Frederick McCubbin: The Lost Child, 1886

Lost in the forest…

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.

Something from far off it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.

Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind

as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.

Pablo Neruda

Neruda’s poem encapsulates our search for the roots, or struggles to hear the etymological ‘whispers’.

Friday the room was buzzing as students worked together to create trees from the roots they have discovered. We are literally creating a forest of words. As in the forests of fairy tale, there are challenges to be met , as well as roots to trip the unwary and paths that lead to surprising linguistic destinations. We thought we knew these words..they have all been encountered through the year, but revisiting what we thought we knew, shows us how much more there is to be discovered  and how much more we know now than when we first encountered our wordy companions at the beginning of the year. To take learning complacently, to assume we’ve ‘done this’ is to remove the light so that learning becomes stunted and pallid. With words it is always interesting to revisit them, new paths appear, other words emerge with more stories to tell, and those we thought of as familiar, we see as new.

We began here on Thursday. I had always been wary of PIE roots- too distant for students I worried, too vague perhaps. Not so- it is my limitations that I have imposed on students. As soon as I had shared a diagram of PIE roots in the form of a tree, this knowledge like a seed has grown and flourished in the class, literally into the concept of the forest and in the fearlessness with which students reach down to the PIE roots.



The forest has grown out from our efforts to understand how roots and bases are connected, how the roots provide the echoes of the past in a single word and in a group of words, how one root can sometimes lead to many base elements in present day English. We are beginning to see how the whispers of the past permeate the present. You will see enthusiastic exploration of the forest from students and witness many an awkward stumble over the roots from me!







I had reason to follow up a reference to Richard Chevenix Trench , a 19th century philologist and discovered his book is printed in full online ( O the joy of internet!) and so passed several hours on Friday evening! So it’s with this rather lengthy quotation from On The Study of Words (1859, p.1) that I want to end this post. Dear old Richard Trench eloquently expresses the value of why we should venture into the forest of words.

In his series of lectures, this being from the first, he stated that treasures of wisdom and knowledge do not just arise from books….

‘…often also in words contemplated singly, there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination, laid up–that from these, lessons of infinite worth may be derived, if only our attention is roused to their existence. I shall urge on you how well it will repay you to study the words which you are in the habit of using or of meeting, be they such as relate to highest spiritual things, or our common words of the shop and the market, and of all the familiar intercourse of daily life. It will indeed repay you far better than you can easily believe. I am sure, at least, that for many a young man his first discovery of the fact that words are living powers, are the vesture, yea, even the body, which thoughts weave for themselves, has been like the dropping of scales from his eyes, like the acquiring of another sense, or the introduction into a new world; he is never able to cease wondering at the moral marvels that surround him on every side, and ever reveal themselves more and more to his gaze.’

Image above: :The Lost Child by Frederick McCubbin, Australian Impressionist painter.  McCubbin’s work of a hostile, alien environment, the bush, reflects a common motif of the period  for Australian writers and artists. In this painting he was directly inspired by the news from The Melbourne paper The Argus of  missing girl Clara Crosbie lost in the Australian bush for three weeks near Lillydale, in 1885.( National Gallery of Victoria). ‘Listen’ to the Australian bush as you view Frederick McCubbin’s Lost Child an ingenious linking of sound and art created by sound artist Jay-Dea Lopez.

Read about Neruda here and the rumours of his murder here.