Archived Reading Room

‘Lost Words and Obstacles:’ a review

‘Lost Words and Obstacles:’ a review

“When the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary — widely used in schools around the world — was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that around 40 common words concerning nature had been dropped. The words were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary. The list of these “lost words” includes acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail. The news of these substitutions — the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual — became seen by many as a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world.”

We find this quotation on the back of the book The Lost Words: A Spell Book (Anansi International, 2017, 128 pages). Here writers Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, two of those people unhappy with the exclusion of these nature words from a dictionary, set out through poetry and beautiful illustrations to restore those words to the vocabulary, to “celebrate the wonder and importance of everyday nature,” and to encourage all of us, especially children, to reengage with woods, fields, birds, and wildlife.

The Lost Words is a large book, measuring 11-by-14 inches, and is a treasure house of words and paintings. The entry entitled “fern,” for example, includes an exquisitely drawn and colored fern, including its bulbous roots, along with this poem:

Fern’s first form is furled,

Each frond fast as a fiddle-head.

Reach, roll and unfold follow. 

Related Items

Fern flares.

Now fern is fully fanned.

The illustration of the lark, which Shelly, Keats, and a hundred other English poets painted with ink — how, given that history, could “lark” not make a dictionary? — flies against a background of sponge-like brown colors. 

Little astronaut, where have you gone, and how is your

song still torrenting on?

Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher, up there

in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?

Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again

and my heart grows flatter — so I’m coming to find

you by following your song.

Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and

exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut,

you sing your heart out at all dark matter.

Macfarlane is the author of such books as The Wild Places and The Old Ways, Jackie Morris of The Snow Leopard, West of the Moon, The Ice Bear, and other works. Both authors hope that The Lost Words will bring about a movement “to re-wild childhood across Britain, Europe, and North America,” in other words, to pull our children away from their screens and introduce them to the great outdoors.

The Lost Words offers a lovely welcome step in that direction.


Though as a reviewer I am reluctant to consider books any older than The Lost Words, except for columns aimed specifically from time to time at deceased authors like Thomas Wolfe, sometimes a book smacks me upside the head with such force that it deserves notice.

One such book is The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (Penguin, 2014, 201 pages). I stumbled across The Obstacle Is The Way in my public library, finished it in two readings, and have marked with slips of paper a dozen pages to which I wish to return.

Here Ryan Holiday addresses the obstacles and the supposed failures all of us face in a lifetime, and how human beings from Amelia Earhart to Laura Ingles Wilder, from Erwin Rommel to Arthur Ashe, dealt with their own hurdles. Holiday teaches us that if we approach these barriers with an attitude of perception, looking for the good rather than the bad, seeking to learn when we fall on our faces, and disciplining our will to get us back on feet and moving forward, then we can meet these challenges and emerge triumphant. The Stoic philosophers who back this approach and whom Holiday cites — Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca — once again prove their value after 2,000 years. 

The examples Holiday selects for our edification and the lessons he draws from them are excellent. My personal favorite was the story he told of Thomas Edison, who at the age of 68 was summoned from his home one evening with the news that his research and production plant was on fire. Despite the efforts of firefighters from eight nearby towns, the blaze, fueled by chemicals within the buildings, soon reached six and seven stories high. 

“Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through the now hundreds of onlookers and devastated employees, looking for his son. ‘Go get your mother and all her friends,’ he told his son with childlike excitement. ‘They’ll never see a fire like this again.’”

That anecdote just cracked me up. It also reinforced an attitude within me, perhaps one accompanied by aging, that few things in life, especially material goods, are all that important. 

Within a year, Edison had the plant up and running again, making greater profits than ever before and “churning out new products the world had never seen.”

In his introduction to The Obstacle Is The Way, Holiday writes “obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph.” 

He convinced me. This one’s a keeper.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.