Deleted Nature

I’ve just bought the book, “Landmarks” by Robert Macfarlane. Wow. I’ve had to stop and sit with page 3 for a bit. Yeah, I know – that’s not very far in. Macfarlane writes something really important about language and what we have lost in recent years (which is more than just words), particularly as it pertains to children.

He writes about how Oxford University Press published their “Junior Dictionary” having carried out a culling of words concerning nature.

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

Landmarks, Macfarlane 2016 (pg 3)


This sounds a bit . . . dated. Well, you’d be right – this was in 2007. That isn’t that long ago and still quite incredible. Think of the words that have subsequently been added!

When the head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those “nature words” she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance,” she said; “that was because children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Landmarks, Macfarlane 2016 (pg 3)


Nowadays, the environment has changed. Macfarlane notes that her response might reflect the reality for children, but he expresses concern that the rural environment might be so easily deleted and then goes on to say this,

The substitutions made in the dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulate life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures.

Landmarks, Macfarlane 2016 (pg 3)


In this simulated life then, what do our children make of Psalm 8?

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!  You have set Your glory above the heavens. From the mouths of children and infants you have ordained praise on account of your adversaries, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I behold the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place –

Psalm 8:1-3


I’m reminded too of the words of Paul at the beginning of Romans,

For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse.

Romans 1:19-20


Are our children more likely to see the moon on a screen than in the sky? Do we allow technology to mediate almost every experience of daily life? Is it easier for us to grab a Netflix show with out kids than go for a walk together?

I preached on Sunday just gone from Matthew 18 – Jesus taking a child and saying to the disciples, unless you “change and become” like one of these you won’t enter the Kingdom. In part of my talk (which will be a blog post shortly) I spoke of the awe and wonder of small children at the natural world.

Yes, technology is great – there are so many benefits, especially right now. However, whether it is a crisp starry night sky in the depth of Winter, or the first buds of Spring or spotting a Red Kite flying overhead or noticing the improbable flight of a bumblebee who shouldn’t be able to fly – but is, or the remarkable changes in colour and texture that happen across a hill with scudding clouds above casting their ominous shadows – we have to help children live in, breathe in and see the natural world. It declares something about God’s nature and power.

Let’s not so embrace technology that our children live a simulated live and loose the wonder.