Nature, gnomes, and the power of story
Nature and beauty

Nature and joy

Migrant Megamoths (convolvulas hawkmoths in the Apuan Alps) by Lorenzo Shoubridge

The Moth Snowstorm

Here's another absolutely beautiful passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy:

"The way we might love the natural world, as opposed to being wary of it, or instinctively conscious of its utility, may be thought of as commonplace; but over the years it has increasingly seemed to me a remarkable phenomenon. For after all, it is only our background, our context, the milieu from which, like all other creatures, we have emerged. Why should it evoke in us any emotion beyond those, such as fear and hunger, that are needed for survival? Can an otter love its river? And yet it is the case that the natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

"Although I feel strongly that this is one of the greatest things in our lives -- never more important than now -- it seems quite mysterious in its origins, and certainly in the force it can exercise. To be able to be swept up, to be swept away by an aspect of nature such as butterflies; tell me, is that something in nature itself, or is it something in us? Once, Christianity offered a ready explanation: our joy in the beauty and life of the earth was our joy in the divine work of its creator. But as Christianity fades, the undeniable fact that the natural world can spark love in us becomes more of an enigma.

Portrait of a Mother (wild pumas) by Ingo Arndt

Frozen Moment (two male Dall sheep in the Yukon, Canada) by Jérémie Villet

"You can see far more easily why it engenders some other powerful emotions, with, for example, the big beasts. The first big beast I ever saw in the wild was a black rhino, in Nambia. It was about a hundred yards away, a ton of double-horned power glaring straight at me with nothing but low scrub between us; and although I knew it had poor eyesight, it was twitching its ultra-sensitive ears like revolving radar antennae, trying to pick me up and draw a bead on me, and I was transfixed: my heart pounded, my mouth dried, I looked around for shelter. But if I was afraid, there was a stronger and stranger feeling coursing through me. I felt in every way more alive. I felt as alive as I had ever been.

"The next day I saw an African buffalo for the first time, a great black mass of menace which made me even more nervous than the rhino had, yet I experienced precisely the same sensation: mixed in with the anxiety, with the fear of being killed, and buffalos will kill you, was the feeling in the animal's proximity of living more intensely, of somehow living almost at another level. And when later that day in a dry riverbed I saw, close to, my first wild elephant, the most dangerous of them all, I felt again, intermingled with the wariness, something akin to passion.

A Taste of Peace (elephant in Mozambique) by Charlie Hamilton James

Canopy Hang-out (brown-throated three-toed sloth) by Carlos Pérez Naval

"They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

The Aquabatic Antelope (red lechwe, south central Africa) by Branson Meaker

"It is to those fifty thousand generations that our fascination with the big beasts harks back; their magnificence triggers an awe in us, the still surviving awe of our ancestors who pursued them, full of fear and hope, piously painting their images on the walls of caves. On the rock faces of Lascaux and Chauvet, where the fear and hope coalesce into worship, we have astonishing insights into a world of long-gone people whose lives revolved around dangerous animals and their slaughter, and who must therefore have lived, with mortality ever present, at that elevated and passionate level we still sense when we come up against the great beasts ourselves, in their natural surroundings.

"Yet a stray thought plays about my mind, haunts its corners, refuses to leave: it must also be the case that the hunter-gatherers saw butterflies. Were they indifferent? All of them? Even to swallowtails? Somehow I doubt it. I think the point must have arrived where such unlikely, brilliant beings could not but register with observers, even those obsessed with survival and violence and death -- for a moment must have come in prehistory when someone, for the first time, waited for a swallowtail to settle, to better look on it, and marvelled at what was there in front of them."

Meadow Beauty (pearl-bordered fritillary, Sweden) by Alfons Lilja

War Dance (desert toad-headed agamas) by Victor Tyakh

McCarthy argues that the joy and wonder that the natural world evokes in us should take a role in our defence of it, especially for those of us working in the arts in various forms:

"In a famous preface to one of his short novels, Joseph Conrad pointed out that the enterprise of the scientist or the intellectual may have a more immediate impact, but that of the artist is more enduring because it goes far deeper; the statement of fact, however powerful, does not take hold like the image does. I believe that in defending the natural world, the time has come to offer up the images.

"What I mean is, it is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Dinner Duty (great grey owls, Sweden) by Tommy Pedersen

"This has been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalised defence of the natural world, for two reasons. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy that nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalised way. We can generalise, or, indeed, monetise the value of nature's services in satisfying our corporal needs, since we have all broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say -- alas that we cannot -- that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me.

"Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to to it ourselves -- proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down. 

"It is only through specific personal experience that the case can be made, which is why I will offer mine...and I will do so not just as a celebration of [nature], but as a conscious, engaged act of defence. Defence through joy, if you like. For nature, as human society takes a wrecking ball to the planet, has never needed more defending."

I couldn't agree more.

The Albatross Cave (Te Tara Koi Koia, New Zealand) by Thomas P Peschak

I urge you to read McCarthy's passionate, poignant, and beautifully written book. It is heart-rending, but also heart-mending, and as deeply moving as a book can be.

The Plumage Parade (penguins on Marion Island) by Thomas P Peschak

The gorgeous imagery today is from 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which runs until May 2020. The titles and photographer credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Early Riser (female gelada, Ethiopian highlands) by Riccardo Marchegiani

The Charm of Ruthy (female striped hyena) by Ariel Fields

The passages quoted above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015); all rights reserved by the author. Right to the photographs above are reserved by the photographers, and The Natural History Museum.

Two related posts: The Blessings of Otters and The Dance of Joy and Grief. I also recommend the recent interview with folk singer Sam Lee published in The Evening Standard (8 January, 2020).

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