Tobias Carroll | Longreads | October 2019 | 17 minutes (4,589 words)
How does one acquire a trade? And what happens when you decide that your chosen profession is suddenly anathema to you? Those two questions hang over Marc Hamer’s book How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature. The title is not a metaphor: Hamer spent most of his working life catching moles; and this book, he explains the moment that prompted his decision to stop, and the series of events that led him to that point.
It’s a singular memoir. Hamer describes a life spent making his way around Britain, including a period of homelessness early in his life. His book abounds with reflective passages about a life lived in nature, mortality, and the ways in which humanity does and does not interact with the natural world. And, of course, there’s information on catching moles.
The resulting book is fascinating in its observations on the quotidian and in its ability to capture its author’s frame of mind. “At some point on a long walk you stop being who you thought you were,” he writes halfway through, “but you don’t question it because the questions stop too.”
I spoke with Hamer about the genesis of his book, the historical roots of molecatching, and the ways that moles have embraced the splendor of suburban lawns.
Tobias Carroll: In the book, you focus on the end of your time working as a molecatcher. What’s your life been like since you ended this job that you’d had for so many years?
Marc Hamer: Well, I carried on working as a gardener for another year after that, but it’s started to get a bit difficult for me. My knees went and it was hard to work in the gardens anymore, so I stopped doing any of that kind of work. I still walk in the mountains and go for long walks and things, but work like that is just not part of my life anymore. But I’ve taken on a new kind of life, really. I do a lot of walking. I sit in cafes and watch the world go by and, obviously, writing. I’m doing a lot more writing. I’m having a lot of fun, actually. It’s been a massive change in my life, and it’s been a really lovely thing that’s happened to me.
Do you have other book projects in the works? Are you doing more shorter works?
Yeah, I’ve got a sequel I’m working on at the moment. It’s actually about wrapping up my time working as a gardener on a large country estate. And so, I’ve got a sequel. I’m close to finishing that. I’m starting a series of edits right now on it. And then I’m going to have a nice rest and just wander around and look at the world.
In the book, you write about your younger life, and how you spent a lot of time living rough in your younger days, and eventually finding this line of work. Was there one moment where you realized that working as a gardener and catching moles was going to be this occupation that would sustain you for many years?
I don’t think there was a moment when that happened. I think I just kind of fell into it, really. I did lots and lots of other different kinds of jobs, and I think the time came and I was looking for some work. I’d just finished an art degree and obviously, you can’t make any money out of that kind of thing unless you’re in a particular situation. Things came together then, of gardening and going back outside, and just spending my life outdoors and things like that. And it just became the obvious thing for me to do, really. There were lots of parallels and reminders from my early life, and it’s a thing that I felt a deep, deep affinity with, I suppose. It felt natural to me to go and do that rather than to enter a world of commerce.
There’s one very memorable passage in the book where you’re talking about walking constantly and keeping pace with the season of spring making its way across the country, which I thought was really affecting. Were there moments where your experience of having spent so much time outdoors before you became a gardener came to bear and proved to be useful as you began doing that professionally?
I don’t know so much about useful. What happened was, when I was living outside, I got into a state after a quite short period of time where I just stopped trying to think about things and work things out, and just looked at what was going on around me. And I think that gave me an ability, as a gardener, to just spend time in the garden and look at it and figure it out, and try and understand it and try and understand what the seasons were doing and what the plants were trying to do, or what the rain was doing, what the weather was doing to the plants. I went quiet, I think, and that allowed me to just look and try and understand.
I was living outside…I just stopped trying to think about things and work things out, and just looked at what was going on around me…I went quiet, I think, and that allowed me to just look and try and understand.
Did you have a specific area of focus when you were studying art?
I started off painting. I wasn’t very good at it, and went into doing sculpture, working with stone and wood and things like that. So, again, another concept with the landscape, really, going outside and working outside. But, again, I just wasn’t very good at it to be perfectly honest. I’m a bit clumsy and I can’t do fine work. It never worked out for me. But I think that whole connection with materials was, again, part of the same themes really came through, working with wood and stone and things.
I feel like with both gardening and sculpture, you’re seeing different elements of encountering the world in a tactile way.
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, you asked me moments ago about what life was like now, and here I am, sitting in my house, when a couple years ago, I would have been outside in the woods or outside in the gardens or in the fields. I’m sitting in my house and I’m talking on the mobile phone, and I’ve got a computer just behind me here I’ll be working on today. It’s a very different and disconnected kind of feeling. I haven’t got stuff in my hands and it feels slightly odd sometimes. I feel I just need to put my boots on and get out and start hiking. If feels a bit odd to be dealing with plastic and glasses and things like that instead of stone and mud and dirt.
One of the striking things I found about your book was the section where you’re talking about how there’s no word for a crowd of moles because moles are inherently very solitary. Later on, you talk about moles’ burrows in connection with the London Underground. To what extent do you think that humans are particularly similar to moles? Or, instead, do you think that there’s an inherent similarity between molecatchers and moles?
I think we are all animals and human beings are animals as well, and we live these kind of lives, so there are parallels with many of the different animals in the world. I don’t think human beings are particularly like moles. I think I drew that picture because when I’m in the city, that’s just what I feel like; I mean, there’s tunnels facing around.
I think, as creatures, we are creatures on this planet and we share it with all the other creatures. It worries me a little bit when I come across people who don’t realize that they’re just other animals, because that breeds the situation where people can get a bit exploitative of the environment and leads us into some of the environmental disasters that we’re on the verge of at the moment. And just knowing that you’re an animal changes the picture.
I literally woke up today to the news that the U.S. government is making it harder to classify species as endangered, which is a pretty worrisome thing from my perspective.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. But the thing is, I think the most endangered species on this planet at the moment is us. I don’t think we’ve actually got that much time left, to be honest. The earth will carry on.
You write a lot about complexities and contradictions. Something that you address in the book is the fact that you had made a living from catching and killing moles, but you’ve also been a vegetarian for many years. Was that a contradiction that you were wrestling with at any point during your career gardening and dealing with moles?
Well, absolutely, yes. The thing is, I was gardening and there were people coming in to capture the moles and I’m, at that time, a vegetarian. I still am a vegetarian. And at that time, they were coming in to catch and kill the moles, and I thought, “This really needs to be done, however, there are other ways of doing it,” and that’s how I ended up doing it. It was somebody else is going to do it or I am going to do it, and I thought there were other reasons as well that were about how I felt about myself as a man. “Am I capable of going out there and killing something or am I, as some people had accused me of being, just some wuss who couldn’t do it?” I needed to answer those questions for myself, really. And I needed to see if there was a better way of dealing with the situation.
So, it’s got a complex root into doing it, and all the way through doing it; it was not a comfortable thing for me to do, but I did it anyway. There are those contradictions there, and it’s, like, but the whole of life is like this; we get presented with complex situations, and there’s often no win-win way through this. You just have to work it out to the best of your ability, and I think that’s what I was doing there, to be honest.
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You juxtapose the methods that you had used versus the people who would come in and just put poisoned worms in the ground and let them do their work. It certainly seems like the more traditional methods are something that seems far more humane than that.
Yeah, it seemed to me that way. I did lots and lots of research about it. I mean, I really wanted to find out what was the best way of dealing with this problem. To me, it’s not really a problem anymore, but, to some people, it was a serious problem, and I needed to find what the best way was of dealing with that. I just did lots and lost of research, and I looked at all the different ways, from scaring them away to relocating them, and to researching lots of different methods of trapping as well, and different traps themselves. But I put a lot of effort into finding out the most humane way of getting rid of the moles from places where they weren’t wanted, and sadly, the only way that is humane and that actually works and that is safe for the other creatures around is to trap them and kill them. And I couldn’t find a better way of doing it than that.
One of the other things I found fascinating was when you talked about how modern, very well maintained, very well-kept lawns are the ideal conditions under which moles flourish. I was talking to my mother on the phone the other day and mentioned that I was interviewing you about this and she said, “Oh, could you ask him for advice because we’ve got mole problems at the house.” My parents take very good care of their lawn, and then I got to that section I read it and thought, “Okay. Yeah. I think I know why there’s a mole problem.”
You’re feeding the moles. You’re taking good care of your lawns. You’re providing ideal conditions — so then just neglect it. They’ll go away.
In your book, you touch on the idea of creating more of a wild space in a yard rather than the more traditional lawn. I grew up in a very suburban area, so I’m used to sprawling lawns everywhere. But lately, I’ve seen the movement of, “Maybe we should do something else with these spaces and not just have grass and let this become a little bit more of a wild space,” which I find pretty fascinating.
Yeah, it’s a thing that is growing, and I’ve noticed it recently going around to various book fairs and things like that that I’ve been doing. There’s definitely a movement to do what’s called re-wilding, to reintroduce native species and to let the land do what it does naturally if you weren’t there, and to appreciate the wilderness as it is, appreciate the wildflowers and the grasses and the insects and the creatures that it draws in.
I think that over here, anyway, there’s definitely a movement towards that, and it’s a beautiful thing. You see gardens like that. One garden I looked after, we had a wild meadow, and the moles were allowed to stay there and the grasses and the wildflowers brought in all kinds of creatures. Various different kinds of mice and foxes were there, and birds of prey and ground birds, and it was the most fertile part of the garden, really.
It worries me a little bit when I come across people who don’t realize that they’re just other animals.
I don’t know if you read the Richard Powers novel The Overstory, that won the Pulitzer this year?
I haven’t yet. No.
There are some similar themes going on in there, in more of a fictional context. You can tell what he’s been reading and what he’s been thinking about.
I think people are really wanting to connect again. I mean, I’m doing events in cities in London and things like that and people are very, very interested in how to reconnect with…You know, we live in this massive city where there’s a bit of green. How do we reconnect with it? I think people are really interested in moving in that direction again. I think there’s definitely a growing interest there. Absolutely. And it’s a lovely thing.
You write about living in Wales nowadays. What drew you to that region as a place to live and settle down?
It was work, really. It was just about finding work. My wife found work here in Wales because we met at art school, and she found work here. Then I came along and we had kids and we just settled down here, really, and stayed here. So, we’ve been for thirty-odd years now. So, this is what we call home. I wasn’t born here. She was born here.
One of the things you’d mentioned when you were writing about when you were growing up was the fact that you said when you were a child, your family moved around a lot. Was that also for job-related reasons or something else?
I think it was basically a social class thing. People moved around. I mean, my ancestors are Ireland on one side and Scottish on the other side, and they’d been laborers and railway workers and things like that. There was constant movement, looking for work, so there was no land that anybody calls home, really, when I was young. We’d stay somewhere. We’d be there two or three years and then we’d be off somewhere else again. So, we were constantly on the move, so there was never a place that was, like, “This is our homeland. This is our square mile.”
And I don’t there was a base for any of us really, right back to my grandparents, people before that. There’s nobody that was, like, “This is home now. This is where we’re from.” And even now, I get people saying, “Where are you from?” And I have to stop and think for a little while and think, “How do I answer that question? What does that mean, where am I from? Does it mean just the place where I was born or is it place where I’m living now or where have I spent most of my time?” So, I think that it’s a cultural thing really. It’s just part of the culture that I was born into, really.
Interspersed throughout the book, you move from prose into verse, and there’s one part where you talk about jotting down some poetry on your phone while you were outside. When did you begin writing poetry? Did it begin at the same time as writing prose or were the two very separate for you initially?
I’d written for years and years and years, really, and never actually got to the point of putting anything together and submitting it to anybody. I’d mostly written poetry and short stories. And I suppose what was happening while I was working was, you’re going into this very silent space and just looking around. The images and the words would come, and I’d take them down because, “I kind of like that. I’m going to write that down.” It grew from there, really.
That night, I would come home and then write them up and build them up again, and then I honed the rest of the text around the poems. They’re integral to each of them, really. I see the poems as a commentary on what’s happening in my mind while these are the things that are happening through the day while I’m working, doing various different things. And so, for me, they’re part of the same story. They’re a little rest as well, commentary and a little rest from the rest of the year of prose.
When did you then decide that you were going to sit down and tell the story of your experience with moles, your experience working in the outdoors and working in nature?
That was about three years ago, I think, when I started thinking, “Right, I’m going to pull all this together now.” Initially, it was just going to be the very factual things of how to catch a mole, and the various options that you’ve got, like the poisons and the scare-ers. Initially, it was going to be a very, very short book about that with some of the poetry interspersed, and some photographs. I was going to put photographs in it.
As I built it up, it grew, and other things came through, like talking about the moles being solitary and then the baby moles being kicked out. I thought, “There is just so many parallels here with my own story.” And I thought, “I’m going to thread some of that through as well,” so it grew and grew and grew, and became what it is now, really. So, it’s all these different elements that got woven together because I couldn’t not weave them together because they were there and shouted out at me saying, “Put me in here. You need to put this in here.” That same kind of thing.
It developed and then a couple years ago, I thought, “Right, I’m going to take the winter and I’m going to huddle myself up somewhere and just pull it all together and finish it and then send it out to see what somebody in the outside world might think of it.” And so I did, after a couple of false starts because I needed to do some work on my house and things like that, I did it. And I sent it out and here we are today, really.
I found an agent to work with, and we pulled it together in time to do all that, and there we are.
One of the other things that really struck me about the book and really moved me was the fact that you’re writing a lot about mortality, whether it’s your own or the life cycles of different animals or the larger life cycles of different ecosystems. Was that something that you initially thought you were going to be dealing with to the extent that you did, or was that something that emerged organically as you were writing it and structuring it?
I think that very much emerged organically as I was writing it, once I started to talk about going out and killing the moles; it’s a very factual thing in the book. It’s stated boldly what happens to them and how they die in this manner. Once I started talking about that, and then the parallels of my own life, and a couple of near death experiences of my own, and then also getting to the point of where I’m not going to do this anymore. And partially, that was because of catching the live mole at the end, and partially, that was because I’m getting on in years and it’s got harder for me to kneel down on the ground, and especially because mole catching, here anyway, is very often done in the depth of winter. And so, I’m kneeling on frozen ground, and I thought, “My body just can’t stand this much longer.”
I’m seeing things dying all the time and things being born all the time. Anybody who works outside, it’s a daily occurrence. You see things born and you see them die regularly, and you do develop an intimate relationship with death and with things dying and then the fear goes away. So, you realize that this just is the complete and utter cycle. You were born and you’re going to die and that’s the truth of it and because you’re seeing it every day, you can get comfortable with it or you can fear it for all your days. And I got comfortable with it, I think.
The thing is, I think the most endangered species on this planet at the moment is us. I don’t think we’ve actually got that much time left, to be honest.
Very late in the book, you give a very broad history of the profession of mole catching and talk about it going back to the time of ancient Rome. When did you become aware of this long history? Was that something you knew going into it or was it something you became aware of as you just from doing it, and learned more and more over time?
I think it was as I was doing it and talking to the people, and occasionally bumping into another molecatcher. You get stories and you get to realize that. One of the odd things was that everybody I talked to had different beliefs about why moles did certain things. They’ve been taught by somebody with a certain belief and it’s almost a skill that gets handed down from hand to hand, really.
One of them is, sometimes you’ll see a tunnel that’s at the surface of the ground. It’s just raised grass. And I’ve heard at least three different stories from different molecatchers who firmly believed that there were completely different reasons why they did this. Some people said that they’re looking for a mate. Other people said it’s because the air’s dry and the worms have gone down and come back up again. You know, air pressure. Lots of different things like that and people believe them because that’s what they’ve been taught. And the reality is, nobody really knows. So, lots of information.
And I kept thinking, “Where’s all this stuff coming from? Where is this information coming from?”And obviously, it’s just been handed down and handed down. And then I started looking and I was finding old postcards and looking for pictures of molecatchers from the 19th century and things like that. Then I started getting a bit more interested in where the history was, and looking at old traps, and that was a thing I found a lot of. I’m looking for ancient, ancient mole traps, right back to when, as you say, the Romans had little pottery mole traps. It just got merged out of curiosity, really, at the time.
You also talk about the overlap between mole catching and the idea of the profession of the cunning man, which I found very interesting.
I did go looking for more information about them, and I couldn’t find an awful lot of information. I could find references but no fascinating or interesting stories about it, really. There were references to cunning men selling some mole skins and mole hands to heal rheumatism, and potions made out of moles’ blood and things like that. There were references to them, but I couldn’t actually find any stories where I could put a name or a place or a date or anything like that, which would have been lovely if I have been able to find them. I just couldn’t find them. As I said, there were references, though, to those things.
Towards the end of the book, you talk about the fact that mole catching as a profession has started to have a small resurgence now because people are’‘t using poison anymore, and there’s a return to the older methods. How do you feel about it as a profession having this small upswing where more people are picking up these traditions?
There is a small upswing, but the thing is, the need for molecatchers is not as much as it was in the past because they used to be employed by farmers, basically. The vast majority of molecatchers were employed by farmers or by local authorities to catch them on arable land, basically. And that isn’t necessary anymore because farming machinery is much more intelligent these days and smash the ground when there are molehills there, so they’re not as necessary as they were, molecatchers. What’s happening is, they’re working in gardens and domestic gardens and things like that. There’s no problems in the mole population. It’s absolutely booming. I’m seeing molehills by the sides of motorways and things like that which you never used to see in the past.
The reason people are catching moles now are more often than not just to keep their grass tidy, their lawns tidy outside their houses. The only reasons to capture them on farmland, as I say, has gone. The only other place, which is where molecatchers are used now, is on places where there are stables and horses because horses, obviously could fall down into the tunnels and break their legs. If that happens to a horse, then that’s the end of the horse. But there’s a small resurgence. I think it’s interesting to see them around. I’ve seen a couple vans knocking around recently with “molecatcher” on the side. It always raises a little smile.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky