Ralph Waldo Emerson opened his essay “Nature” by inviting us to imagine how differently we would view the stars if they were revealed for only one night in every thousand years. “How would men believe and adore,” he wrote, “and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!” The point is that the sublime, the heavenly, is all around us; it’s this very pervasiveness that blinds most of us, most of the time, to its majesty. Rather than falling to our knees in nightly transports of reverence and awe, we barely take the time to glance upward at this spectacle; in fact those of us who live in cities—which is to say a majority of currently living human beings—can’t even see it properly anymore, flash-blinded as we are by the glare of technological modernity.
Toward the end of The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy’s elegiac new book about the natural world and our slow and implacable destruction of it, McCarthy quotes Emerson’s line by way of underscoring his contention that experiences of wonder can “jolt us into the realisation of how remarkable not only our own but all existence actually is.” McCarthy himself gives the impression of needing no such jolting. His love of nature, his awe at the abundance and beauty of it all, seems an abiding and unwavering condition: He is, in the Emersonian sense, a permanent resident of the city of God.
His book is a curious, variegated creature—part memoir, part nature writing, part polemic. And as any book about the natural world must now necessarily be, it is also a book about the future, about the terrible damage we are wreaking on our planet, and the great dying that is to come. McCarthy is a former journalist with the Independent, but he doesn’t write much like a newspaperman. He’s as approachably learned on his subject as you’d expect a longtime environmental correspondent to be; but his sentences are long and sensuous—great sauntering accumulations of clauses and images, heaving with a poetic yearning to capture the passing abundance of the natural world. Here he is, for instance, in the early pages of the book, on the profusion of wildlife he recalls from the English countryside of his childhood and of the lepidopteran phenomenon, now lost, for which he’s named his book:
Hares galumphed across every pasture. Mayflies hatched on springtime rivers in dazzling swarms. And larks filled the air and poppies filled the fields, and if the butterflies filled the summer days, the moths filled the summer nights, and sometimes the moths were in such numbers that they would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard, there would be a veritable snowstorm of moths, 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.
McCarthy writes movingly of the origins, in loneliness and pain, of his own deep connection with nature. From when he was 7 years old in the mid-1950s, his mother suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and spent long stretches in mental institutions, during which he and his older brother had to live with an aunt and uncle. (His father, a radio officer on the Queen Mary, was mostly away at sea and at any rate otherwise aloof.) Though his brother suffered terribly, and remained deeply troubled in adulthood, the young McCarthy processed this trauma into a kind of blank indifference, seeming to displace all his complex human emotion into nature.
And so there are two traumas, two losses, at the center of this book: the destruction of a family home and the much vaster ruination, ongoing and seemingly unstoppable, of our species’ home, our planet. “It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth,” writes McCarthy, “as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history. We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports; grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at it, shitting on it.”
McCarthy is in a state of astonished grief at this situation, and his eloquence and persuasiveness is such that I found myself wondering how any of us manage not to join him there, how we ever manage to think of anything else. (Is it not stunning to learn, for instance, that since the end of the Second World War, Britain’s wildlife population has been reduced by more than half?) It is, as such, an upsetting book, but at its heart is a bid for a kind of redemption: an appealing if idiosyncratic argument that we are predisposed, as humans, to take immense aesthetic and spiritual pleasure in the natural world from which we evolved and that this profound joy, were we somehow all to find a connection with it, might help our species see the error of its ways, might stop us destroying our planet and its other inhabitants.
Sustainable development has been a failure, McCarthy argues, and its successor as a Big Idea for saving the planet, the developing science of environmental economics—which aims to halt environmental destruction by according real world financial value to “ecosystem services”—is too narrowly focused on those elements of the natural world that are useful for our own economic welfare. And crushingly depressing! Possibly the most disturbing part of the whole book is McCarthy’s description of a 1997 article in the journal Nature in which the entire economic value of earth’s “major ecosystem services”—which is to say, nature itself—is calculated at 33 trillion dollars per annum, a full 15 trillion dollars more than the gross world product. “There it was,” he writes, with mournful irony. “The value of nature to human society.” That, right there, is the final pyrrhic victory of capitalism.
But the book is largely an argument for the joyful apprehension of nature, for the experience of ourselves, in our deepest and most authentic context, as creatures among other creatures. This immemorial bond, McCarthy writes, “is the inheritance of every single one of us, it is part of what it means to be human, and it can be found within us—not always easily—and it can be understood, and it can be made the basis of our defence of the natural world in the terrible century to come.” It’s an idea for which he advocates eloquently and stirringly, almost always from the perspective of personal experience.
The pleasure he takes in nature seems, at times, almost carnal. At one point, after an aside about how men writing about female beauty has come to seem an act of sexist objectification, he wonders whether “the day might not come when to express open and unqualified admiration for an orchid, say—I mean for its beauty, its elegance and its glamour, all qualities many orchids undeniably possess—might be thought inappropriate.” It’s a weird moment, and I found myself somewhat confused as to what he was getting at. Until, that is, further down that same page, when he describes taking five consecutive walks on five consecutive days in a bluebell-filled wood: “I stopped at the gate, I paused before entering. I savoured the moment. It felt like the minute before sex, with a new lover who is making ready—the elevated heartbeat, the skin-prickle, the certainty of impending pleasure.”
It’s not inappropriate, as such—I don’t think I’m missing any delicate allusions to what might have been going on between the author and those bluebells during those five consecutive days—but it is difficult to relate to such intensity of joy at taking a walk. Part of the experience of reading The Moth Snowstorm, for me, mixed in with all the pleasure and anxiety, was a creeping guilt at my own inability to feel such a heightened connection with the natural world. I found myself wondering what my problem was. Why have I never burst into joyful laughter, as McCarthy describes himself doing, at birdsong issuing from a blossoming tree?
And this is one reason why I cannot view human joy in nature as the redemptive force McCarthy believes it can be. It never quite emerges as more than a hopeful projection of his own deep affinities onto the rising darkness of our collective future. As he himself points out, human life has undergone profound demographic changes over the last century: exponential growth in global population, in particular, and the momentous shift whereby a majority of humans now live in urban areas, many of us in the vast sprawling megacities of Africa and Asia.
It’s hard to imagine how a revolution in consciousness might now take place, a broader and deeper version of the romantic and transcendentalist movements of the 19th century, that might act as a stay against our relentless hunger for expansion and consumption and accumulation. How might we all be made to feel the kind of joy McCarthy so elegantly describes? How might we be made to believe and adore, to apprehend the city of God that, for a little while longer, surrounds us? And if, by some miracle, we were to come to such a collective apprehension, would it be enough to save us?
The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy. New York Review Books.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.