In his fascinating book Spoken Here, Mark Abley uses ecological analogies in celebrating linguistic diversity and richness and arguing for the inherent value in fighting to preserve endangered languages. Welsh poet Mererid Hopwood would be in full agreement. “Saving words and languages matters,” she’s said, “because they are more than just sounds. They are windows that enable us to see and understand the world about us. A bluebell and a dandelion may both be flowers, but without being called by their own names, they become somehow less visible, less important, more prone to be ignored … and eventually, more likely to vanish.”
Hopwood – recently elected as Archdruid for the National Eisteddfod – was talking about The Lost Words, a project co-created by author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. What started life as a book has now blossomed into an exhibition at Oriel Y Parc in St Davids, for which she’s translated the text. As the introductory blurb has it, The Lost Words is both “a protest at the loss of nature, and a call to protect what we have left”; for Morris (who lives and works locally, and so is exhibiting on home turf), it’s “a prayer to the wild”.
Morris’ contributions are trios of paintings that in each case move from an abstract image in a near-empty frame to a sensitive portrait of a particular creature or flower. The effect is of nature being conjured into existence and taking shape before your very eyes.
Tying together each trio is a Macfarlane poem – or, to use his apposite term, “spell”. While I can’t comment on Hopwood’s Welsh translations, Macfarlane’s originals display a dazzling verbal dexterity and a rich musicality, giving life to Morris’ images. Take Starling, for instance, in which he writes of the “tar-bright oil-slick sheen and gloss” of its wing and the “rooftop riprap street-smart hip-hop” of its song.
The evocative quality of the exhibition is enhanced by a soundtrack of trickling streams and lowing cattle, the outside effectively brought into the gallery space. Seasoned visitors to St Davids will know Oriel Y Parc as somewhere to take shelter when the elements are uncharitable, but The Lost Words is an urgent exhortation to venture outside whatever the weather, immerse yourself in nature and say what you see, in the knowledge that environmental conservation and linguistic conservation go hand in hand.
Geriau Diflanedig / The Lost Words is at Oriel Y Parc until spring 2024. Admission: free. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD