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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?