Leslie T. Sharpe is a world-class noticer. Like fellow Catskills chronicler John Burroughs before her, she pays close attention and is a serious observer of the natural world—especially of animals near her cabin in Delaware County. A lifelong naturalist (and former vice president of the New York City Audubon Society), Sharpe's forays from her rural retreat bring her into contact with curious black bears, insouciant bobcats, wobbly fawns, courageous crawfish, dancing woodcocks, brawny moths, scolding crows, and the nonplussed fox of the book's title. (All descriptors are Sharpe's own, and perhaps hint at the book's only flaw: a penchant for the anthropomorphic from a mind that is seriously science-y.)
She also possesses serious writing chops when simply taking a snapshot of the world around her, like this description of an incoming snowstorm: "Gray is the color we do best in the Great Western Catskills of upstate New York, even in summer, when smoky wisps cling to the mountains after a thunderstorm like lingering spirits, which the Indians believed they were, and especially in the morning, when mists rise from the West Branch of the Delaware River, enveloping my house in a milky white so opaque I can barely make out the steps that lead from the deck to the dandelion-strewn lawn." You don't just spend a week at an AirB&B and reach a deep understanding of your surroundings like this. Her prose is rooted in place like a hemlock clings to an old blue Catskills' mountainside.
For a contemporary naturalist, the Catskills are an inspiring and hopeful subject. These mountains were deforested and large animals like deer, large cats, and bears were nearly hunted to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the formation of the 700,000-acre Catskills Park and the preservation of vast swaths of acreage to slake New York City's thirst in the early 20th century, the Catskills have returned to a natural footing mostly on par with the landscape pre-European settlement. The Catskills are a lucky exception in a world where one species has become so successful that it threatens all other forms of life.
In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy, the former environment editor at the British daily The Independent, documents what he calls "the great thinning" of other species by "the runaway scale of the human enterprise" and proposes a radical solution to save nature. According to McCarthy, the two methods currently employed to save the natural world—sustainable development and ecosystem services—aren't working. He points out the lie at the heart of sustainable development: "people do not voluntarily change, if that means, stop acting out of self-interest"; as well as noting that assigning utilitarian value to nature will only save those parts of nature whose usefulness can be directly measured. Butterflies don't fare well in this scenario.
Our ecological crisis prompts McCarthy to ask the fundamental existential question: What does it mean to be human? He looks to the deep past to find his answer, and how to save nature. According to McCarthy, "the 50,000 generations through which we evolved as hunter-gatherers are more important to our psychological make-up, even today, than the 500 generations we have spent since agriculture began and with it, civilization." Nature is not a luxury but an indispensable part of our essence. That we've spent 10,000 years trying to deny it has led us to what is now being called the Sixth Great Extinction.
So what does McCarthy suggest? Joy. The need to reactivate our ancient bond with the natural world—the wildness in our wiring. To consider nature as an intrinsic good and an emotional and spiritual resource, capable of inspiring joy, wonder, and even love. Given that the other plans aren't working, it's worth a shot.
Leslie T. Sharpe reads on 4/6 at 6pm at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck.