I have complicated feelings for The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy a book about nature and joy with some memoir thrown in. The writing is solid and well-paced, McCarthy definitely has a passion for the natural world, especially birds and butterflies. But while he can wax rhapsodic about the beauty of a marsh and the birdlife it supports, he is a rather curmudgeonly individual.
The hardest part about his surliness is that he is writing a book about joy and advocating that it is the joy we feel in nature that needs to be cultivated and turned into a movement; that it is joy that will save the planet:
What I mean is, it is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial values, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.
What McCarthy means by joy is this:
occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.
In spite of his passion and is argument for joy, the book is not exactly joyful. It’s a difficult thing to do, write about nature and the destruction of species and ecosystems and still somehow manage to inspire joy. I am not entirely certain anyone could pull it off even someone like Wendell Berry, Richard Mabey, and Robert Macfarlane would have a tough time. But while they might leave me feeling sad about the state of things, at the same time they inspire me, make me want to act and in the acting experience nature and joy. McCarthy, he only made me sad.
The title of the book refers to a time when there was such an abundance of insects that sometimes while driving at night there would be so many moths attracted to the car headlights it looked like a snowstorm. I have never seen a moth snowstorm but I know exactly what he is talking about. During my childhood family vacations meant packing up the camper and driving to state and national parks. Every time we’d arrive and settle down into our camping spot for the duration, I was both fascinated and disgusted by the insects that met their end on the front grill of the truck. And there were a lot of them. I never really thought much about it, but by the time I entered my teens, there were significantly fewer insects smashed on the grill.
The point McCarthy is making, of course, is that the lack of insects is a kind of canary in the coal mine. It is evidence of just how much we have lost already and a warning of how much more we are on the verge of losing. Because all those insects have important jobs. Even if they give you the creepy crawlies, insects run the world. We need them for pollination — bees are not the only pollinators — for breaking down organic materials into soil with nutrients our plants can use, and for myriad other things not least of all feeding other animals — birds, bats, small mammals, even humans.
My dissatisfaction with McCarthy is how and where he decides to cast the blame. He announces sustainable development is a blanket failure. Well, no it is not. It is very much a failure in places like the UK and US where companies that call themselves green really aren’t and where the idea of sustainable seems to mean ten to twenty years rather than generations. This is not the fault of sustainable development but of policy and politicians and corporations.
And all those disappearing insects, their demise is laid at the feet of “Farmer Giles.” McCarthy rips into agricultural practices, from pesticide use to fertilizer and it is all because of Farmer Giles. He doesn’t once stop to question the government and farm policy or the corporations that Farmer Giles is likely to be working for. He doesn’t ask how or why it is Farmer Giles does the things he does. Nor does he look at his own complicity in the situation. It is all the fault of farmers, period.
And, as if that weren’t enough, in this book on the joy of nature, he declares liberal secular humanism has also been a failure, but not for why you might think:
This creed, which has held sway since the Second World War, has a single, honorable aim: to advance human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be free from hunger and fear and disease, and in so far as possible, to be happy and live fulfilled lives. It is principled and upright. It is admirable. But there is a gap at its core: the failure to acknowledge that humans are not necessarily good. Still less does it admit that, more, there may be something intrinsically troubling about humans as a species: that Homo sapiens may be earth’s problem child.
Just let that soak in for a minute.
There are parts of what he says that are undeniable. Humans aren’t necessarily good (but they aren’t necessarily bad either). But the point of liberal secular humanism is to create a society that encourages and supports the good. And, while it has done a lot of positive things in the world, it has not been a resounding success either. But then neither has any other human belief system other than greed and self-interest. So, yeah, humans do currently present a problem for the earth.
McCarthy’s solution of joy seems rather paltry in the end. But the thing is, I agree with him. I do think we need to cultivate joy in nature. I think the more people who have the opportunity to feel that joy, the more people will be willing to stand up and say no to oil pipelines, no to marshes being drained and turned into housing developments, no to rain forests being burned down for palm oil farms or cattle ranching. I agree with him when he says:
that the natural world can bring us peace…; that nature is not an extra, a luxury, but on the contrary is indispensable, part of our essence. And now that knowledge needs to be brought to nature’s defence.
Unfortunately McCarthy offers no suggestions for how joy in nature might be encouraged. He speaks repeatedly of making joy into a kind of belief system but he doesn’t say how one might go about that or what it could possibly look like. He’s spent a whole book making his argument for joy and then just leaves it there, “here is what will fix things, now all of you go figure it out.”
So you can see why my feelings about this book are complicated. McCarthy’s writing on nature and the environment have won awards and clearly he cares. I have not read anything else by him. Perhaps his other work is less surly and does better at acknowledging the complexities of the issues, I hope it does. The Moth Snowstorm, however, is too full of flaws for me to be able to say that it succeeds in what is sets out to do.