The Power and Beauty of Joy

Issue 293
November/December 2015
Go With the Flow

Reviews

The Power and Beauty of Joy
by

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Cover: Cover image: River Taw (1998) by Susan Derges www.susanderges.com

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Peter Ainsworth is struck by a veteran environmentalist’s defence of Nature. The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy. John Murray, 2015. ISBN: 9781444792775

This is a book about loss and Nature and love. It is about the loss of love and the joy of love recaptured and found in Nature and in the strange ways of the human heart. It has two sub-plots, one to do with the savage depletion of Nature and natural things, and the other a very personal one, to do with the author’s family. The way in which he interleaves these themes is extraordinarily moving. It is an affirmation of the power of natural beauty and the power of love, and of their ability to make life joyful, despite the odds.

Mike McCarthy has been an environmental journalist for many years. He has chalked up enough column inches to fill an entire field of Suffolk barley. In this book he writes like a poet. He quotes many poets – Wordsworth, Hopkins, Lawrence and Blunden – and he writes from the heart in what he must feel is some kind of retrospective expiation of personal feelings. It is, as well, a passionate call to arms in defence of a beautiful and varied natural world, which – if Homo sapiens continues to behave as we do – will be lost soon, and forever.

The title may seem odd. Moth Snowstorm? It will be hard for anyone under, say, 40 years old to remember the clouds of moths and other insects that used to smash up on the windscreens of cars driven at night. That is what he means by the moth snowstorm. I confess that I had forgotten them too, those insects. I had a moped in the late 1970s; the little blighters used to expire on my face. I had forgotten that they are just not there any more. Well, they aren’t, are they? This book helps us to remember what has been lost – without the departure even being noticed – in our own lifetimes, under our very noses and on our hopelessly negligent watch.

McCarthy charts the fairly useless ways in which well-meaning politicians have attempted to address the issue of Nature’s degradation under our human stewardship. He doesn’t (much) excoriate the powerful vested interests that have assiduously sought to thwart every rational attempt to save the natural capital upon which we all rely for life, although “Farmer Giles” – branded as a subsidised poisoner – may find his ruddy face blushing with shame. This essentially is a book about joy – the vast potential for joy from beauty – and not an angry polemic.

The grinding process of intergovernmental initiatives on ‘sustainable development’ and ‘climate change’ has failed, according to this account. McCarthy isn’t wrong. But it is depressing to admit it.

He also takes a dim view of the latest idea, which is to place a utilitarian monetary value on ‘ecosystem services’. This essentially means putting a price on Nature and getting developers to pay when they screw it up. I have always had doubts about the efficacy of this approach, not least on the grounds that once something has a price on its head someone will be tempted to cough up for it, and Nature is not in fact simply replaceable. I have assumed, though, that it’s better than nothing. It probably isn’t. McCarthy puts this well: “Putting cash prices on rivers and mountains and forests is not a noble undertaking... What value do we give to butterflies? What value do we give, for that matter, to birdsong? ... And the appearance of spring flowers or autumn mushrooms, and the unfolding of ferns, and the rising of trout, they have no value either do they?” He is not impressed by the value accorded by accountants.

But he offers an alternative. Love. At first glance this may seem like wishful thinking from the mind of a man who grew up in Birkenhead and in the hippy generation. But McCarthy makes a compelling case. He wasn’t a hippy – he was far too obsessed by birds and butterflies and the wild majesty of the Dee Estuary to bother with the Beatles – and the purpose of this book is to reconnect the human spirit with the 50,000 generations of our ancestors who knew their limitations, belonged to Nature, and survived. Nature will always win, however hard we try to curtail and destroy it.

Peter Ainsworth is Chairman of Plantlife (www.plantlife.org.uk) and is a former shadow secretary of state for the environment. He chairs the UK Big Lottery Fund and is a board member of the Environment Agency. The views expressed in this review are his own.

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