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.”


this is not a review: ‘the book of marvels’, by lorna crozier

I have a fondness for the overlooked and easily abandoned, things that seemingly have no use or appear to be limited in their use or have the misfortune of being in the company of people with no imagination. I suspect Lorna Crozier shares this fondness because The Book of Marvels  is dedicated to exactly that… the easily overlooked, the rarely if ever thought about, things that are right there, like air and eggs, ironing boards, crowbars, darkness and the brain… “The brain thinking about itself is thinking about the brain thinking. The brain not thinking about itself is thinking about the brain not thinking.”

I could just stop right there and mull that over for half a day.

But I’m compelled to read on, to savour the next bite-sized morsel, one more beautifully presented, poetic prosey observation about something I’ve never thought of in quite the way I’m reading it here. I make my way through the book like it’s a bar of 85% chocolate.

About the sky… “The sky is a blouse snatched from the back of a woman. No. The sky is a muddle of clouds that won’t sit still in the lecture hall. No…”

And then I look up at the sky and ask is it a blouse?  Yes of course! And no.

About a clothes hanger, Crozier points out the “cryptic punctuation mark”, the “?” atop the ‘shoulders’ of the wire or plastic or wooden frame, shoulders that are hidden by clothes but the “?” is always visible,  creating within our closets a row of “?????????????”…  that “bring to your attention …the multitude of questions whose answers you don’t know.”

She refers to feet as our “nethermost telluric twins” and I’ve learned a new word. And then she goes on to reflect on the moment of their first walking out of prehistoric waters “… our spines straightening, our gills slamming shut, the salt on our skin crusting in the dry air, our hands astonished into being hands and not another pair of feet.”

The hinges of a bird’s wings, the way one word hinges on another… how this is where poetry begins.

The pointlessness of an ear lobe.

The way a stone is “… a clock whose face you can’t read.”

The book is small. The marvels take up no more than a page each, a short paragraph or two. They are listed alphabetically. The only item under ‘O’ is ‘Objects’ in which Crozier quotes William Matthews who said “… if an object fails to interest us, it’s not its fault but our own.”

Couldn’t agree more. The Book of Marvels  is rich with the fruit of paying attention to connections, to the minutia that surrounds us, the frippery that has nothing yet everything to do with how we live. It’s a book that changes how you look at a flashlight, an eraser or a doorknob.

And isn’t that just so refreshing?



The Book of Marvels  is available online at Blue Heron Books
and Hunter Street Books.

Support indies! (These are two of my faves.)




this is not a review: ‘braiding sweetgrass’, by robin wall kimmerer

Oh nuts. Time has whipped by and my inter-library (thank you, *Trent Hills!) copy of Braiding Sweetgrass  is due back before I’ve had the chance to read more than a few of its essays.

This is down to a couple of things. The stacks of books and papers in my house being the only one worth mentioning. (Tho’ if you must know, the other is an obsession with watching taped episodes of Escape to the Country, which occasionally cuts into my extracurricular reading time.)

In any case.

I did read enough to know that I’m not troubled by having to give it back because I’ve decided I need my own copy of the book. In the same way and for many of the same but also different reasons that I needed my own copy of Theresa Kishkan’s beautiful Mnemonic…  a memoir through the memory of trees and, often, the houses and lives surrounded by them, not all of them her own — “All my life, I have wondered at the feeling I have in particular houses, usually ones in which no one lives any longer.”

And Peter Wohlleben’s The  Hidden Life of Trees , which I read in a Kawartha forest cabin and then wandered among the birch and spruce in a whole new way, alert and hopeful for a sense of the conversations I now realized were going on all around me.

And The Sweetness of a Simple Life, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, one of those tiny eye/mind openers that change your world in the very best way. Every bit of clover in my yard is because of her.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to adding Braiding Sweetgrass  to that particular shelf and to continue reading Kimmerer’s gorgeous essays on nature. Here’s just a wee slice from ‘Asters and Goldenrod’ where she writes about the reason she chose to study botany in the first place… a moment from her intake interview at college:

“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was a born botanist, that I had shoe boxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my  bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants colored  my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”

Kimmerer is my kind of guide through the natural world because she doesn’t see a difference between it and us. (Spoiler alert: she gets into botany school and learns the science, but never, thankfully, unlearns her innate connection and unique eye/heart/spirit for what is real.)


* That Trent Hills Library happens to be in Campbellford, a place I only discovered and fell into great affection with last year (they have a Stedmans!), is the kind of scrumptious serendipity that makes my heart sing. Also, I love the inter-library system.


this is not a review — nature’s little wonders: bees, by candace savage

“The life of a bee is like a magic well. The more you draw from it, the more there is to draw.” ~ Karl von Frisch

—A beautifully made book of satiny semi-gloss pages, colour photos, drawings, side-bars rife with fascinating facts, bee lore and poetry. Co-published (2008) by D&M Publishers (Greystone Books) and David Suzuki Foundation.  A joy to read. And important too. [Excellent gift idea. The bees will thank you. Which, in turn, is good for us human bee’ns.]

Here’s but a few things I learned from its delightful pages

Bees evolved from wasps.

They are herbivores, sting only in defence; raise young on protein rich pollen while wasps are carnivores, sting for food; eat other insects; also like people food [especially mine].

There are currently 16,000+ species of bees, ranging in size from that of a fruit fly to half the size of a human palm. (4,000 species in N. America)

A colony is about 300-400 bees of which most of those are worker bees.9781553655312

All worker bees are female; they live 60 days or so, except for those born late in season, which will spend a winter in the hive.

Only a few males are produced in late summer for one purpose: to mate and thereby produce fresh queens for the following year.

After the once-in-a-lifetime mating spree, the queen has enough sperm stored in her body to fertilize each egg she lays. Fertilized eggs become female (worker bees). Unfertilized become male (drones).

A Queen bee lays eggs (1,500 each summer day/ half a million in a lifespan of two years) while worker bees help raise successive broods of females.

The eggs are fed and raised by the female worker bees. Only a very few are reared in special areas of colony and fed the ultra-nutritious royal jelly, which allows them to grow into queens, i.e. egg layers.

Worker bees know that it’s time to raise a new queen (i.e. feed the royal jelly) when the current queen’s pheromones no longer predominate in the hive.

Drones die immediately after mating, or are killed. [I’ll spare you the gruesome details.]

Bee stingers don’t get stuck in bee flesh the way they do in human flesh. So they ‘can’ sting one another to death. [see above… but this is merely one method of getting rid of unwanted drones]

Honeybees can see colour.  [The book outlines how this was first shown by placing a bowl of sugar water on a square of blue paper. The bees, of course, were attracted to the sugar. Then the bowl was removed and the blue square moved to a different position among several grey squares. Didn’t matter. The bees still went to the blue square.]

The book cites the work of Karl von Frisch, A Nobel Prize winner for his research on the honeybee, and Martin Lindauer, a student of von Frisch, and a renowned bee expert in his own right. Of Lindauer, Savage writes:

“Through the glass walls of his observation hive, Lindauer could watch the workers as they scurried around performing their household tasks. Here, bees were cleaning out vacant cells in preparation for reuse, by removing old cocoons and re-coating the walls with wax. Over there, others were poking their heads into occupied cells, the ones with grubs in them, to check on the larvae and see if they needed to be fed. (According to Lindauer’s data, nurse bees inspect each larva, on average, 1,926 times during the five or six days before it makes its cocoon but feed it on only 143 of those visits.) Elsewhere in the hive, bees were busy building comb, capping comb, packing comb with pollen. Tucked away in a quiet corner, an individual might be flicking a droplet of nectar in and out on her tongue, waiting for the honeyed glob to thicken. At the same time, others were fanning their wings near the entrance, for cooling or ventilation, or standing guard in the doorway, with their forelegs raised and their antennae up, at attention.”

Lindauer noted that bees are hyper aware of various stimuli, changes in temperature, texture, taste, and instinctively know how to respond or communicate direction to others. When he inadvertently put a heat lamp too close to the hive he noticed the bees stopped foraging for pollen and collected water droplets instead to flick into the hive for a cooling effect.

Savage addresses the issue of colony collapse and other problems we’ve contributed to, while noting that “Bees [bring] sweetness out of chaos. Humans, on the other hand, [seem] to have an instinct for devastation. Could it be that these insects have something to teach us?”

And this, perhaps my most favourite morsel of all:

“Unlike human groups, which often seem less intelligent than the individuals who make them up, a swarm of bees is always smarter than the sum of its parts.”


little things (the big stuff always is)

“If you are like me, learning about bees will change your life. I’m not suggesting that you’ll drop everything and devote yourself to studying insects (though that is possible). What I have in mind is more subtle: a new alertness, a quickening of wonder. Little things that, in the past, have slipped by almost without notice will now demand that you stop and pay attention to them. The hum of wings: whose wings? An insect darting among the flowers: is it a bee or a beefly, a bumblebee or a wasp? What is it doing? Where is it headed? True, it may take you a bit longer to water the petunias or pick the beans, but in those few stolen minutes, you will have been on safari. Gradually, you will begin to sense that a garden is not just a bunch of plants set out in pots and rows: it is a world within a world, a half-tamed ecosystem, full of some of the most exotic and astonishing creatures on the planet.”

—from Bees: nature’s little wonders, by Candace Savage (Greystone Books, 2008)