MA Wild Writing course director James Canton finds a vital environmental message at the heart of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm. [This review originally appeared on The Conversation on 25 October 2016].
There are few more pressing 21st-century issues than the threat to the world’s natural environment. Yet how can we halt the loss of wildlife across the Earth? How can we balance economic development and population growth against ecological concerns? In The Moth Snowstorm, one of Britain’s leading environmental writers, the journalist Michael McCarthy, presents a timely reminder of the state of the destruction of the natural world.
The Moth Snowstorm has just been published in the US – and it is worth remembering the impact Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had on its release back in 1962. Carson’s book opened our eyes to the damage that agrochemicals such as DDT, dieldrin and aldrin were inflicting on wildlife populations. In the US, public outrage following Carson’s work directly influenced the banning of DDT in 1972.
In Britain, nature writing has seen a dramatic surge in interest in recent years – Nielsen Bookscan indicates that sales figures in the category “animal and wildlife” rose from 426,630 books in 2012 to 663,575 books in 2015.
Poignant memoir often now serves to ground tales of the natural world. Recent successes such as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun have all offered vital and often visceral insights into the author’s personal lives and battles.
The great thinning
In The Moth Snowstorm, McCarthy gives an equally affecting private backdrop to individualise his tale. He dedicates the book to the memory of his mother Norah and frames the work around his mother’s mental breakdown in the early 1950s when McCarthy and his brother John were young boys. At the time, McCarthy found solace in nature. He still does.
But the wildlife population of Britain has halved in his lifetime, he tells us: “This was the great thinning”. We need such statistics to see the extent of ecological destruction wrought through the second half of the 20th century. Yet as Homo sapiens – “Earth’s problem child” – we so often seem to sit apparently impotent and useless in our response.
McCarthy’s love of his home turf of the Dee estuary, near Liverpool, is detailed and contrasted against the example of the far vaster tidal flats of the Yellow Sea at Saemangeum in South Korea, once home to millions of migrant birds, now a “deadscape” of unused, reclaimed land measuring 40,000ha enclosed in a wall 33km long.
McCarthy peers spellbound at the satellite photo on Google Maps – at the “thin white line in the sea” of the wall. The entire estuary has gone. “Extinguished. Rubbed out. The whole thing”. The emotive thump of those three short, stepped sentences – one word, two words, three words long – is typical of McCarthy’s powerfully effective style.
Blizzard of moths
To have experienced the actual occurrence of a moth snowstorm in Britain, you need to be at least 50 years old or so – for the term refers to the effect whereby, as McCarthy writes:
The headlight beams of a speeding car on a muggy summer’s night in the countryside, turn[ed] the moths into snowflakes [that] plastered the headlights and the windscreen until driving became impossible, and you had to stop the car to wipe the glass surfaces clean.
For those who have known such sights, it is a poignant and vibrant memory of the abundance of insect life that once filled the night. But moments like those are now gone. Blizzards of insects are a thing of the past. So how can these rose-tinted instances of nostalgia serve us? McCarthy’s answer is simple. We must learn to recognise such losses to our wildlife populations yet see too that “our bond with nature” is unbreakable.
McCarthy’s own memoir of loss, emotional torpor and eventual recovery exemplifies the deep peace we can all experience by seeking joy and wonder in the natural world. His tale is told with heart-rending honesty. Only our “belief in nature’s worth” is going to save the world’s green places and its wildlife. We must learn to recognise our “ancient bond with the natural world”.
We must remember to celebrate that eternal tie by observing and glorifying those natural phenomena that seem most wonderful to us as individuals – be they the spectacle of a clump of snowdrops, the inscape of magnolia or bluebell flowers, or the sight of a mad March hare. This is the vital message of The Moth Snowstorm. McCarthy’s words ring out as a rallying cry which is not only a delight to hear but one we should all seek to follow.
Books really can change the world. Here’s hoping that McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, like Carson’s Silent Spring, is one such work that truly starts to make the world’s human population shift the way we see, experience and act towards the remaining wildlife that we share this planet with.
James Canton is course director of the MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at the University of Essex. His book Ancient Wonderings: Travels in Prehistoric Britain is forthcoming with HarperCollins.