The Poetry of Painting: how to paint loss and life

Birds are disappearing from our lives and landscapes, says Jackie Morris, discussing her new collaboration with Robert Macfarlane, which seeks to celebrate and defend Britain's most threatened bird species.

The Book of BIrds

I don’t remember the first time I saw a bird. I do know that I have always loved them. The kind of love that carries a spark of envy also, for their hollow bones, their wild souls, their flight. I do remember when I decided to be an artist. It was an afternoon, maybe in autumn, not late, still light outside. The door to the ‘best’ room in our house was open and my dad was sitting at the table crouched over something. I walked in, rested my chin on my hands, hands on the table and watched. I saw him bring to a bird to rest, plume crowned, onto a piece of paper, using only a pencil. I knew then that this was a trick I needed to learn. I didn’t know the word ‘artist’ –– but I knew magic when I saw it.

The week before The Lost Words was published, Robert and I began to talk about the next book we would make together. Robert was still immersed in the deep dark of Underland, but I had paused. For the first time in 27 years I wasn’t working on a book. I was just painting and thinking. New spells and poems arose from Robert’s pen – Barn Owl, Grey Seal, Egret – and we planned to work with these towards an exhibition. But The Lost Words had other plans, demanded time of us both, began to grow in a wild way that connected people, arts, music, creatures, places. Then, over weeks and months, the egg of a very different idea was laid and hatched.


The Book of BIrds
Lapwing, drawn by my father in 1967, with a photo of my dad

Britain was recently ranked a shameful 189th out of 214 nations in a UN biodiversity assessment. More than half of the more-than-human world is slipping away in this country. Biodiversity loss is happening here, now, disastrously, on our doorstep – and yet we hardly ever see it and almost never act on it. Birds in particular are in calamitous decline in Britain and beyond, both in terms of population numbers and species numbers.

An estimated 100 million birds have been lost in the UK since 1945. Songbirds, farmland birds, woodland birds and seabirds have been among the most severely struck. In cities and countryside, the dawn chorus has quietened, and the trees and hedgerows have emptied. Some of the most beloved and iconic birds of our culture, dreams and stories survive only scantly – more present now in language than in landscape. Turtle Dove: down 98% in 40 years, and on the verge of extinction. Grey Partridge, down 92%. Song Thrush, down 50%. Yellow Wagtail, down 67%... The litany goes on.


Some of the most beloved and iconic birds of our culture, dreams and stories survive only scantly – more present now in language than in landscape.

The Book of Birds
House sparrow

Among the birds on the current Red List are some of our most beloved and iconic species: Curlew, Hen Harrier, Corncrake, Lapwing, Woodcock, Puffin, Kittiwake, Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Merlin, Skylark, Starling, Song Thrush, Nightingale, Herring Gull, Yellowhammer, under the hammer...going, going, gone.

These are the birds that are slipping from our cities, mountains, woods, fields and islands; the ones that we are losing or risk losing from our lives. And these are the species that will be in The Book of Birds.

In our book each of these disappearing birds – rare or common – will be named, celebrated, evoked; their flight, eggs, nests, landscapes, folk-names, habits and habitats painted in word and watercolour. Their presence in our skies and eyes and stories will be cherished, but – and – underlying the wonder will be the stark fact of their vulnerability and vanishing. Robert and I want to help people – and help ourselves – to know, see and name these birds. This is a field-guide, then, but of a different kind to usual. It focuses eye and mind on what is ‘in flight’ in two senses of the phrase. It is a field-guide to wonder, and a field guide to loss.

All my life I have looked for birds. As a child I learned the names of birds, and how to draw them, by pouring myself into the pages of The Readers Digest AA Book of British Birds – a gift from my parents. I loved everything about that book, from its shape to the words, but above all the pictures. And knowing the names – being able to see a flick of a feather, the shape of a flight snagged in the eye, and know which bird it was – somehow that gave me comfort. At times when life was a struggle I could always be lifted up on wings. And I loved the quiet of waiting and watching, or that moment like a gift from the wild when cycling or driving home a hush-winged owl would cross my path, or a curlew rise from a field, calling. Birdsong. How it lifts the heart. 

The Book of Birds

As a child I would stand and watch great flocks of fifty, a hundred lapwings, rise from the fields and chequer the sky with pied wings and haunting calls. I thought them so many. I didn’t know then that when my father had been a child he would watch the sky wheel and spin, tilting with flocks of five hundred lapwings, more. For how can we see what is not there? How can we see that loss? We grow so easily used to the absence of things because absence is invisible.


Each year the dawn chorus is more hushed –– and yet if you wake and seek it out it sounds so loud. How can we hear the voices that are gone?

The news is full with reports of the loss of species, the threat to the natural world. This month saw the publication of the UN Biodiversity report: a million species are at risk of extinction from the actions of one species. And it’s almost sixty years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. How is it that such warnings have not been heeded?

The ‘Red List’ tracks the birds most at risk – not necessarily the rarest, but those whose numbers are in steepest decline.  The House Sparrow, bird of city, town and country is on this list. I remember large colonies of these bright-eyed feisty creatures, dust bathing in summer, roosting under eaves, flocking and flying, perched on fences in gardens, filling winter branches until they looked like chirping leaves. Now their numbers are in such decline that they are on the Red List.  50% down in the countryside, 60% in towns and cities: this bird that shares our living spaces. Once, in the hedge outside my house, I caught a flick of a bird, so like a house sparrow, but not. A richer coloured cap, a dark speck of feathering on cheek. A tree sparrow. I’d never seen one before, or not knowingly. 90% down in population since 1967. If there is special providence in the fall of one sparrow, what of this? What is the weight on the heart of such loss? How can we change?

To change, first we have to see. To see what is there and what is gone. To see a way to make the change to work to bring them back. 

The Book of Birds
Curlew eggs

This book will take time. I feel I am learning how to paint again. Robert is trying to find a way to rewrite and rethink what it means to ‘identify’ a bird. The perfection of the shape of a bird is such a challenge for an artist. Every egg I try to paint is different from the next, each so individual. How to catch the creature that ‘is’ bird, in body, soul and song? In the illustrations for this book I want to try to turn pigment into poetry. I want to learn again to find the shape of the birds, not as I think they look, but as they are, their feathers, their songs, their flight. I want to paint the eggs, those absolute miracles of the natural world that turn shell and liquid to feather and song and flight. I want to try to communicate the respect and awe I feel about these creatures, through brush, paint, vision and patience. Together we want to try to write, to paint a praise song to life, a celebration, a flock of hope. Robert and I know we both have so much to learn along the way.

The Book of Birds
My sketchbook

My childhood hero in paint was Tunnicliffe, and I loved his sketches, paintings, illustrations. I also loved Audubon, Thorburn, Peter Scott. And it never occurred to me as a child to find the names of the artists for my treasured book of birds. In Lyme Regis I bought a book by Tunnicliffe on how to draw birds: a beautiful old hardback full of drawings, sketches and paintings, and the most helpful advice. It suggests that you sit and watch, for an hour. Don’t try to draw just look, watch, see, open your eyes. Then draw, once that shape is set in the mind’s eye. For birds move so fast it’s hard to see them. And drawing is all and only about looking, seeing afresh as if for the very first time.

Maybe this too, is how to see that absence. In this busy world just stop. Close your eyes. Think. Feel that weight of the missing. Hear that silence. Don’t let it overwhelm the soul. Then open your eyes.  Celebrate what remains. Then take that weight and make a change.

Illustration by Jackie Morris from The Book of Birds


Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris to collaborate on major new project: 'The Book of Birds'

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