14 May 2019
Illustration by Jackie Morris from 'The Book of Birds'

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, authors of the phenomenally successful 'spellbook' for all ages, The Lost Words, have embarked on an even more ambitious project to be published spring 2022 published by Hamish Hamilton, entitled The Book of Birds: A Field Guide to Wonder and Loss.

A natural successor to The Lost Words, The Book of Birds will be a new kind of field guide, combining images and words to celebrate the nearly 70 species of birds currently in severe decline in the UK, as defined by the ‘Red List’ put out by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology. In the context of the UN report released in early May showing the devastating statistics about the number of species facing threat of extinction around the world, this book is ever more urgent and necessary. 

Much longer in length but smaller in format than The Lost Words, The Book of Birds will be another glorious, full-colour production, filled with original artwork by Jackie Morris to illuminate the text by Robert Macfarlane.

Illustration by Jackie Morris from 'The Book of Birds'

Robert Macfarlane expanded on the need for The Book of Birds: ‘We want to make a book that is founded in awe and that drives for change; another ‘beautiful protest’, to borrow Jackie’s memorable phrase for The Lost Words. This will be a book that speaks to the hearts of readers.

Britain is one of the most deforested countries in the world. 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 seem to see it and almost never act on it. So The Book of Birds is a field-guide for modern nature; a text that sounds a warning bell, fires a flare into the sky.

 Birds are in calamitous decline in Britain and beyond, both in terms of population numbers and species numbers. We have lost an estimated 100 million birds 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.

Among the birds on the 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 the 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 fact of their vulnerability and vanishing.

Rather than ‘just’ the logging and cataloguing of a standard field-guide, our Book of Birds plays with form and concept to become something with a purpose and a necessity, while still helping people to know, see and name. This is a field-guide, then, but of a very different kind to usual. It focuses eye and mind on what is ‘in flight’ in two senses of the phrase. A fieldguide to wonder – and a field guide to loss.’

Illustration by Jackie Morris from 'The Book of Birds'

Jackie Morris is currently shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal for illustration for her work on The Lost Words. She commented on her love of birds and intent behind the illustrations: 'Ever since I was a child I have loved the shape of birds, envied them their hollow bones, their flight. Birds are colour, song, feather, small wild miracles that live alongside us, even in city habitats. Starlings call car alarm songs and blackbirds serenade by street lamps. But the decline that seems to tumble faster towards chaos as I get older is heartbreaking to perceive. The flocks of birds like lapwings, that seemed so dense to me as a child, were so much less than those my father stood and watched. How do we notice this absence? How do we bring this loss into focus? 

My paintings in The Book of Birds will be an attempt to turn paint to poetry, to catch flight. Like The Lost Words it will be a love song to the wild world, a praise song in pigment.

Whereas in The Lost Words, it seemed the absences sang to people’s hearts, here I want to try, with paint – or ‘drawing power’ in all its senses – to pull back these species into fullness.

 The first bird Robert and I are working on together is Lapwing. Why? Because we both love lapwings.  And because lapwing populations have crashed 60% in forty years. And above all because almost the first bird I ever drew was a lapwing in pencil, fifty-one years ago, watching my father draw one and wanting to be able to do that, to make a bird land on the page like that… My father inspired me to become an artist, and so too did the example of Tunnicliffe, illustrator of a classic field guide to birds – back in the exact years when lapwing populations were beginning their slide.’

Since its publication in 2017, The Lost Words has become ‘a cultural phenomenon’ and Chris Packham stated it had started ‘a revolution’ across the country. The book has moved people across the UK to work with charities, book-shops and local communities to raise money to get the book into schools, hospices and care homes, with more than twenty successful crowdfunding campaigns across the country, including every primary school in Scotland and Wales and every hospice in the UK.  The folk musical adaptation as Spell Songs was a sell-out tour, and The Lost Words will form the basis of a BBC Prom later this year.

The Book of Birds: A Field Guide to Wonder and Loss will be published in 2022.

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