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The Lost Words June: Fern

29th June 2020

Do you suffer from fern fever?  I have come close a few times.  This fever or craze for ferns began in the Victorian era when fern forays to find rare ferns and even fern stealing were very real! Pteridomania, as it was known, meant people were mad about ferns; collecting them and using their recognisable shape in their homes, artwork and even on their biscuits.  Have you ever noticed the fern pattern on a custard cream? Me neither!  We have the Victorians and their fern fever to thank for this legacy.

I understand their love of this plant.  Ferns are beautiful.  Ferns are friendly.  Being amongst them feels otherworldly, underworldly and for good reason.  Ferns are some of the oldest plants in the world.  Fern fossils can be dated back to millions of years ago.  I remember being on a tour of an uninhabited island and standing face to face with a species of fern that would have been eaten by dinosaurs in the Jurassic period!  Ferns can also grow in many different climates so are found all over the world; tropical – think rainforest ferns covered in insects, temperate including here in the UK and some ferns can even survive in the Canadian arctic.  So why would fern be at risk of becoming a lost word, disappearing from our vocabulary?   Surely a plant that can remember tyrannosaurus rex and remains on one of the nation’s favourite biscuits deserves celebrity status.

Our blog this year has been celebrating many lost words, nature words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2015 to make room for more commonly used words of a technical nature, such as broadband and chatroom.  Robert Macfarlane wrote The Lost Words, a book of poem ‘spells’ to conjure up the images of these disappearing nature words.  The book is his response to the sad and shocking realisation that words such as bluebell, acorn and fern were considered removable from a children’s dictionary and therefore potentially removable from children’s lives.  Each month at Get Out more we have been inspired by our encounters with the plants and animals in the Lost Words and this month, I have been noticing ferns.

At the beginning of June, you may have seen the signs of the ferns that would soon arrive. Fern’s first form is furled.  Like a coiled spring, they wait patiently in dark, damp corners.  It reminded me of how, for the past few months, we have been waiting patiently too.  Keeping ourselves to ourselves.  Ferns have fronds, the whole leaf and stem, which uncurl as the plant grows.  In this uncurling stage, the fronds are called fiddleheads, so I sat and listened.  Could I hear or see the ferns moving?  Woods are busy with birds at the moment and it would be easy to step over the tightly wrapped ferns nestled near the ground.  But there are lots to be found.  I wonder, like I have done many times this spring and summer, if there are more ferns now or at least if they’re bigger and greener?  Is nature thriving or are we seeing it in a different way this year?

As the June days pass, the ferns reach, roll and unfold.  I love how they are bold and brave, sprouting on the side of canals for all to see.  I love how they are quiet and shy, clinging onto rocks in places far away from footpaths.  And then the ferns are fully fanned, fronds outstretched in the sunshine like hands in festival crowds.  Celebrating life.

I have observed the ferns unfurl as we unfurl too.  Slowly beginning to see our families and friends, heading back to work – unfurloughed, school lessons in real life for some, our lives are opening up a little more.  I see the ferns standing tall and strong today and I hope nature is thriving and I hope we are all are seeing it in a different way.  If we notice that the lost words are really the words we are connected to, our future will flare.  Thank you fern, for taking your time.

by Clare Proctor

Robert Macfarlane Twitter: @RobGMacfarlane