My walk through the glen (Part One)

“Heather is never only heather, / as moor is never merely moor.” “Heather,” in The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris

I’ve had a years-long affection for Charles Kingsley. I don’t think I was much aware of him before AmblesideOnline (other than The Water-Babies), but as our family worked through Madam How and Lady Why, Westward Ho!, and The Heroes, I felt as if I understood something of what he was (often) shouting about.

Not that there weren’t issues. Kingsley was rambly. Sometimes obscure. Often bigoted. I tried, along the way, to help teaching parents connect with him better, so that they could feel more confident about approaching his books with their students. A few years ago I wrote some study notes for one half of Madam How, but I thought they could be better, clearer, a bit more to the point. Maybe they could be combined with a slightly updated/expurgated version of the text. Maybe I could use the same format as the Plutarch study guides. But as I revisited the book, and the old notes, the “how” (that is, the practical problems of editing them) began to seem less interesting…and timely…than the “why.” (Here is the “how/why” in its final form. The two volumes are also free for use on the AO website, linked from the Year Four and Year Five pages.)

“That moor is a pattern bit left to show what the greater part of this land was like for long ages after it had risen out of the sea; when there was little or nothing on the flat upper moors save heaths, and ling, and club-mosses, and soft gorse, and needle-whin, and creeping willows; and furze and fern upon the brows; and in the bottoms oak and ash, beech and alder, hazel and mountain ash, holly and thorn, with here and there an aspen or a buckthorn (berry-bearing alder as you call it), and everywhere–where he could thrust down his long root, and thrust up his long shoots–that intruding conqueror and insolent tyrant, the bramble.”

Charles Kingsley, Madam How and Lady Why, 1869

Madam How and Lady Why is, in a large sense, a book about taking a walk, or many walks. In Charles Kingsley’s world, that might have seemed no big deal. In ours, it’s everything. In The Lost Words, Robert MacFarlane protested the apparent loss of words such as heather and fern, conker and acorn not only from children’s reading and writing vocabularies, but, more significantly, from their daily experience. Like Charlotte Mason, both MacFarlane and Kingsley are concerned with relationships. How do we begin to notice what’s around us? How do we learn to care about it? Far from being dusty and dated, Kingsley seemed prophetic and current.

(To be continued)

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