Moth snowstorm is a powerful and heart-felt meditation on the Great Thinning that mankind is wreaking on nature. The author draws on his personal experiences — from his earliest years onwards — expressed in close and personal terms, lining these up in parallel with the plight of nature and the faltering progress of the global environmental movement. Michael McCarthy’s text is compelling, as times luminous, and always blisteringly honest.
This is no polemic detailing the twists and turns of environmental complexity. But it does advance a proposition that derives from the failure of the sustainability movement and the eco-services philosophy. Where the former required self-regulation and the latter pinned hope on an appeal to the bean-counters, both have appeared incapable of stopping the steam-rollering of nature’s bounty, beauty and very survivability. The author proposes the recognition of a bond that already ties us to nature which is fifty thousand generations of hunter-gathering in length, that this bond is already psychologically stronger than the mere five hundred generations of agriculture and civilisation which followed it. These earlier generations made us who we are and instilled within us an instinctive love of the natural world, one which binds us to it and enables us to feel awe, wonder and joy when we encounter some of its more awesome, wonderful aspects. From this, could we not cultivate a kind of religious defence against the natural world that might accomplish what the sustainability and the eco-services movements have failed to accomplish?
That is the book’s ‘philosophy’, if you will. But its narrative brings us face-to-face with some of the natural splendours that the author has encountered which has helped frame this perspective. The eponymous snowstorm is the book’s singular example of nature’s abundance. Who amongst us remembers the windscreen being so thick with insects on a night drive that it was necessary to stop and clean the screen before continuing? I’m lucky: I do. Who amongst us can remember how the cottage’s bedroom walls would be dotted with moths and little insects if the night before one had been reading with the window left open? Or that picture frames needed to be opened some autumns to be purged of the myriad tiny black insects that had crawled behind the glass that summer? I remember it in my childhood and youth in rural England. I am very familiar with outdoor lights gathering in clouds of moths, hornets, stick insects and who-knows-what in the south of France. And I remember the struggle to wash the car’s front grill of splattered insects, again in France.
I also know the thinning of these clouds, these visitors to our indoor spaces, these windscreen kills and the progressive ease with which one could wash the car’s screen and front grill — all over a period of less than twenty years. Walking through waist high meadows produced more insects twenty years ago than it does now; not a trick of memory but a real observation of change and loss. I can recall the whole family fleeing indoors and shutting windows the first time our neighbouring farmer clattered close to the garden perimeter spraying a newly-available insecticide on his crops. I can therefore powerfully identify with the author’s narrative.
What then of those too young to have known this natural plenty? On what does their joy, if any, focus? Is their defence against further depredation founded on here-say and memories handed down? And when those who remember are no longer here to describe it, what then? Is this ancestral bond with our hunter-gatherer forebears going to be sufficient to pull us back from the brink? Moth snowstorm is a thought-provoking read. Let’s hope it is not entirely valedictory.