Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We all know what they look like, but have you ever really seen a mole? - Nature Studies - Nature - The Independent

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We all know what they look like, but have you ever really seen a mole?

It is the only mammal to spend most of its time underground

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Grand ambitions are the stuff of glory. I guess they're at their grandest with someone like Alexander the Great, wanting to conquer the known world and succeeding before he was 30. Asked by his generals on his deathbed in Babylon which of them he would will his empire to, he whispers hoarsely: "To the best." What an exit line, eh?

Of course, grand ambitions are more often the stuff of tragedy or evil, such as those of Genghis Khan or Napoleon, but they're always eye-catching, are they not? And there are grand literary and social ambitions, and grand political and sporting ambitions, and we regard them all with a sort of awe because in their very striving they seem to contain some sort of self-authenticating legitimacy, as if it were a natural, praiseworthy and even inspiring part of the human condition to aim as high as possible.

But what about ambitions in a minor key? What about small, even titchy ambitions? We regard them differently, don't we, and feel discomfort in taking them seriously. I have been giving this some thought, because I have been harbouring in my bosom of late an ambition that I cannot imagine Genghis Khan or Napoleon paying much account to, still less Alexander the Great, and it is this: I would like to see a mole.

Now, I confess that, set against the backdrop of world history, this aim may not seem excessively noteworthy but I would contend that it is significant nonetheless. I would seek to establish this point by asking you, the reader, a simple question: have you ever seen a live mole?

You know perfectly well, of course, what it looks like, with its pig-like snout and its big front claws, and you know it has a special place in our imagination in being the only mammal to spend most of its time underground, and of course you've seen molehills by the thousand. But the animal itself? Have you ever actually set eyes on one?

My own sad admission is that I have not. Such knowledge as I possess of the beast derives from a fascinating book, The Mole by Kenneth Mellanby, published in 1971 as the very last of the species monographs in the celebrated Collins New Naturalist series. Mellanby, who was one of Britain's leading ecologists, is marvellously entertaining on subjects such as moles' extreme and often fatal aggression towards each other. "Moles hate their own species!" he writes.

But, somehow, even such elevated natural history seems no substitute for personal experience. I think it's because I feel that we are increasingly cut off from the natural world, even where it is at the base of much of our imagination – thus the mole is the source of various English figures of speech, from Hamlet describing the ghost of his father as "old mole" to John le Carré's sagas of hunting for moles in the British Secret Service (the enemy spy who has tunnelled his way in).

And I want to see the real tunneller. I want to behold the source of the metaphor. And so in considering which new year resolutions might be appropriate, I decided I would try to see some special parts of the natural world in Britain in 2012 which have escaped me up to now, and which might include the spider orchid, the hawfinch, and the grannom – a sedge fly which swarms in enormous numbers on lowland rivers in April.

But the mole is at the top of the list. I want to see a live mole in 2012. There you are; it's off my chest. It might not be up there with the ambitions of Napoleon or Alexander The Great, but it's my ambition, and if you know where I can find one, please get in touch.

Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort revisited

I was somewhat taken aback by the response to the previous Nature Studies of 23 December, about the saga of the last gnomes left in England, by the countryman and author "BB" (Denys Watkins-Pitchford).

The story of Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, and their quest for their long-lost brother Cloudberry, told in two books, The Little Grey Men and Down The Bright Stream, clearly affected a great number of people in its time, although it never quite broke through to become nationally celebrated, in the manner of The Wind In The Willows, say. Seventeen readers emailed me with virtually the same message: "I thought I was the only one who loved these books."

There is clearly a powerful potential audience out there still, both for the books and perhaps even a film, although God forbid any film version should ruin the feel of the saga by making it twee. The gnomes' tale is grounded in gritty realism.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@mjpmccarthy

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