Butterflies like these are an important part of The Moth Snowstorm: a powerful tale of extinction.
The above images of butterflies are by Emmet and Edith Gowin/Pace-MacGill Gallery
The Moth Snowstorm: a powerful tale of extinction, is a non-fiction book by Michael McCarthy that was published in 2015. I found the book to be a very moving story about the ominous directions in which the modern world is heading.
The Moth Snowstorm: a powerful tale of extinction is a very different book about species extinction. This book is about how the world used to be brimful of other animals beside ourselves but now is not. I know I’ve written about this before, but I keep coming back to this theme. The idea that the earth was once awash with life but that we now find ourselves almost alone seems so powerful and sad that I cannot get it out of my mind or off my reading list.
There are several books I have recently come across about the past abundance of life on earth and the current dearth. Here they are.
J. B. MacKinnon, The Once and Future Earth
The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy
Sea of Slaughter by Farley Mowat
American Serengeti by Dan Flores
This post is about just one of those books, The Moth Snowstorm.
The author of this book, Michael McCarthy grew up in England. He had a pretty unhappy childhood: his father was a radioman on the Queen Mary and spent most of his time at sea and was rarely at home. HIs mother was seriously ill with depression and at one point was committed to a mental Asylum. Everyone thought this was the end of her as in the 1950s almost no one came home after being committed. McCarthy who was seven at the time ended up living with his aunt.
Desperately unhappy, and suppressing the anger he felt for his mother, which at the time he felt as a lack of any feelings for her at all, McCarthy one day discovered a bush covered with brilliant butterflies. From then on, he managed to deal with his unhappiness by occupying himself totally with butterflies. He was mesmerized by their beauty he says, and then he graduated to picture books and more advanced studies of butterflies.
McCarthy says that the butterflies created in him an overpowering feeling of joy and that this feeling was the only thing that allowed him to survive his early years. And it also led to his adulthood obsession with the natural world which he says has always been a great source of joy to him.
McCarthy’s joy at experiencing nature is the theme of The Moth Snowstorm. Surely, he says, all humans feel this kind of joy in nature. Surely the source of this joy is the hundreds of thousands of years humans have lived in the midst of pristine nature and the fact that we have evolved to feel this joy of nature. Surely this is an intrinsic part of humans he says.
And thus, McCarthy says that the best way to save the world now may be to use this human joy in nature to motivate all men to do what they can to save what is left of nature and maybe even restore much of it.
The idea is really much more complicated than this. However, I came away from the book not really convinced that the love for and joy in nature will enable us to save our ecosystems. But maybe. Who knows. I hope so. Nothing much else has worked so far.
Anyway the parts of the book I most responded to were how the world was once so filled with life and that somehow we humans have destroyed all of this and that if we cannot mend our ways it will surely be the end of us all.
Here is his description of the natural abundance of the natural world of his childhood:
“I was immensely lucky: I discovered nature right at the end of what one might call the time of natural abundance. It was several years before intensive farming would take a stranglehold on the land – before the detestable tide of organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides began to wash over it and burn it like acid burns a body – and something taken for granted but wonderful persisted still: natural profusion. There had been lots of butterflies on the buddleia, in the August when I first encountered them.”
“This is not childhood seen through rose-tinted binoculars. I remember this natural abundance clearly. It was somehow at the heart of the attraction. I don’t think I could have been affected in the same way by a solitary red admiral, marvel of creation though it is.
There were lots of many things, then. Suburban gardens were thronged with thrushes. Hares galumphed across every pasture. Mayflies hatched on springtime rivers in dazzling swarms. And larks filled the air and poppies filled the fields, and if the butterflies filled the summer days, the moths filled the summer nights, and sometimes the moths were in such numbers that they would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard, there would be a veritable snowstorm of moths, and at the end of your journey you would have to wash your windscreen, you would have to sponge away the astounding richness of life.”
McCarthy, Michael. The Moth Snowstorm (pp. 12-13). New York Review Books. Kindle Edition.
I’m including a lot of McCarthy’s words in this essay because they really convey the essence of his story. He is a great writer. And The Moth Snowstorm is indeed a powerful tale of extinction.
As McCarthy grew up he found that the world had changed around him. In the few years between the 1950s and today, everything changed. And when I say a few years I mean it literally. As Bill McKibben says in his book Falter, “If all of the 3.8 billion year history of life on earth were squeezed into 24 hours, then human history would be only 1/5 of a second.” The time of humans on earth is truly very, very short. And I’m very afraid it will remain short. Why would the earth not chew us up and spit us right out? That would certainly be for the great good of the earth.
That seventy years between McCarthy’s boyhood and the present turns out to be the single the most crucial period of human existence. It was this period of time when humans did most of their damage to the earth.
“We were the generation who, over the long course of our lives, saw the shadow fall across the face of the earth. Let us set it out.”
Our world is under threat, as it has never been before, from a malady previous generations did not anticipate: the scale of the human enterprise. Down the centuries, in considering human affairs, our attention has been fixed on their direction, on the implausible, wondrous journey from the flint hand-axe to the moon, via literacy and medicine and the rule of law; gripped by the exhilarating course of the venture, we have not noticed its sheer dimensions creeping up on us.”
Let me finish this essay with McCarthy’s words about just how thoroughly humans have destroyed our earth. His words have a gravity and beauty that I can’t come close to matching. He goes on to ask,
“When did humans, creatures of the genus Homo, first begin to modify the world in a measurable way? Almost certainly when anatomically and behaviourally modern people, that is, members of the species Homo sapiens, emerged out of Africa some time perhaps around sixty thousand years ago, and began to spread eastwards across the world, to Asia, then down to Australasia, then back north-westwards into Europe, and finally over the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia into the Americas.
Formidably advanced through their possession of language, they – we – displaced and almost certainly annihilated the earlier species of humans which had spread out of Africa long before them, Homo erectus in Asia and the Neanderthals in Europe (who may not have possessed fully developed speech); and while they were at it, they visited a similar fate on the enormous animals which, over millions of years, had everywhere evolved as the top layer of the mammal and marsupial fauna which we still possess today.
“We do not accord much imagining to these vanished behemoths. We should. It was a massacre unparalleled. By the end of the Pleistocene, the long epoch of the ice ages, whole continental guilds of great beasts had been extirpated by humans, by the hunter-gatherers.”
It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth, as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history.
We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports; grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at it, shitting on it.
Already more than half the rain-forests are gone, pesticide use has decimated wild flowers and the insect populations of farmland and rivers, the beds of the seas are deeply degraded and most of the fish stocks are at danger levels, the acidity of the ocean is steadily rising, coral reefs are under multiple assault, 40 billion tonnes of climate-changing carbon are loading the atmosphere every year and currently one-fifth, and rising, of all vertebrates – mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians – are threatened with extinction. Many are on the brink, if not already gone.
The Vietnamese rhinoceros was discovered in 1988, one of the thrilling secrets of the Indochinese jungles which war had for so long kept out of reach; it was extinct by 2010, slaughtered for its horn, believed in traditional Asian medicine, quite erroneously, to be a cancer cure.
We knew the dodo for three times as long.
The nightingale, the world’s most versified bird, was revealed in 2010 to have declined in England by 90 per cent in forty years; that is, to have vanished from nine out of every ten sites where it sang as the Beatles were breaking up.
The Mediterranean bluefin tuna, a fish glorious in form and function but unfortunately glorious too in taste, is starting to look doomed by the appetites of sushi eaters; all seven species of sea turtle are endangered, three of them critically; and amphibians are sliding in a bunch down the steep slope to oblivion, with the golden toad of the cloud forests of Costa Rica famous for its disappearance, while the golden frog of Panama may not be famous, but has disappeared just the same.
Loss is everywhere, and the defining characteristic of the natural world in the twenty-first century is no longer beauty, nor riches, nor abundance, nor, if you like, life force, but has become vulnerability.”
McCarthy, Michael. The Moth Snowstorm (pp. 15-16-17). New York Review Books. Kindle Edition.
These are scary thoughts. Terrifying actually. Our world is going to be gone before we know it. Or much more likely we are the ones who are going to be gone. We have to at least try to save some of the life which used to fill the earth. Or at least what is now left. The Moth Snowstorm: a powerful tale of extinction is indeed a moving book and one that is at times hard to read.
More reading on the subject of extinction