Sometimes when I read nature writing, I close the book and go outside. It makes me feel like I would rather have my own encounter with birds or orchids or weather than someone else’s warmed over. Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm is not one of those books.
There are also times when I close books because I cannot bear to read about the destruction of nature. In The Moth Snowstorm, the pain only slowed me down. Instead I was grateful to have seen both the joy that immersion in our outdoor home can bring and the places we are losing through the author’s eyes.
The power of joy
McCarthy argues that neither a sustainable development ideology nor an awareness of the ecosystem services that nature provides is enough to save nature from seven to nine billion human beings. Instead, he begs us to cultivate our sense of joy. He writes:
…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.
But this book is more memoir than theory. It details McCarthy’s own relationship with nature, from the butterflies that nursed him through childhood wounds to the snowdrops that signal the turn of the seasons. As an environmental journalist, McCarthy has witnessed some excruciating losses. His description of the role of the Yellow Sea in bird migration and the estuary that was destroyed when South Korea built the Saemangeum Sea Wall is heart-rending. Fortunately, it is matched by his ability to describe joy.
Intimacy with the land
One of the appeals of this book is the author’s intimate knowledge of the natural history of Britain. If you’ve never been there and you’d like to go, McCarthy’s words will take you.
“Bowling through the air was a flame,” he says of a clouded yellow butterfly he’d been seeking for an entire summer.
In another chapter, McCarthy describes a rendezvous with a bluebell woods. “It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor, so that the trees appeared to be rising out of it,” he says. If neither of these species draw you, you will still want to go and see a chalk stream for yourself.
This book is not for people who require internet bullet points to get through a page of text. McCathy is over 60, quotes Wordsworth and is fond of long, complex sentences. But if you struggle to express just how deeply the natural world moves you, you will like The Moth Snowstorm very much and find a soulmate here.