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31 august 2020

My grandfather tangled with moles that infested his back yard. It's not that they did much practical damage: all he had was a lawn, and nobody could see that lawn from the road anyway. But he felt obliged to go after them by directing a garden hose into their burrows. The lot in northern Illinois where he'd had his house built had recently been a cornfield. Moles are "creatures of rural areas and suburbs," as Steve Gronert Ellerhoff says, and having lived mostly in cities, I haven't seen many molehills since.

One species of mole is native to Texas – Scalopus aquaticus – but the soils where I live now are either clay or sand, and the Eastern Mole thrives in loam like that of my grandfather's ex-cornfield. Moles, though, are par excellence creatures that you know are there but can only sense indirectly.

For that reason, mole ethology is difficult. Ellerhoff discusses the methods of two of the more ingenious mole scientists. In the 1950s, Gillian Godfrey soldered radioactive capsules to the tails of moles and released them. She could then track their unseen excavations with a Geiger counter. More recently, Yi-Fen Lin has captured moles and constructed what sound like outsize ant farms in order to observe them: instead of sand, she uses couscous.

Moles are consummate digging engineers. Their specialized forepaws do the heavy work, but their exquisitely sensitive snouts seem to conceptualize the processes of constructing dwellings and finding prey. The bizarre star-nosed mole, which likes marshes and mud, has one of the best senses of touch in the animal kingdom. Moles are loners. Except for mothers and young, they do not form social groups, and actively attack one another if given the chance. It is a little unclear, to this day, how they mate. Ellerhoff speculates that hormones must overcome the usually-dominant fight response. Probably a little like all sexual species, at that.

Ellerhoff is interesting on mole behavior. He includes a nice interview-driven section on the work of Louise Chapman, the present-day Lady Mole Catcher of Norfolk. He is on less sure ground when it comes to mole taxonomy and evolution (where he becomes oddly repetitive). But these flaws are redeemed when Ellerhoff discusses the representation of moles in literature and popular culture.

Ellerhoff's Mole includes one of the best literary essays in the Reaktion Animal series. Moles figure in many a tradition of myth and legend, but enter the modern Western literary consciousness with Hans Christian Andersen's "Tommelise" (or "Thumbelina") and its stuffy, blinkered suitor of a mole. Ellerhoff groups "Tommelise" with earlier pre-literary works, though Andersen was clearly a modern literary writer. He moves on in later chapters to look at moles in The Wind in the Willows, moles in many a 20th-century poem, moles (and human-mole hybrids) in horror movies, moles in postmodern art. This is great stuff, displaying a wide range of learning and analysis.

Many of the early Reaktion Animal books were printed in China and could have used better proofreading. Coincidentally or not, Mole is produced in India and its text shows superior copy-editing. It is an all-round pleasure to read.

Ellerhoff, Steve Gronert. Mole. London: Reaktion, 2020.