Moles: What I’ve Dug Up

Sometimes when we’re out for a walk, my dog Daisy will stop dead, point at the ground, dig furiously, and pull up a mole. She is delighted by this, but I’m ambivalent, feeling sorry for the mole who’s suddenly been plucked out of his warm underground home.  Often I think of Tennyson’s line about Nature, red in tooth and claw with ravine, a sentiment I find mildly consoling, though Victorian literature doesn’t seem to do much for Daisy at all.

E.H. Shepard's Mole from The Wind in the Willows

E.H. Shepard’s Mole from The Wind in the Willows

When I tell people about how good she is at digging up moles, they usually say something along the lines of, “Can you bring her over to my yard?” At first, I found this reaction strange. Having grown up in the city, I didn’t really know anything about moles except what I’d read in The Wind in the Willows, a book I loved as a boy. Who could dislike the Mole?  Well, it turns out that people with gardens really hate them, and there is a grand old tradition of mole-catching.

Just the other day, in fact, there was a widely-circulated article about Jerome Dormion, the man who is responsible for keeping the gardens of Versailles mole-free.  There has been a royal mole-catcher there since Louis XIV, according to the story.  Dormion is quoted as saying, “Moles are exceptionally clever. That’s why the majority of gardeners can’t catch them. One of the wiliest I have ever encountered outsmarted my traps for three months… Eventually, it got lazy and I got it.” One of the anti-mole devices he employs is a little guillotine.  All in all, French mole-catching seems like a more serious business than I would have imagined.  That’s probably because what I imagined was Bill Murray stalking the gopher in Caddyshack.

kg23-mole-tunnel_xlIt occurred to me the other day, while Daisy was digging away, that I did not know any folklore about moles, so I decided to do a little digging of my own into the matter.  I have studied a fair bit of classical mythology, and couldn’t recollect anything, although there is speculation that the name of the Greek healing god Asclepios might be connected to a word for mole, skalops.  But, as the French scholar Yves Bonnefoy writes in Mythologies, “Although the mole may belong to the ancient prehistory of Asclepius, it should be noted that if he actually was once a mole god, or a god of the mole, the Greeks completely forgot this fact. …”  And so, too, shall I completely forget this fact.  (And, by the way, what’s with the French and moles? Does WWI trench warfare have anything to do with it?)

There is a Cherokee myth in James Mooney’s comprehensive collection called “Why the Mole Lives Underground” that is more substantial:

A man was in love with a woman who disliked him and would have nothing to do with him. He tried every way to win her favor, but to no purpose, until at last he grew discouraged and made himself sick thinking over it. The Mole came along, and finding him in such low condition asked what was the trouble. The man told him the whole story, and when he had finished the Mole said: “I can help you, so that she will not only like you, but will come to you of her own will.” So that night the Mole burrowed his way underground to where the girl was in bed asleep and took out her heart. He came back by the same way and gave the heart to the man, who could not see it even when it was put into his hand. “There,” said the Mole, “swallow it, and she will be drawn to come to you and can not keep away.” The man swallowed the heart, and when the girl woke up she somehow thought at once of him, and felt a strange desire to be with him, as though she must go to him at once. She wondered and could not understand it, because she had always disliked him before, but at last the feeling grew so strong that she was compelled to go herself to the man and tell him she loved him and wanted to be his wife. And so they were married, but all the magicians who had known them both were surprised and wondered how it had come about. When they found that it was the work of the Mole, whom they had always before thought too insignificant for their notice, they were very jealous and threatened to kill him, so that he hid himself under the ground and has never since dared to come up to the surface.

It’s pleasing to think that the moles Daisy has dug up here in Tennessee may well be  descended from the very creatures that the Cherokee storytellers were looking at as they attemped to explain the mysteries of romance.

But truthfully, I’m not sure what to make of the story.  I guess the surreptitious nature of the mole, its fooling around in tunnels, suggests an erotic context.  This is surely brought out in a naughty traditional tune called “The Molecatcher,” which has some similarities to Chaucer’s story of the Miller’s Tale.  The lyrics are below the Youtube clip of the Irish Rovers version, somewhat bowdlerized. Note, too, that although the Rovers are singing it, “The Molecatcher” is an Engish folk-song.  Ireland doesn’t have any moles.  If they were all driven out by St. Patrick and sent to France, this fact has been completely forgotten.  They better not try coming here, though: Daisy is waiting.

In Wellington town at the sign of the plough
There lived a molecatcher, shall I tell you how?

Singing to rel i day fol di lie laddie lie laddie di day

He’d go a molecatching from morning to night
And a young fellow came for to play with his wife

The molecatcher jealous of this very same thing
He hid in the wash house to see him come in

He saw the young fellow come over the stile
Which caused the molecatcher so crafty to smile

He knocked on the door and thus he did say
“Where is your husband, good woman, I pray?”

“He’s gone a-molecatching, you need never fear”
But little did she think the molecatcher was near

She went up the stairs and gave him the sign
And the molecatcher followed them quickly behind

And while the young fellow was up to his frolics
The molecatcher caught him right fast by his bollocks

The trap it squeezed tighter, which caused him to smile
Saying, “Here’s the best mole that I’ve caught in a while”

“I’ll make you pay dearly for tilling my ground
And the money it’ll cop you no less than ten pound”

“Ten pound,” says the young fellow, “That I don’t mind
It only works out about tuppence a grind”

So come all you young fellows and mind what you’re at
And don’t get ’em caught in the molecatcher’s trap.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Animals, Boston, Cartoons, Classics, Dogs, England, Ireland, Language & Etymology, Military, Mythology, Poetry, Sewanee, Tennessee. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Moles: What I’ve Dug Up

  1. Robley Hood says:

    I so enjoyed this post. When I moved to Sewanee a decade ago, I kept tripping in my yard during the fall and winter. I asked the master gardener at the University what I could do about the moles and voles tunneling through, and his answer was both terse and apt: “Move.” I have learned to make peace with the hidden beings that share my space.

    • Robley–Thanks so much for your kind words. They’re uncanny, the moles. I love to think of them as hidden presences, silently watching my every move.

      • Don Rung says:

        My former neighbor, Adolphus Henley, would catch moles with his bare hands, a feat that amazed even Ward Goodman, former head of Buildings and Grounds, who was our other neighbor. I would see Adolphus sitting still somewhere in his yard, his hand just above the ground, and apparently at some point he would sense the mole and, like Daisy, wrest it from its warm home. Our dogs dig them up occasionally, but I think they’ve destroyed the yard more looking for moles than the moles do with their tunnels.

      • Wow! It’s impressive to watch Daisy track a mole underground, actually. She stops and seems to both listen and smell them, and then, very suddenly, to pounce. The process goes one of two ways: either she gets them right away, or she digs furiously for a few minutes, without success. I imagine a person could learn at least to hear them.

  2. Mark Preslar says:

    I will seriously pay Daisy a bounty. (I’m more after the voles than the moles, though. They eat apple tree roots.)

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