'The Moth Snowstorm'

A World of Wounds
New York Review Books

In 1954, when Michael McCarthy was seven, his mother was institutionalized for mental illness. With his father absent as a radio officer on the Queen Mary and his family life shattered, he and his brother were sent to live with their aunt and her husband on a cul-de-sac in the English suburbs. It was there, at their home in Sunny Bank, where he was privy to a vision that changed his life: a blooming buddleia bush swarmed by butterflies.

In that moment began a lifetime of engagement with the natural world, an engagement fueled by joy and wonder and charmingly recounted in this book of memoir, reportage, and natural history, which opens with that vision and ends with a tribute to his mother and a call to action. Among the species that would captivate him over a life spent writing as an environmental journalist were not only butterflies but moths, sparrows, kingfishers, cuckoos, hares, and dolphins, as well as tree blossoms, early wildflowers, and the crystal-clear chalk streams of southern England. Each of them is given its lyrical due in the course of The Moth Snowstorm, but it is the metaphor expressed in the title that gives the book its poignancy and its pathos.

There was a time in postwar England when an evening automobile journey in summertime would reveal “moths...in such numbers that they would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard” and “at the end of your journey you would have to wash your windscreen, you would have to sponge away the astounding richness of life.” Others of McCarthy’s generation recall it fondly, although such a spectacle is essentially unavailable in England today, thanks to agricultural poisons and habitat loss. McCarthy cites authorities who estimate that half the wildlife of his native country has been wiped out by human activity since he was a boy, and moths have been especially hard hit. Nonetheless, McCarthy writes, “It was to this world, the world of the moth snowstorm, that I pledged my youthful allegiance.”

For students of the American conservation movement, McCarthy’s story—early trauma and confusion assuaged by devotion to nature—will sound familiar. Consider the four leading lights of the American conservation movement from around a century ago: John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold. Muir suffered a bout of temporary blindness from a stray metal shaving when he was a young man. Soon after he recovered, he set out on a journey during which he slept outdoors for weeks at a time, seeing up close the glorious beauty and diversity of wild flora and fauna in America, an experience he recounted in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. That journey ignited his love for landscapes, which found its highest expression in his defense of Yosemite. Roosevelt’s mother and young bride died on the same day. He came back to the living world on his ranch in the Dakota Badlands and later became our greatest presidential champion of national parks and forests, creating at the stroke of his pen many millions of acres of public land. Roosevelt’s most devoted adviser in conservation matters, Pinchot, who founded the modern Forest Service, lost the one great love of his life at age twenty-six and spent the next four decades attempting to commune with her ghost via séances. He was the scion of a timber baron, an American aristocrat of sorts, but he craved time in the woods for the peace it brought his tumultuous soul. And Leopold, widely considered the father of modern ecological thinking, and undeniably the founder of the discipline of wildlife management, was struck by a kidney ailment on a long horseback trip in northern New Mexico, when he was in his twenties. He nearly died of organ failure; he spent years recuperating. Afterward he almost immediately made a proposal to create the world’s first wilderness area, off limits to roads and human machines, in the Gila River headwaters country of New Mexico.

What accounts for these transformations, the fruits of which offered subsequent generations ample protected landscapes on which to encounter the wild in America? McCarthy offers one possible explanation: that the natural world, despite our increasing estrangement from it, still offers the human imagination an unequaled experience of wonder and joy, of the sort capable of assuaging the pain of loss.

There is an irony at the heart of the book, and it lies in the fact that the pain of loss is now a planetary phenomenon, felt by all who care about nonhuman life. But the losses are of the very things McCarthy points to as capable of soothing our sorrow. The magnitude of the human enterprise and the immensity of our appetites have put wildlife at risk of a die-off poised to dwarf anything seen in our recorded history as “fellow voyageurs...in the odyssey of evolution,” to use Leopold’s resonant phrase. Global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, agrochemicals, and other forms of pollution, collectively gathered under the banner of the Anthropocene: these threats place the very life of the planet as we have known it in peril.

McCarthy does not flinch when assessing the scale of the devastation. He visits a tidal estuary in South Korea now severed from the sea by a great wall for the purpose of “reclamation,” with incalculable effects on migratory shorebirds. He travels back in time to tell the story of the great Thames River salmon run, which was severed by shipping locks and suffocated on a tide of human sewage. He investigates the decimation of London’s sparrow population, which underwent precipitous decline for unknown reasons, although reasonable scientific minds speculate that the chemicals in non-leaded gasoline may have wiped out their food sources to the point where the birds—highly social creatures—chose species suicide over an impoverished community life due to radically dwindling numbers.

Confronted with these casualties of the human enterprise on planet Earth, McCarthy argues that “sustainable development” and “ecosystem services” economics—essentially, placing a dollar amount on fundamental life processes performed for millennia by forests and rivers and such—are insufficient to save us from our excesses. What we need is a reawakening of human delight with the natural world, “defence through joy,” as he puts it. His “new kind of love” for the beauty of nature would be one that recognizes “that there is an ancient bond with the natural world surviving deep within us, which makes it not a luxury, not an optional extra, not even just an enchantment, but part of our essence—the natural home for our psyches where we can find not only joy but also peace, and to destroy which, is to destroy a fundamental part of ourselves.” It is difficult to see what makes this attitude new, though. It was felt, for instance, in many indigenous cultures, including among Native Americans of various tribes, whose rituals expressing joy in nature were deemed primitive by the so-called civilized world, and whom we largely exterminated, losing in the process a vast cultural memory of how to live in some semblance of harmony with the land.

Instead of trumpeting his argument’s novelty, McCarthy would be better served by admitting its revivalist nature. Leopold touched on many of the same issues seventy years ago in his classic A Sand County Almanac, whose first part is one long paean to the delights of phenology—the study of plant and animal life cycles. Later in the book he defines a “land ethic”: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” We did too little to heed him then, and we mostly continue to ignore him now. We have come some distance in extending the fruits of human rights—call it the “human ethic”—to women, people of color, and those whose gender and sexual orientations fall outside the dominant paradigm, although there is much work still to be done in each case. We have done appallingly little in extending a similar system of ethics to the nonhuman world.

McCarthy writes beautifully of certain of his loves, perhaps none more so than what the English call waders and Americans call shorebirds: “Spindly-legged, nervy, refined, they epitomize elegance on the one hand, and on the other, wildness; they will not come to your garden, sit on your fence, hop on your lawn or sing for their supper; they remain in their own wild places, eternally untameable.” His empathy and appreciation for the great pageant of nonhuman life radiates from every page, which is why it stopped me short to read the following early on: “I will explore why, remarkably, we as humans may love the natural world from which we have emerged, when the otter does not love its river, as far as we know.”

I will spare readers the barnyard epithet I scribbled in the margin next to that passage, but I will hazard a guess that the otter does indeed love its river, and were we privy to the precise qualities of that love, its depth and its varieties of feeling and expression, we might be less inclined to dam or pollute that river. Less inclined, perhaps, but by no means universally averse: for some among us, the feelings of an otter are as nothing compared to the imperatives of economic growth and human wants. But that is different from saying the otter has no feelings at all for its environment.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds,” Leopold once wrote. The intervening decades have offered an ecological education to a much wider range of the human population, such that the penalty is no longer to live alone with the weight of bitter knowledge. The penalty now is to feel helpless to forestall the damage everywhere evident from actions taken by our species decades and centuries ago, actions still ongoing, even accelerating. Perhaps McCarthy is right, and joy and wonder channeled into political will can stave off preventable violations of cherished rivers, mammals, birds, insects, and plants. Maybe a universal apprehension of peace and love and harmony among creatures will do what the environmental movement has so far failed to do: curb our anthropocentric greed.

I would not bet a dollar on it. To paraphrase Charles Bowden, we have not figured out how we might have less but be more, and with 11 billion of us slated to occupy the planet before long, we are going to have to get by with less if we want to avoid reverting to Noah’s Ark: two of everything saved for the purpose of memorializing what was lost. What will remain of our natural inheritance once the last drop of oil is burned, the last wisp of gas is fracked? There are those who would just as soon see the possibility of a joyful encounter with wild nature extinguished forever. They have great wealth and great power—and they may yet get their wish. The rest of us can whistle past the graveyard, or stand and fight. 

Published in the December 16, 2016 issue: 

Philip Connors is the author of two books, Fire Season and All the Wrong Places.

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