something about his story that really appealed to me instantly. It was partly that he was taking treks across the city of Toronto. In areas I knew really well, never imagined bird life. I was very taken with this story. Simultaneously, I was going through a difficult time in my life cause my father had had several strokes.I was having vivid dreams about walking along the Pacific Crest trail, I was having this desire to wander, partly because my life felt confined at the time. That was impossible endeavour ’cause I needed to be close to home. But Jack gave me a glimmer of roaming within the confines of a city.
NOAH RICHLER: Birds, Art, Life is a sort of guide that is not a guide. It’s guide to life in which you explore ideas of stillness, waiting, ideas of the quietestness nature. How much are you aware of your own projection onto the idea of birds and how much was elicited from them?
KYO MACLEAR: I always thought that birding was an activity that appealed to the part of us that covets the rare, that wants to go on trek to Galápagos Island. I was really interested in the idea of the common bird. The kind of bird that exists in our city that we take for granted. Partly because philosophically I’m interested in the idea, something that’s already there but you only hear when you plug into the right frequency. So when I went on this journey, it’s like I plugged into radio bird. I became aware of all these things that were already pre-existing around me all the time that I’d never noticed.
NOAH RICHLER: Is there any getting away from essential philosophical ideas that we find in nature? In the case of bird life, caged bird, freedom, song for the pleasure of it, way of living that’s so not human.
KYO MACLEAR: There’s a lot of projections on birds. They’re freighted with so much symbolism. At one point, I talk about how I wanted to make the skies my school, not reading anything about birds learning through osmosis just by following this musician through the city, and then I realized I already had so much prior knowledge, a lot of it misinformation that came with me every time I went in the field. It was very human-centric, with bird in flight referencing human freedom. That epiphany was sitting on a beach one day, for hours in the middle of winter, surrounded by swans and ducks, observing the feathers of a swan that was resting beside, and realizing that the swan was infinite shades of white. The more I looked at this bird, the more everything started to fall away, this bird became strange and other from me. Separate from my human projection. We’re so caught up in our human hall of mirrors that it’s hard to realize we’re not exceptional. We need to de-centre ourselves and think of other species’ stories. But in my book, obviously, I’m still at the center, for better or worse.
NOAH RICHLER: The otherness of birds, humans don’t generally identify with, in the manner they might a dog, cat, or horse. Do you think the otherness of birds provides solace?
KYO MACLEAR: I talk about the whimbrel watch that happens in Toronto, it’s an ancient migration, so this sense of temporality changes, and suddenly we’re in this vast span of time when you start to think about a migration that’s been going on for that long in our city, and there’s understories that exist. There’s a sense of existential vertigo that comes with trying to grapple with that time, but there’s also a degree of solace and comfort in knowing that something’s been that continous, that it precedes us and perhaps will supercede us. There’s a no-future effect that we’ve inherited from the language of climate change, people who grew up in the nuclear age as I did, there’s a sense of apocalypse, it ebbs and flows depending on the urgency of the moment, it gives us a sense of something that endures. I learned a lot about being human from birds. Just the scrapiness of birds, the robustness of birds, the fact that a bird that weighs no more than a tablespoon of sugar can fly three days from the Pampas in South America to the Northern Boreal forest without rest. That, to me, there’s solace in that. Some people might find the lesson of human insignificance is jarring to ego, but for me, it was reassuring that we’re in some ways inconsequential, to actually to feel that viscerally through having eye to eye contact with a raptor that closely, that felt heavy and profound.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you think we’re overly fearful about what might come to replace the world as we know it?
KYO MACLEAR: We’re clinging our kind of order of things. We’re seeing a lot of the morbid symptoms of transition that we’re still holding onto this old world where the humans at the center, where capitalism and infinite growth are allowed to proceed without regulation, reeling from that and clinging to that at the same time, the ability to imagine another way of being is very difficult. But people are thinking of other ways of being in the world and that’s really encouraging.
NOAH RICHLER: There is a criticism of many naturalists being white, middle-class males. Why did that have to come into it?
KYO MACLEAR: Well, I’m interested in racial geography I’m interested in the fact that as an Asian woman I’m not seen as an environmental citizen. I’m not the default environmental citizen. The reason it interests me is because I work with children, and I work with a lot of immigrant children and children of colour. I go in the schools, and a lot of those kids never have access to nature. They don’t have cottages, they don’t go on trips to family lakes, and their idea of who belongs to those spaces who belongs in the canoe has been coded white. (33:21) And there’s actually reasons for different communities to feel that these spaces aren’t as inviting. There’s a wonderful writer that talks about birding while black. He talks about, he’s been in spaces in the South of the US, where he feels incredibly vulnerable and at risk walking around natural spaces, without witnesses, at the mercy of people. This is gradually being challenged even by people like Robert Macfarlane, he had open calls for people to suggest more diverse writing to him. It’s hard to find to be honest, you don’t find a lot of books by people of colour talking about nature.
One of my interests in thinking about urban nature is to learn how to dislodge that a little bit and show that we have so many beautiful public parks that are full of natural life, all these spaces that are accessible and to open gates to these spaces so that immigrant children and people of colour can feel more welcome in these spaces. In order for that to happen we have to break down the dominant narrative that have existed in our cultural arena, who’s the trekker?
NOAH RICHLER: If you were to explain the pleasures of birding to someone young, someone as you’ve described, doesn’t habitually get out into nature. What would you say the first three rewards are?
KYO MACLEAR: One of the first things I’d say is you can do it anywhere, a fellow bird watcher in Melbourne, told me birding is a bit like pelvic floor exercises, no one needs to know you’re doing them. The other thing is it tunes you into the understory layered story that exists in a city, prior to us being here. Some of the stories go back to the glacial age, some of them are Indigenous stories about areas. Another is social solidarity, I find myself in these motley groups of people that I never would’ve met in the normal run of things. When I’d be out in the woods or a park, and you have these conversations that are really unlikely, but it takes you off the path of yourself for a moment, our likes determine our likes, you know that’s the way the algorithm for social media, and when you go birding you encounter people who are so unlike you in every other way, that’s a revelation. It’s also something you do from the constant pressure to self-optimize, to be faster, better, more, ’cause birding is antithetical to that, right? You can’t rush birds, you can’t hurry through the birds. The idea you wait for something, the possibility for something beautiful to appear.
GRAEME GIBSON: From Burnt Norton, Time Present and Time Past
by T.S. Eliot
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow…
NOAH RICHLER: You’ve been listening to “Lost Words,” the eighth episode of The Walrus podcast series Pivot. You heard from Graeme Gibson, whose The Bedside Book of Birds is published by Doubleday Canada; from Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, whose Lost Words will be published by the House of Anansi in October ; and Kyo Maclear, this year’s winner of the Trillium Prize, whose Birds Art Life is available from Penguin Random House.
This episode of Pivot was produced by Angela Misri and Judy Ziyi Gu of The Walrus with the assistance of Seila Rizvic. Our reader was Christina Christina Papantoniou and the music is by Charles Spearin. Should you wish, you can find transcripts, links and subscribe to this podcast at thewalrus.ca/podcasts.
I’m Noah Richler. Thanks for listening.