Nature, gnomes, and the power of story
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Michael McCarthy begins his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm with these arresting two sentences: "In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French were withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sing, my mother's mind fell apart. I was seven and my brother John was eight."
Blending nature writing, ecological history, and memoir, The Moth Snowstorm is narrated in a lucid prose that makes my heart sing even though the story it tells is filled with loss: of family, of innocence, of the natural world McCarthy once in knew in the Wirral near Liverpool. His mother, Norah, had trained as a teacher; his father, Jack, was largely away at sea. When Nora's mind "began to fray" under the weight of her troubles, the stern Canon at their Catholic church recommended her removal to a mental institution, from which (as was usual in those days) no one expected her to return. In fact, she came home just a few months later -- but by then McCarthy's bossy aunt Mary had sold off her sister's home, and taken her two young nephews in charge. John, the eldest, responded to the dramatic break-up of their family with rage and tears, while Michael retreated into indifference. He writes:
"At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother. How bizarre that seems, written down. Many years on, when I began to talk about it, to try to sort it all out, I learned that this was a Coping Strategy. Golly, I thought. Did I have a Coping Strategy? All I remember having is nothing. Being not bothered, not in the slightest, that she had gone away with no promise of return; and this attitude slumbered inside me through childhood, adolescence and long into manhood, until my mother died, my mother with whom I had by now built bridges and come to adore before all others...and the life I had blithely put together on top of the gaping cracks, pretending they were not there, began to unravel and I set out on the long road to somewhere else."
Aunt Mary and her husband lived in the suburbs. In a nearby garden was a buddleia, and on a late summer morning young Michael found it entirely covered with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies.
"I was mesmerised. My eyes caressed their colours like a hand stroking a kitten. How could there be such living gems? And every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags which the buddleia seemed miraculously to tame, to keep from visiting other flowers, to enslave on its own blooms by its nectar's unfathomable power. I could smell it myself, honey-sweet, but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants. Wondrous? Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been. And so through this singular window, when I was a skinny kid in short pants, butterflies entered my soul."
Mary obligingly bought him a guidebook to butterflies, and his interest grew from enthusiasm to obsession. Reflecting on this many years later, McCarthy accepts the strangeness of the circumstance, "that it was in a time of great turmoil, involving great unhappiness, that I first became attached to nature; that while my boyhood bond with my mother was being rent asunder, I was preoccupied with insects.
"I might have become a lifelong butterfly obsessive," McCarthy adds, "narrowly and compulsively preoccupied to the exclusion of all else, like Frederick Clegg in John Fowles' The Collector, had not my mother show me a way to a wider world."
Norah was released from the mental hospital that autumn, but it was more than a year before the family had a home of their own again. To mark this new beginning, McCarthy's mother, a devotee of literature, gave him a book.
"It was a Christmas present that year, prompted I imagine by my butterfly enthusiasm; but whereas Mary might have found me another book on Lepidoptera, Norah chose something else, and I wonder now what sure instinct led her to this, the first real story I encountered, with fully formed characters and a narrative; for I engaged with it at once.
"It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes. It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials, BB; his real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, although it was years before I found this out.
"I was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort (all named after rather uncommon English wild flowers). They were very small people, between a foot and eighteen inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us in recent years, in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy but in realism. Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them -- the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference -- they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were last gnomes left in England.
"I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of eight, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture which even then was starting to spread across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them: like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done. So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry -- ah, Cloudberry! So sad! -- who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an old oak tree.
"I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected denouement; I was likewise captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year. (In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successful.) But I took in more than the story. I internalised, at first reading, the milieu in which the adventure took place. It was the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of the Rings, with its dark lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it was merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's country, and the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows, and its kestrels hovering above, a small and intimate and charming countryside with its small and intimate and charming creatures, vivid in their lives and their interactions; and I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the natural world.
"I went beyond butterflies to the fullness of nature."
I have long believed that stories, particularly fantasy stories, are a powerful way to engage children with nature. Through the wonder at the heart of the tale, we find the wonder at the heart of the world. I didn't know The Little Grey Men when I was a child, but other books had the same effect on me -- from Beatrix Potter's Lake District farms and Johanna Spyri's Swiss mountaintops to the enchanted vistas of Lewis and Tolkien, and, later, of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin, among others. While McCarthy was drawn to the "realism" and intimacy of The Little Grey Men, reflective of the countryside he knew in the England of the 1950s, I grew up in the rapacious urban and suburban development of east coast America in the '60s and '70s, and preferred stories that took me to other worlds -- where landscapes were vast, majestic, unfenced, unpolluted, with nary a car or strip mall in sight. In real life I hustled through time-fractured days mediated by cars and buses, subways and trains; but in fiction, I moved at a walker's pace through Middle Earth, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, Tredana, Islandia and the Earthsea Archipelago; and those long journeys immersed in the natural world were just as vital as the adventures themselves. Can the forests and fields of imaginary lands nurture a connection to, and even a love for, the flora and fauna and the waterways and the ground underfoot that we see everyday? I believe they can. And more than that, in this time of ecological crisis, I believe that they must.
What are stories that made that connection for you, fantasy or otherwise? And were the landscapes as important to you as the characters and the unrolling plot? I'm curious to know your thoughts.
Words: The passages above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: The art above is by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford (1905 -1990), a naturalist, teacher, book illustrator, and author of children's fiction under the pseudonym BB. He won the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature in 1942.