NYT Book Review in which the NYT changes its longstanding policy of lowercasing the word EARTH as earth and now has decided to capitalize it as we had suggested in a lobbying effort of over 100 letters to the books editor, writing it now as Earth in this review: ‘The Moth Snowstorm,’ and Other Natural Bliss-Outs
For the word porn alone, nature writing can be its own giddy reward. Consider the names of shorebirds, which Michael McCarthy deploys to voluptuous effect in “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.” Dunlins. Great knots. Curlews. Nordmann’s greenshanks. Bar-tailed godwits.
Not one of them a creature in Rubeus Hagrid’s hut, amazingly enough.
Mr. McCarthy is an environmental journalist in Britain. As a writer and observer, he shares certain similarities with his countryman Robert Macfarlane, whose “Landmarks” came out in the United States this summer. Mr. McCarthy, too, writes about the natural world as if he’s of it, not apart from it, in language both sumptuous and attuned. (His discussion of waders searching for lugworms leaves little room for doubt: He is the bard of mud.) He too has a mystical sense of place.
“The Moth Snowstorm,” however, is much more than a paean to the Earth’s beauty. It is also an elegy for it, and a particularly distressed one at that.
The past few years have seen a number of fine books about environmental depredation, including the possibility of a “sixth extinction,” or great dying off, for the sixth time, of a majority of the world’s species. (Elizabeth Kolbert won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her book by this very name.) But “The Moth Snowstorm” is far more personal. As one of the 7 billion-plus stakeholders in the planet’s fate, Mr. McCarthy is clearly desperate, anguished, overcome. Absent having a specific chief executive to write to, he’s writing to us, hoping we’ll look beyond the dun-colored conventions of conservationist arguments — statistics, abstractions — when we consider our despoiled planet.
“If loss of nature becomes a sort of essay subject,” he writes, “we miss its immediacy; we may lose sight of its sadness and its nastiness, its sharp and bitter taste, the great wounding it really is.”
So what’s his case for defending the Earth? Something he admits is frankly corny: Nature offers us joy, wonder, the chance to feel the electrostatic charge of being alive — “it still holds its magnetism for countless unpolemical minds.” Five hundred generations of sedentary life may have us believe we’re inured to nature’s charms, he writes, but we are all, secretly, creatures of the veldt, and as we raze, pave and puff our way around the planet, “we are destroying not only our home, which is dreadful enough, but also a fundamental part of ourselves.”
I take no issue with this emotional — and at times, unabashedly spiritual — line of appeal. I do, however, take issue with Mr. McCarthy’s pecking this same note with the assiduousness of the Chinatown chicken. There are only so many times we can read that “50,000 generations” of hunting and gathering is more critical to our psychology than 500 generations of civilization. (I counted eight, and this was after I started to grow frustrated.) There are only so many times we can read that our appreciation of nature is lodged “in our tissues,” or our genes, or our psyches. The idea that we’re buttoned-up moderns with atavistic needs does not become more persuasive through repetition alone.
And while I appreciate Mr. McCarthy’s attempts to show us the transcendent beauty of the world as he sees it, I’m afraid I do not always respond in the same ways that he does. I was reminded of the scene in David Mamet’s “The Old Neighborhood” when one of the characters, Deeny, mentions how others react if you show them the house where you grew up.
“It means something to you, you see, as it should,” she says. “But the other person, they feel lonely.”
Every time Mr. McCarthy’s heart turned a cartwheel that mine did not — every time he’d write something like “the rational part of me couldn’t cope,” for instance — I wished he’d simply described what he’d seen and left it at that.
Because his book is filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to birds. The stonechat is “the very acme of alertness.” Shorebirds are “spindly-legged, nervy, refined.” Sandpipers fly in swarms so dense, he writes, “that when I first saw them in a shape-shifting dark murmuration, far in the distance, I thought I was looking at a billowing cloud of smoke.”
And Mr. McCarthy is certainly a personable companion, prone to bursts of eccentric charm. Here he is, recalling the moment he realized how unusual his fondness for estuaries was: “I had fallen in love with an anomaly. Most people saw the mouths of rivers as neither one thing nor another; they were the poor relations among landscape features, not remotely figuring in popular culture.” It’s all so unfashionable: “I mean, know any estuary songs?”
I read these passages and so many others with unqualified enjoyment. Maybe, for some readers, they will be enough.
You can understand, too, why Mr. McCarthy feels the beauty of the natural world so keenly, and why he has such a personal investment in its preservation. He had the good fortune to come of age when the British countryside was ecstatic with wildlife — half of which has since been wiped out — and when he was 7, the bountiful hares, larks, thrushes, butterflies and moths of his surroundings were the source of his salvation: It was at this point that his mother’s mind unraveled and she moved, for a time, into an asylum. As she lost her internal moorings, Mr. McCarthy found his outdoors.
Mr. McCarthy has more than enough descriptive power to drive this book. It’s only when the engine overheats that his readers start to squirm. And while he may claim that statistics are too impersonal, too lifeless, to convey the magnitude of the sickening troubles we face, he repeatedly disproves himself by presenting them in innovative ways. How can you forget that more than 14,000 dead pigs were found in China’s Huangpu river in 2013? Or that the volume of garbage from China in 2020 is expected to equal the world’s entire output from 1997? Or that Britain has lost half its birds since the Beatles broke up?
You can’t. To quote — as he does — the rat-a-tat conversation of house sparrows:
It’s on us. Message heard.