Of moles and men: A memoir about the virtue of letting nature alone

Marc Hamer probes the essence of nature, solitude, and the accommodations we make between deeply held beliefs and our everyday behavior.  

Courtesy of Greystone Books
“How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature” by Marc Hamer, Greystone Books, 206 pp.

Perhaps a better name for Marc Hamer’s book would have been “How Not to Catch a Mole,” since this slender memoir, in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, argues for the virtue of letting stuff alone.

“I am tired,” Hamer declares, “of looking for hidden things; the things that matter are all there, just to be had, lying on the surface.”

Hamer, who worked around his home in Wales for many years as a professional mole catcher, came to his job by a route as circuitous as the tiny tunnels he’s probed in search of his quarry. After his mother died and his father essentially disowned him, the young Hamer became a vagrant. A life outdoors, while precarious, deepened his love of nature, eventually leading him to take up professional gardening. Hiring himself out as a mole catcher brought extra money to help support his wife and children as he settled down.

The work raised ethical quandaries, though. Catching moles for customers usually meant killing the creatures – something Hamer, a longtime vegetarian, was never crazy about. His clients typically wanted the moles gone because their subterranean burrows upset the manmade symmetry of gardens, fields and lawns, another point of departure from Hamer’s philosophy. He not only accepts but celebrates wild, unmanicured places. “No living thing is ever perfectly symmetrical,” he tells readers, “and imperfection is where beauty is found.”

Hamer, who retired from mole-catching at least partly because of these challenges, offers no grand defense to explain the contradiction of a live-and-let-live naturalist spending so much of his life as an exterminator.

“Things don’t seem to add up,” he says flatly of his career. “Life is rarely as neat and tidy as we would like. I prefer it that way. Reason is just one of the many important ways of experiencing the world.”

Although Hamer doesn’t directly make the comparison himself, his quietly drawn observations on the conflicts between his ideals and his life invite readers to reflect on similar dilemmas in their own conduct. If he admits to a lack of purity in his stewardship of nature, perhaps Hamer is not so different from those of us who, to cite but one example, profess earnest concern for climate change while driving gas-guzzlers and living in energy-inefficient homes.

Hamer fell into gardening and mole-catching, he suggests, because it offered a way to work alone, just like the moles who, except when mating, are loners. “The character of living things changes when they are in groups,” he writes. “I am disconnected from groups; I do not trust them.”

It’s a sobering thought from a man who also writes with affection about his wife and children, though he obviously carries the scars of his troubled beginnings. As memoirs of anguished family origins go, though, Hamer’s book is strikingly reticent. He mentions the pain of his early years glancingly, and with a general sense of magnanimity. In one of the memoir’s most affecting passages, Hamer recalls a night on the road in rural Wales when he wrapped himself in a tarpaulin and weathered a torrential rain. “It is simple, and perhaps obvious, that it was almost unbearably beautiful and equally unbearably lonely,” he notes. “That night left me with the understanding that these two feelings do not conflict with each other.” 

As with a number of other naturalist solitaries – Thoreau, Henry Beston, Annie Dillard – Hamer’s reflections can resonate with a runic sensibility. Like many a writer conditioned by solitude, he’s not in the habit of chatty elaboration in formulating an argument. His sentences sometimes sound like those of a desert mystic:

“I feel a sense of equality ... with the crow and the toad and the hawthorn, with the rain and wind,” he writes. “I am them and they are me. ... I am just another animal, another tree, another wild flower in the meadow among billions of others. ... There is something deeply magnificent in being just ordinary.”

Hamer includes some of his poems between chapters. He’s a much better prose writer than a poet, and the poems add little to the mix. His prose, deeply musical and lush with imagery, already offers the reader a kind of poetry by another name.

The dreamy lyricism of “How to Catch a Mole” recalls the memoirs of Laurie Lee, another wanderer through the British countryside who affirmed that life’s most vital moments often unfold in open spaces.

“Molecatching has been a life that has brought me closer to the nature of my own existence, and what it means,” Hamer writes. “It has allowed me to treat the wild outside as a precious home, instead of something one is cast out into.”

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