this is not a review: ‘field notes from an unintentional birder’, by julia zarankin

 

In a nutshell: personal essays, each focusing on one bird or aspect of birding, as well as a gentle inter-weaving of childhood memories that embrace the disciplines of piano, Russian literature, ballet, which in alternating ways both parallel and contradict the author’s approach to a growing fascination/obsession with birds.

Also in a nutshell: an entirely lovely read.

So lovely in fact that I found myself looking forward to settling down with a chapter or two in the way you might call a friend and say, so what have you learned today about your beloved birds and KNOW you will be getting a fabulous story if only, and maybe especially, about the most ordinary of moments, about how these moments reflect so much more that the moment and how there is always some very great thing learned, about birds, yes, but about self at the same time, in a completely NOT self-focused way.

There is no navel gazing here. Observations, both avian, and self-reflection, come as happy surprises.

Zarankin writes (along with so much else) about getting up in the wee hours, in all weather, driving to meet birding groups in parking lots and from there heading to wherever sightings of note have occurred. She writes about how she can hardly believe she’s doing this, how she notices her house filling up with birding books and décor, her conversation laced with avian facts; she is considering the purchase of a multi-pocketed vest, the likes of which once made her cringe. Having reached her thirties without noticing much more than a robin she is stunned to realize the variety of birds that exist in the city of Toronto and, to be honest, I’m stunned right along with her. How is it I don’t know a nuthatch… have I even ever seen one? Apparently they identify themselves by walking headfirst down tree trunks. And warblers, well, they’re everywhere it turns out, and, get this: there is something called a veery. Also a phalarope, a towhee. These are birds that live… right here.

My mind is blown by how much we don’t know.

This is a book about discovery. Birds, yes. But passion mostly. It’s uplifting in a down to earth way; there are no promises that following your passion will lead you to what you expect, in yourself or otherwise, but, as in Zarankin’s case, it will absolutely lead you to the surprise of your own heart.

Also birds.

“It’s hard to measure my birding progress. Ten years later, I am no longer a neophyte… But I know I’m still far from being a skilled birder.

“…. Maybe the point isn’t about measuring at all; it’s about seeing.”

this is not a review: the fiction of politics

I didn’t intend to read two books back to back where women, politics, and arrogant men figure prominently but then I think if you have the first two ingredients, the last one is often a given.

Interestingly, both books take their stories from real events.

Kerry Clare’s Waiting for a Star to Fall, was the first of the two.

The overall premise having been inspired by Toronto politician Patrick Brown’s undoing. Forgive the pun. Told from the perspective of Brooke, a twenty-three year old political assistant who is smitten with the glossy veneer of politics and the (older) man behind the curtain in a way that may resonate one way with anyone who has long since been twenty-three (i.e. as cringing reminder of youth and the easy influence of someone ‘important’; gratitude for crumbs of attention; status by association; the way innocence walks into moments that experience would recognize for what they are and head for the hills) and resonate another way entirely with anyone who IS currently twenty-three (i.e. as fair warning). At its heart, a story about the abuse of power, both heartbreaking for what we recognize in Brooke’s naivete, and inspiring for the realization that this is how we learn. Sometimes it hurts.

Petra, by Shaena Lambert, is the little (to me) known story of Petra Kelly, founder and champion of the Green Party. Narrated partly in the voice of a former lover, the book is eye-opening in its account of the party’s origins, initial efforts against nuclear weapons and various other causes being championed such as climate change, feminism, humane treatment of all living things. The book opens in the farmhouse that serves as party headquarters and which beautifully sets the tone for what the party stood for, i.e. no fancy office building necessary. This is grassroots politics at its finest and well portrays the era of the 1980’s, the important work being done, the challenges Kelly, especially, faced, as well as the commitment of those doing the work, all the while revealing relationships and personalities, the struggles, the egos and ultimately, the betrayals.

I won’t spoil the pleasure but I will say that it has one of the best closing scenes I’ve read in a very long time

this is not a review: ‘sixpence house: lost in a town of books’, by paul collins

Paul Collins is an American who claims some connection to the UK via parents who are British (but have lived in the States a long time; he doesn’t say how long). In any case he and his wife leave San Francisco with their young child and move to Hay on Wye in Wales, the ‘town of books’ and home to the Hay Festival.

We are not entirely sure why.

There he, Collins, meets a number of local village folk including Richard Booth, the chap who started the whole bookstore thing (at one point there were something like 70+ book shops in this wee town) and is madly eccentric, a terrible businessman but brilliant book lover. Collins magically gets a job working for him for (I’m not sure how long… he’s vague on dates) and (surprise!) eventually leaves Wales to return to the States.

In there somewhere is a flimsy attempt to buy a house [in Wales]. Which never happens for one reason or another and mostly, I would assume, because Collins and his family have no desire to stay. This is never stated outright but by virtue of how things transpire, or don’t, how the whole adventure that was supposed to last forever is suddenly over and he’s just glossing over the fact that they’re dashing back to the States, well, it smacks a bit of a) a realization that they aren’t cut out for Welsh village life, or b) that this was all a half-hearted effort at best, a sort of stab at ‘A Year in Provence’, something to write a book about if all else fails. I lean toward option (b) because it really doesn’t feel like he ever gives the place a chance.

Worth reading?

Not a complete waste of time. He writes with some humour and until the part where they up and leave (a schmaltzy return to America by the way, on a British passport for some reason and the U.S. immigration officer giving him a seriously hard time and TELLING him that he is an American and that he should be travelling on a U.S. passport… all a little over the top)… but until this daft and sudden ending, in the interval when you are still being lulled into thinking they might be sincere about making a go of it, it’s not the worst read.

While he notes many comparisons between life in the States and life in this tiny Welsh town, much of this is presented as isn’t it all so quaint and quirky, in a way that caters to mostly to an audience who rarely if ever travel far from their homes or are even aware, via books or other means, that life outside their universe (i.e. in other countries) is indeed different. And pleasantly so.

That said, there a few lovely bits throughout.

On remembering: “It is hard to know just how many times we have been exposed to a word, a face, an idea, before we have it.”

Litter in Literature: “The only civilian is a single forlorn custodian, who stands with his rubbish stick at the ready. He is waiting to spear the first crumpled crisps packet that flutters out of some pensioner’s string bag.”

Fun Fact: Phyllis Pearsall is the creator of the London A to Z map. She moved to London in 1935 after a divorce, thinking to become a portrait painter. “And so she did; but of a place, rather than a person.”

Wisdom: “No situation is so dire that it cannot be interrupted for tea.”

Trivia: The English tit bird “discovered that if they pecked through the foil cap on milk bottles, they could suck down a cream feast so sumptuous that they could barely stagger away afterward…” (bottlecaps were duly redesigned)

Warning: “To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place.” [There is only one new-books bookshop in the town of Hay.]

Reading recs: Mercy Philbrick’s Choice, written by Helen Hunt Jackson, who was friends with Emily Dickinson. Published while Dickinson was still alive and unknown… “an extraordinary fictional portrayal of artistic isolation…”

On a VERY interesting moment in publishing history: Collins talks about a No Names Series put out by Thomas Niles (Publisher), “which published new works by writers like Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, and Christina Rossetti anonymously, allowing the works to stand or fall in review columns on their own merits. It is hard to imagine hype-hungry publishers undertaking such a  project today.”

Comparisons: Lots of comparisons with American and UK life, media, TV, radio, literature, values, ways of conducting oneself (shouting ‘Hi’ in the street isn’t done, for instance). Of a British TV game show he writes about prizes like egg timers and frosted drinking glasses. [Oh I would love such a frosted glass!]

On magazines: the difference being that U.S. home décor mags look like no house that exists, all lighting and staging, while British décor mags have actual lived in rooms, comfortable untidiness included.

Very funny riff on showers. Collins remembers showers as a child in the U.S. where he’d pretend he was flying a single jet plane, rain whipping into the cockpit, being pounded by enemy water canons or riot police, etc. and wonders what children in the UK imagine… “Perhaps they pretend that they are standing under a rusted and leaking pipe in an unlit boiler room. Or that someone is weeing on them from a great height.”

Having living in the UK for several years, I read such pithy comments on the doings with affection, being reminded of both the charm and the charming eccentricities of British village life. 

That said, the ending was ridiculous and left me feeling like the Emperor was buck naked. Like the whole thing was a planned exercise, a process he went through simply in order to get the material to write a book. Which of course people do all the time. But the best of those books reveal something important or surprising gleaned in the process, something that changes or enhances their lives or world view. The problem with this book is that the author seemed to take next to nothing from the experience.

Except a book. (Of pithy observations that really have nothing to do with ‘getting’ a place.)

What really boggles my mind is how, as a writer, you derive so little from the experience of living in a town of bookshops, a town that is wholly dedicated to books and readers and writers, and has a few other notable qualities as well...

Overall, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for the author. As well as his family. As well as the reader.

big fat book of flowers: stay/go? (a process)

It takes up a lot of room.

I never look at it.

No idea where I got it, how long I’ve had it.

But it’s about flowers so every time my hand reaches to pull it off a shelf and place it in a thrift-shop-bound box, it whispers but I’m about flowers… don’t you want to know about flowers flowers of the world??

IMG_0722

Sure. And so my hand goes back to minding its own business.

Until the next time.

Which is this time.

This time I take the thing off the shelf. I open it. And in between its massive pages are countless pressed leaves and wildflowers. They are countless because I haven’t bothered counting them. There are many. Every few pages, more. And they’re in lovely condition. I consider making greeting cards, then quickly come to my senses.

Some of the leaves look like marijuana. (I did say I’d had the book a long time.) But, nah, I’d have remembered that, right?? Oh. Wait.

IMG_0718

I google pictures of marijuana leaves and I see that no, mine have only five ‘petals’ not seven and they’re not serrated. (Also no cheesie stains on the pages, so that concludes that bit of research.)

It’s possible that the book came with the pressed flowers already in it, given that it likely came from some second hand/thrift shoppy source. It’s possible this is the first time I’ve ever opened it and noticed them. So much is possible.

IMG_0714

I consider keeping the book because of the dried flowers until it dawns on me that this is a stupid reason to keep a book whose only role all these years appears to have been to press flowers and questionable looking leaves.

In which case, mission accomplished.

IMG_0715

And so, today, after a flip through its alphabetical pages, as I look for honeysuckle on a whim and can’t find it because it’s listed under ‘C’, then morning glory, also not findable under the letter you would expect to find it (who can live like this?), I realize that despite its pretty pictures and informative text and the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society, this book is not for me. Oh, I understand the point of naming things in Latin, but I still find it annoying.

Book (and herbaceous contents) thrift-shop-bound.

Feels good to be decisive.

this is not a review: ‘a walk in the night’, by Alex la Guma

I read a review about this book, a slim collection of short stories, ordered it from my bookseller then let it sit on my shelves for a couple years. Coming across it the other day I’d forgotten whatever the review said that originally invited me to buy it and because So Many Books To Read, I thought I’d give it purpose by sending to a friend who collects African literature.

I had a little note all written and ready to tuck inside, the brown paper ready to wrap it with and then… well, maybe I’ll just have a quick flip through first.

And just like that, in the blink of an eye, or after the first story, I loved it.

Why?

Because it’s not what I expected.

I expected stories of apartheid and while, yes, these are stories of apartheid; how could they not be? Not the least because Alex la Guma was a freedom fighter against apartheid to the point he had to flee his own country in 1966. He went to the UK where this book was published two years later. So, yes, there are stories of oppression but what surprised me in the most eye-opening and beautiful way are the stories of what it is to be non-White in South Africa. Which of course includes apartheid but is so much bigger than anything, no matter how horrendous, that can be imposed upon a population. It means the resilience of people and the attitude of care and compassion toward each other; it means love and families made of blood and of choice. And it shows that apartheid was not only race based, but class based.

‘The Lemon Orchard’, tells of a Black man who is led by a group of White racists through an orchard (the details of which are exquisite; you are there in the orchard as they walk, aware of the fragrance, the fruit… the juxta-positioning of this with the action and the dialogue is powerful)… walking to the outer reaches of an orchard, where they intend to punish (kill?) the Black man for being ‘cheeky’ in his response to a White man. The ending isn’t what you might expect but it’s exactly this element of ‘the unexpected’ that keeps me reading.

Another story, ‘A Matter of Taste’, finds a Chinese man and a Black man, both hobos, sharing a cup of coffee from a precious few grounds they scavenged. They’ve made a fire next to a railway line when a White man appears from the woods looking thin, hungry, and bedraggled, much like themselves. The coffee is stretched to three as they make up stories about the best meals they can imagine eating and then they imagine eating them.

‘Blankets’ is about a Black man who’s been shot and takes refuge in a lean-to that smells of urine and rot, where he’s covered in blankets that are no more than rags and smell just as bad. Then a paramedic comes, a White face looks down at him and they get him into an ambulance where he’s covered in clean blankets, real blankets, and it’s at this moment he realizes the difference between one social class and another.

Little gems, every one.

All of which to say… I’ll have to buy another copy of the book to send my friend. I’m keeping this one.

this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

As soon as I finished reading this I thought: I want to read it again. Not an altogether unusual thing for me to come to the end of a book then immediately re-read the first chapter to enter it slightly differently, with slightly more knowing so that I can experience deeper layers. Of course there are MANY occasions when that thought doesn’t come up, books I simply close and say, okay, that was that, and move on to the next. But good literature should never be read just once.

Although I would love to move on to the next book… I have a stack tottering in more than one room… but Sylvie is one of those that niggles, come back, she/it says, there’s another layer, and another.

And so I do.

Because, a) getting to know Sylvie is quite good fun and, b) because If Sylvie had Nine Lives is written in a way that makes it impossible to not want to hold up at various angles and see how things fit, what’s the same, what’s different. There is such pleasure in this literary puzzle and the writing is a joy. Here’s a sample. It comes from the chapter/story called ‘How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” and rather beautifully punctuates an uncomfortable moment that has just passed:

“Sylvie came out of her bedroom and tinkled Cheerios into a bowl, a sound to rinse the air.”

See what I mean?

In a nutshell, the book is the stories of Sylvie, a woman we meet at 19 and then see different possibilities of every five years until age 49. The same person but from nine different life choices. The ultimate unreliable narrator except that every story actually happened, or it would have if she’d chosen an alternate route in the story before.

It opens with Sylvie about to be married to Jack. It’s 1974 when bridal cars are decorated with homemade plastic flowers in the colour of bridesmaids dresses and bridal showers include pie plate hats for the bride-to-be while grooms-to-be get wasted at bars and have to be carried home. Which (in my opinion) works out dandily for Sylvie. I’ll say no more.

The next story/chapter, she’s five years older having made entirely different choices five years earlier that lead to a different present life… and so on as we move through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s to 2014. The attention to details in each decade so beautifully done, “… the unfurnished living room, evening sunlight filtering through the philodendrons and spider plants on the widow sill.” (do people even still have philodendrons?)… all of it tightly woven through the story, not an ounce of what feels forced; everything ‘belongs’. Each new story is another version of “let’s pretend”… let’s pretend there was no Jack or they didn’t get married or they did but he died or he didn’t (and she has guilt about that or doesn’t) or there’s a different cast of characters entirely or different jobs and maybe there were children or how about there are no children, all of it, whole futures, her futures and others, turning on a moment’s decision. Because that’s exactly how life works, turning and changing based on this choice and the next. We are where we are not necessarily because of what happened but because of what we chose to do about what happened.

So yes. I am re-reading this novel-in-stories with immense pleasure; I’ll begin at the beginning but then read out of order. I love that there is no wrong way to do this (in life and in the book), so many ways to imagine the future, so many fabulous ways to get there.

In the case of Sylvie’s lives, all of them a trip worth taking. Twice.

this is not a review: ‘a woman’s walks’, by lady colin campbell

The first thing I don’t like about this book is that she (Gertrude Elizabeth Blood), calls herself Lady Colin Campbell, which reminds me of the personalized stationery, little note cards on excellent stock, my mother-in-law (an otherwise intelligent and lovely woman) gave me, designed, I suppose, to obliterate any thought of whoever I used to be pre-marriage, being embossed as they were with “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)”. She explained that should I happen to send a card to a friend (who else would I send them to??) I was meant to strike a single line through “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)” and write in “Carin”. As if to say that “you (because we are friends) may call me Carin”. I still have the little copper plate that came with the box of stationery in case I ever need to replenish my supply. (hahaha) The fact that I don’t use anyone else’s name, neither first nor last (having been blessed with my own), is apparently beside the point. She, dear woman, came from an era of The Mrs.

The ‘Lady Colin Campbell’ syndrome is ridiculous. (And very different from adopting a family name, which makes a certain kind of sense in certain cases and to certain people. I do get why people do that.) But what sense can be made from using your husband’s FIRST name to identify you?

Especially, in Lady CC’s case, whose husband turns out to be an ass and they split up. Which is when she begins her worldwide wandering and writing.

But why keep the ‘Colin’???

So that was my first problem with A Woman’s Walks, by Lady Colin Campbell. Despite the rather promising cover.

The other problems relate to the privilege Lady Colin Campbell enjoys throughout her privileged life and incessantly complains about. It is a problem when a writer bores me as Lady CC does and I find it hard to plough through but I continue because I’m looking for a good walk. Unfortunately her idea of walking and mine are quite different. Hers involving much first class train travel and staff helping her get from one luxury hotel to another.

Two exceptions.

One was a stroll she took through a Venetian marketplace where she bought a captive bird, not to eat but to release. She felt very chuffed with herself about that. Her good deed for the day, which again says a lot about her and the era of that kind of privilege. Not to mention attitude towards ‘the little people’ who shop and work at markets for reasons other than amusement and who rudely eat the captive birds because they need protein and aren’t able to take a train to the next luxury hotel dining room to order their pheasant under glass.

I enjoyed seeing her hypocrisy on such magnificent display.

And of course markets always please me.

The other was a walk around Milan that ended, to her surprise, at a crematorium where she lingered, feeling comfort and solace in a way, she says, she never does in cemeteries.

Not a terrible read but not something that personally appealed overall.

The book is one of several from a London Library series: ‘Found on the Shelves’… collected essays on various subjects from “the modern cycling craze” with the invention of the bike, to dieting in the 1800’s, to trout fishing instructions for women. Etc. All of them from a time long gone and full of quirks by modern standards.

Though, really, who are we to talk of quirks…

Fun Trivia:

Turns out there’s another Lady Colin Campbell whose Colin also turned out to be a schmuck and who is not a Victorian essayist, but a contemporary writer of contemporary Royal doings.

Not only that but the modern Lady CC was originally named George William Ziadie (she had unclear genitalia at birth and her parents were advised to err on the side of male, which turned out to be wrong so at age 21 she had corrective surgery and became Georgia Arianna Ziadie). So then she marries Lord Colin Campbell who decides to sell her out to the tabloids who run untrue stories on how Lady CC was born a boy and had a sex change. So they divorce right quick. And yet… she keeps not only the whole Lady Campbell schtick, but the Colin part.

I just don’t get it.

this is not a review: ‘the sound of a wild snail eating’, by elisabeth tova bailey

 

In her thirties, Elisabeth Tova Bailey suddenly finds herself bedridden for a year as she recovers from a neurological disorder. Early in her convalescence, a friend brings her a potted violet dug up from a nearby forest. Under one of the leaves the author notices a snail. She watches it, expecting not much. What she discovers becomes not only an appreciation of this tiny creature but a kind of epiphany about her own slow process toward healing. All of which becomes the delightful memoir: The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating.

(spoiler alert: you can actually HEAR a snail eating)

Easy as it would have been, Bailey does not clutter the book with slow healing/snail metaphors, doesn’t even really mention her condition except to set it up at the beginning and how she notices the discomfort of those who visit, how her stillness makes them uncomfortable, how their own natural state is one of constant movement, agitation almost. At the end of the book she revisits her condition and takes what feels like a deep breath as she realizes what she’s been through and how impossible the year would have been without the snail.

Because the book is mostly about the snail…. as seen through the lens of someone who has few choices of focus and has chosen… the snail.

And so with her we learn with her, that snails do not, for instance, sit in their shells attached to leaves all day. They wander. They find places to drink (Bailey’s snail made its way regularly to the little tray under the pot where it searched out tiny drops of water) and they have preferences in food. Initially taking what it could find (bits of paper on the bedside table where the pot stood) Bailey’s snail (she never named it) much preferred the wilted blooms the author set down for it once she realized that fresh blooms were not its cup of tea. And remember, she’s bedridden. So she has nothing but time to study this tiny creature, the way it waves its antennae, and under what conditions. The snail becomes almost her entire focus and she searches out info online as well as through reading material she has brought in to her (a long list of ‘Selected Sources’ is included at the back of the book).

Each chapter opens with a short excerpt or quote from a piece of text or a poem and it’s a little mind-blowing as you realize how MUCH has been written about snails, how they’ve influenced art and literature, even architecture (at one point Bailey considers the design of spiral staircases and how it would feel to have one’s head at the top while our feet were at the bottom, our bodies twisted in the middle).

She learns about the gastropod’s history on earth, having existed for a half billion years and appearing on almost every part of the planet and how they move from one geographic area to another. The book weirdly charming in the best way, compelling with so much of interest in the way of snail trivia that it’s nearly impossible to imagine seeing them in the same way again, or ever taking them for granted.

Because (we discover) snails, like anything you focus on, are interesting.

It should be noted that none of this gastropod info is heavy going and all of it, fascinating. At only 175 or so pages, the book reads like a journal of notes and details the author found personally interesting, added her own moments of mulling and wonder, then arranged it into text.

“The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything, and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.”

This appears early in the book. By the end she has come to realize that the very act of being forced to slow down, of living with an abundance of time, and a snail, has allowed for much and continual forward movement.

 

Many thanks to Theresa Kishkan, who suspected I’d like this
given how much I enjoyed ‘the mole book’.

this is not a review: ‘to measure the world’, by karen shenfeld

 

Karen Shenfeld’s newest collection of poems, To Measure the World, feels like a love letter to life and its inevitable yin and yang, some of which comes with shock,

such as the end of a marriage,

“Be aware of those days when you might neglect the signs – / the gasp of plants, the lake’s too brilliant colour”

which, only on a backward glance reveals the signs of its unravelling.

In ‘Milestones’, a paean to the author’s mother, she compares moments from both their lives,

“This is not a mirage. In time-lapsed frames , / your lines crease my face.
I lean on your cane.”
 

I love the use of the word ‘lines’ in this line and how ‘cane’ is not a negative but part of the song.

‘Beach Poem’ is a powerful illustration of subtle differences between siblings that maybe only siblings know.

“I’ll leave for you the fine / white sand maternal as talcum / that dusts your bared soles, / eludes your tightfisted grasp.”

And what a joy to see ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, which first appeared online at The Litter I See Project. In the context of this collection it takes on a deeper meaning, juxtaposed among the debris of so many and various relationships. The final lines, a gorgeous image:

“Tomorrow, I’ll wrap a potato in / a rocket’s fallen scraps.”

The book reads like an homage to both the welcome and the difficult in life’s journey, a reminder that both are necessary and neither are to be feared,

or taken for granted.

 

this is not a review: ‘how to catch a mole’, by marc hamer

 

Sometime back I read a review of How to Catch a Mole  that struck a chord and so I ordered a copy, which then sat on my TBR pile for ages because I’d forgotten what chord the review struck and, well… who wants to read a book about moles???

Answer (it turns out): me.

In what feels like chatting with the gardener after bringing him out a cup of tea and then staying, entranced, all afternoon, Hamer imparts his own personal story,  told through his life as a mole catcher. (Please know there is nothing about this premise that appeals to me. And yet, it is one of the most charming books I’ve read in ages.) Promising, at the outset, that if nothing else, the reader will learn a lot about moles (again, this is a promise I have no interest in) he delivers in ways that make you see so many things differently and more broadly and where you want to cringe at the idea of catching moles, he convinces you that it is NOT the most dreadful thing at all. Mostly because he himself comes off as a most gentle, nature-loving soul.

Having begun his working life as an itinerant gardener he was soon asked by clients to please do something about the moles tearing up lawns. He had no idea what to do about moles. And he might have left it there and simply continued the gardening side of things. But he chose to learn. And so it begins, this education, not only of trapping, but about mole mentality and behaviour, and mole mentors and the whole world of mole catchers and the various approaches (vastly different) and how through all this learning of gardens and moles, he comes to a whole new philosophy of life and a deeper appreciation of nature.

“The mole disrupts the artificial serenity of a lawn in a way that is unacceptable for some. 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. I once had a customer with a neat town garden who was obsessed with the branches on his gorgeous magnolia tree being uneven — there were more on one side than the other. No living thing is ever perfectly symmetrical, and imperfection is where beauty is found. But this man counted the branches and cut some of them off to try to make the tree balance. He had no vision of what he wanted, he could only see what he didn’t want. “

By the time the man had finished cutting the branches, he’d ruined the tree.

In another story, Hamer tells how William of Orange’s horse tripped over a mole hill causing William to break his collarbone in the fall then suffering consequences that lead to his death from pneumonia, which led to the toast… “To the little gentleman in black velvet” by those of a different political stripe. (In London’s St. James Square there’s a statue of William on his horse and just near the rear left hoof, there is a wee molehill.)

Each chapter is equal parts mole lesson and life lesson.

“To catch your mole, buy three half-barrel traps. You will need at least three. Buy the best and most expensive ones that you can find. Killing a living thing should not be cheap or slow.”

“My mind is losing its need to control the world around me… I forget easily and willingly, and because of this Peggy and I rarely argue, each day begins with a forgiveness for things that may or may not have happened… Healing is just adapting to change, acceptance.”

The book, really, is a meditation on life.

“Healing is not about re-making things as they once were, healing is about acceptance and forgiveness and love and growth and beginning again. Scar tissue is an inevitable part of life.”

The chapter ‘The History of Molecatching’ might be my favourite except that all the others are my favourite too.

“The British Isles saw the first mole catchers around 54 BC: they were Romans who didn’t want their grapevines and other crops uprooted by moles: they wanted to grow unspoiled flower gardens… I catch moles in the same way that the Romans caught them, by learning their behaviour, probing for tunnels, kneeling down and setting a trap.”

“In the Middle Ages mole catchers were vagrants who travelled from town to town looking for molehills on people’s land, knocking on door and catching moles for money.”

And that all the history comes at the end of the book is interesting… and clever, because at that point Hamer has successfully charmed the reader into wanting to know more about the business of, and nature of, moles.

Which may be the book’s biggest surprise. (Seriously, if you read it and are not even slightly charmed by the offering of mole tidbits, please let me know.)

He has since retired and while still regularly asked to catch moles he now happily declines. After all this, he wonders why people don’t just a) learn to catch moles themselves or, even better, b) grow a flower meadow instead of a formal garden so molehills won’t matter.

“The moles don’t need to be killed. The European mole is protected species in Germany and Austria: gardeners there put up with them.”

Above all, the book is an homage to living life, to working, to making a life in whatever way you can or choose to, that ultimately has you respecting life more in the process.

“The small things are the things which in their millions make the world work. The craftsmen, the traders, the men in white vans who bring stuff and fix stuff; the people in the factories who knit my jumpers and weave the wool to make the tweed for my trousers; the farmers — the individual men and women who care for and grow the things we eat and wear, who look after the landscape for the love of it. The steps that we take that lead us to where we are. The small things, the tiny, tiny interactions, are the journey.”