Longlisted for the Wainwright Book Prize 2019, How to Catch a Mole and Find Yourself in Nature is a beautiful book by Marc Hamer and illustrated by Joe McLaren. It is part memoir, part a nature study of the British Countryside, part poetry, and, of course, about moles. It is a mine of information. After leaving school Marc Hamer was homeless for a while, then worked on the railway, before returning to education and studying fine art in Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent. He has worked in art galleries, marketing, graphic design and taught creative writing in a prison before becoming a gardener. And before writing this book he had been a traditional molecatcher for years.
I read the book in January and have been wondering what to write about it, mulling it over in my mind. I’ve made several attempts to write this post as it’s not a straight forward non fiction book. He tells the story of his life intermingled with that of the mole, writing about what his life as a molecatcher was like, how it affected him and why eventually he decided to stop. The result is that this book is a mix of recollections and information about moles. He doesn’t write his recollections in chronological order – the harder he tries to remember, the more his memory seems to shift and change as though he is looking into a kaleidoscope where the colours remain the same and although the patterns are slightly different every time, the picture remains true to itself.
He no longer catches moles and says:
Molecatching is a traditional skill that has given me a good life but I am old and tired of hunting and it has taught me what I wanted to learn.
I’ve only seen a mole once when our cat caught what I think, sadly, was a baby one, and I know very little about them. Our garden has mole hills on the edges of it, piles of earth that the moles have turned over, and dug to a fine crumb – ‘the kind of damp rich earth that farmers and gardeners love for its texture and nutrients.’ So, I’m comfortable with having moles in the garden.
Not everybody is happy about them, however as Hamer points out:
Apparently sane people lose sleep over the chaos the moles create. We do not like to lose control of our property it makes us feel uncomfortable, impermanent, weak. Moles can ruin domestic lawns, and I have seen real hatred developing in homeowners as they lose control and ownership of their gardens. An obsession grows and an endless, unwinnable war can take over their lives. (pages 17-18)
Moles are small and powerful, moving at speed in their tunnels hunting worms and digging about 20 metres of tunnel in a day. They pack the soil into the roof and walls, pushing the soil ahead until there is too much to push and then make a diversion pushing the earth out onto the surface making a molehill. They go where the worms go. I was fascinated by this fact:
In times of plenty a mole will dig a little room in the wall of his tunnel, then gather lots of worms and bite their heads off, leaving them all knotted together in a section of tunnel. We call this the worm larder; it is a fairly common sight. A tunnel system could have any number of worm larders. (pages 202-203)
I was also interested in his thoughts on gardening. Here are a few extracts:
Gardening is not nature: it is using the laws of nature and science to impose our will on a place; and for some people this need for control goes to extremes. (page 19)
As a gardener I do not dig any more: I hoe off the weeds and top-dress the gardens in autumn with compost just as nature does with falling leaves and grasses. This keeps the moisture in and the weeds suppressed; it allows the worms to break up hard soil and increases microbial activity, allowing life to expand its range, and lets air and water into the soil. Moles do this for us. Some gardeners still double-dig, but more and more people are coming to understand the importance of microbes and fungi, and often see digging as destructive and prefer to stay off the soil to avoid compacting it. (pages 58-59)
A fine-looking garden is a sterile place. A perfect green lawn is only kept that way by continually dousing it with chemicals. A lawn that is not treated will naturally become home to a massive number of species of birds and worms and native wild plants, crane-fly larvae, beetles, invertebrates. (page 223)
Having worked all my life, created a family, discovered a home, I feel as secure as a working-class man ever feels, and I feel a sense of equality again with the crow and the toad and the hawthorn, with the rain and wind. I am them and they are me. . . . I am just another animal, another tree, another wild flower in the meadow among billions of others. . . . There is something deeply magnificent in being just ordinary. (page 115)
- Publisher : Harvill Secker; 1st edition (4 April 2019)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1787301249
- ISBN-13 : 978-1787301245
- Source: Borrowed from my son
- My Rating: 5*