But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
York is a city only in name, it gets this honor from its grand Minster. Beyond it there is the countryside. Farms, moorland, with all their mysteries and cruelties, fresh to this city girl. How like Mole I am in my reveries of this landscape, which is a hard-working one as well as a place of beauty. And this work, it’s harsh and full of penalty.
I was leaving Bolton Castle when I saw a peculiar thing just outside, tied to the fence– they had the look of cloth scraps. On closer inspection these things were tiny corpses, in various degrees of decomposition. Full of pathos, these bodies were no longer recognisable creatures– penal indeed was the display, like some ancient ritual meant to warn off trespass, ye olde heads on the stakes at the city gates. It wasn’t until I had a good look at the last one, bloated, distended, but the pink-nosed blindness and cunning little hands were a giveaway. These were moles– a whole labour of them.
Some Googling later, I found that this is how the mole catcher gets paid, per mole. The display is an economic transaction. Writing in the 19th century, John Clare “Northamptonshire’s Peasant Poet” describes it as an ad for the molecatcher’s services or, more strangely, as a warning to other moles.
And as a triumph to his matchless skill,
On some grey willow where a road runs by,
That passers may behold his power to kill,
On the bough’s twigs he’ll many a felon tie;
On every common dozens may be met,
Dangling on bent twigs bleaching to the sun,
Whose melancholy faces meet no regret,
Though dreamless of the snare they could not shun.
A couple hundred years ago, a mole was a mouldywarp or “dirt tosser”. These chthonic beings are suspect, or so says Leviticus. They are counted among the unclean “creeping things that creep on the earth.” Apollodorus of Athens tells us that the ancients believed eating the heart of a mole would give one the gift of divination– the ability to metaphorically see into darkness, and Pliny the Elder claims moles can hear you talking about them. Moles are of the dark company, the sort that make pacts with witches. Isaiah tells us enlightened men will toss their idols of gold and silver to the moles and bats.
In Germany they are a protected species but in the UK they are considered a pest, molehills supposedly ruining the lawns of golfcourses and gardens and disrupting fields. They are one of the demonised of the countryside, along with the badger and fox, our sins projected onto such creatures with “science” in tow, justifying culls and exterminations.
The Molecatcher is an old profession in Britain. There is a “British Traditional Molecatcher Register”. There’s also the Association of Professional Molecatchers and The Guild of British Molecatchers. It’s like something from a Pratchett novel.
Ancient superstitions are knitted into folk ways, come to us in bawdy songs like The Molecatcher. I’m quite taken by this ghostly, melancholy version of the tune by Harp and a Monkey, its lament a fitting soundtrack to my recent discovery.