Yesterday, the robins returned to our yard. We saw them through the living room window on the western side of the house, a small flock of them flitting between the branches of the tallest ash in the tree break. It was a damp, gray day, and they were far enough away that it was difficult to make out the burnt-orange feathers of their breasts, but the plump curve of their bellies and the stuttered swoop of their flight was unmistakable after watching a winter’s worth of sparrows.
“Let’s take the binoculars upstairs and see if we are right!” I told the kids, and we tromped up to look. I threw open the window and the cacophony of robin song filled the room even before we spotted the telltale coloration through the binocular’s lenses. The kids, satisfied, went back down to their Lego table, where they’d been working on a waterpark that included a hotdog stand and nine waterslides. I stayed to marvel. “Hello, friends” I called out the window.
In 2018, Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris created a children’s picture book called The Lost Words. The impetus of the book was the editing of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which had removed many words used to describe the natural world — some of them relatively common words, such as acorn, fern, dandelion, raven, goldfinch, grey seal, otter, and kingfisher. The editing body of the OED determined that the excised words were of increasingly less importance to the modern child and removing them made room for newer words with greater relevance like blog, broadband, database, and voicemail. The editors argued they couldn’t include everything, but MacFarlane explained what was being lost this way:
“We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save.”
Today the weather is warm and bright. The robins that gathered beneath the chilly clouds yesterday are scattered across the yard now. We hear them calling from every direction. A giant plume of redwing blackbirds swoops down to occupy the tall ash, their coarse whistles and trills even louder than the robins’ chatter. They move on quickly though, our tree break merely a short respite in their journey. In a tree by the patio we see a downy woodpecker skipping along the bark and then a single goose honks past, so low to the ground we could practically reach up and brush our fingertips over her feathers. “Birds, birds everywhere!” I tell the kids, and they smile at me before returning to draw with chalk on the cement.
The one bird we don’t hear is the meadowlark, whose bright song is usually how western Dakotans know that spring has arrived, their voices unavoidably ubiquitous once the weather warms. In total, we’ve lost nearly 3 billion American birds since the 1970s, and the meadowlark population in particular has seen a precipitous decline in the last decade, though their numbers in our region are still strong. Or have been. “Where are the meadowlarks?” I whisper aloud, suddenly worried.
Evening begins to settle around us. The shadows are long and stark across the first brushes of green rising softly from the dusty field. The sun, resting just above the horizon, is pure gold. I go out for a run and I am just about to turn back when I hear it: two long notes followed by a dizzying avalanche of trills. It’s a meadowlark.
We live surrounded on all sides by a wilderness of grass, land that though changed, still looks surprisingly similar to the way it did millennia ago. And yet my children, children of the prairie winds and grasses, would rather listen to birdsong on YouTube than out in the pasture. Unlike the editors of the OED, I’ve tried to give them words for both the world of human creation and the world in which humans are simply one voice in a marvelous and ancient symphony. But I fear MacFarlane may be wrong: What if the things we name and love, we still don’t love enough to save?
Perhaps it’s time to stop saying those names quietly. Perhaps it is time to start shouting, lest we discover what we’ve lost, we’ve lost for good.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in the northwest part of South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.