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

A A A

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

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice