What a pair of words to place together. Crudely linked by their common first letter, yet full of rich and varied cultural depth, and filled with distant, ancient meaning. Much of it unknown to this blogger, before I was inspired to delve. Interestingly, both are 3 syllabled and complex. Human constructs. Like all words. Or maybe not?
In the beginning, was the word.
The simplicity of the single syllable.
The force. The sense.
Life, death, love, hate, sex, white, black, blue, green, sun, moon, star.
Moth and mole. What?
I’ve been struggling for months with trying to work something creatively around the wonderful contrast between the last year of pandemic, scientific endeavour, political arguments, vaccination, societal and economic disruptions. And epidemiologists. (Note the multiple syllables, particularly in that last word).
And the moths and moles.
Which live here with us. Not seen much. Quiet lives, just lived, as far as we know. Hints we spy. Glimpsed from time to time. But the short days’ fog, clouds thoughts. Poetry will have to wait.
Perhaps the moths and moles will inherit the world?
Now banished to lives of mainly solitary darkness. For safety. Forsaking light and social communion for the silence of a subterranean world. Or low light night. Distanced, hidden. Dispersing silently. Seeking physical contact and interaction for the shortest possible time. Briefly, and for vital procreation. The faintest echo of their previous existence, forever lost.
And there’s the link that joins and breaks this thread. The ancient myth, from many centuries past, and distant lands, of Narcissus, that most handsome man who, whilst wandering through the woods, attracted the attention of the wood nymph Echo, who longed for a relationship. But when Narcissus sensed her presence, and called out “Who’s there?”, Echo could only repeat these words back to him. Eventually she decided to show herself, but was rejected by Narcissus who told her to leave him alone.
So, heartbroken, she wandered the woods for eternity, with just the sound of her voice, her echo, as a reminder of her very existence. Shocked by such cruelty, Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, punished Narcissus by drawing him to the bank of the stream where he was so enchanted by the perfect reflection of his beautiful face, that he fell in love with it, and couldn’t bear to leave the stream bank. Eventually exhausted, after several days of self-adoration, he fell into the stream, and drowned.
Perhaps the bending neck of the daffodil, and the favouring of damp streamside habitats for many species of Narcissus, is how daffodils came to be named after this mythological figure?
But what of the complexities of nirvana, and its appropriateness to this piece? Perhaps this quote from L.S. Cousins captures it most simply:
In popular usage nirvana was “the goal of Buddhist discipline,… the final removal of the disturbing mental elements which obstruct a peaceful and clear state of mind, together with a state of awakening from the mental sleep which they induce.”
So as we emerge, blinking, and rubbing our eyes, into a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions here in Wales, after nearly 4 months of confinement, how wonderful that the season of Narcissus delight is now beginning to gather pace. This first wave is already breaking, with the next two showing great promise for the coming 6 weeks, to help awaken us from our mental lethargy.
Since the flower buds for this year’s spectacular displays would have been formed in the bulbs, just as the flowers faded last year, we have to look to the weather last spring, for the reasons for this year’s abundance. And many will remember what a record-breaking late spring it was, with exceptional sunshine, warm temperatures, and not a huge amount of rain. In untangling which of these factors was critical, I’m guessing it wasn’t a single entity, rather the combination. Allowing the plant’s leaves in those few weeks of spring vitality, post-flowering in 2020, to photosynthesise so productively that surplus resources were devoted to generous flower bud formation. If it were, in contrast, the shortage of rain, which in some way prompted a panic flower bud formation, with the potential for future seed production, as a response to a perceived existential threat of drying lands, then the many areas which I didn’t reach with the hose to limit drought damage last year, would be expected not to be performing as well this year, and that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
So, make the most of daffodil displays this year – almost certainly, 2022 won’t be as good! One of our favourite books on daffodils is that written by Noel Kingsbury, with photos by Jo Whitworth – well worth getting hold of if you haven’t read it yet.
It’s great news that at last Wales is allowing visits again to major garden attractions, like the nearby National Botanic Garden of Wales, and Aberglasney, which I see once more scooped the overall winner of the beautiful gardens’ category of the IGPOTY international garden photography competition for locally based Nigel McCall. Click here to see the stunning picture. I think this is the third time that Nigel and Aberglasnsey have scooped a first place. An extraordinary achievement and acknowledgment of the garden’s beauty, the photographer’s skill, and the special light in Carmarthenshire, on those days when the clouds part.
Having mentioned Dr. Noel Kingsbury, above, it was a thrill to hear from him this week, with an invitation to us both to be his guests on a “Gardening Masterclass” tea time talk/discussion on July 1st. The format is a little variable, but in essence will involve a Zoom presentation from us, with questions and answers from audience members and from both Noel and Annie Guilfoyle, who are the brains and guiding lights behind Gardening Masterclass. From a background of arranging physical workshops, talks and visits to gardens in Britain and Europe featuring many of the top names in garden design and horticulture, they’ve responded to the huge hit from covid, to take the concept on line.
As well as pay-to-view webinars, they’re hosting weekly chats which are free to join, at 6 pm on Thursdays, click here, and these subsequently end up for a couple of months as free-to-watch presentations on their YouTube channel. If you follow this link, you’ll see it’s an eclectic and international range of features and speakers, with very different styles – which gives us a free rein to start planning something now. We’re already deciding how we want to present this insight into the history, philosophy and garden making at Gelli Uchaf over the nearly 30 years we’ve owned the place, and we’ll bookmark these Thursday slots as an interesting watch.
This coming Thursday, April 1st, is a star studded quiz event, for example, but if you enjoy looking at wonderful gardens, which are labours of love, and created by hugely impressive, thoughtful gardeners, then have a look at the link below, which in his introduction, Noel ranks as his all-time favourite garden from around the world. Le Jardin de Berchigranges, in Eastern France, is quite close to Basel in Switzerland, in the Vosges mountains. (Many thanks to Amelia for correcting me on this).
I should add we won’t be doing a video walk round the garden here, having neither an i-Phone, nor the considerable skills necessary to edit it all together!
So this discussion of another garden I’ve also never heard of before, Innisfree in the U.S.A,. is more likely to be what we’ll end up with.
Although we’re clearly not in this league either – which is why we’re really grateful to Noel for considering our story as worth an airing, on such a global reach stage.
Before then, we can now say that although Wales is allowing visits to the larger gardens, with as far as we can make out, no limits on numbers, the range of private N.G.S. gardens in Wales, won’t be allowed to open for visitors until April 22nd. This is a shame, although in this now later than often season, there will still be many daffodils and Camassia in bloom here. It’s also the day after my planned Zoom talk:
Wednesday, 21st April 7.15 for 7.30pm start ZOOM meeting for Cothigardeners. Julian Wormald on:
“Wildflowers, Meadows and Gardens – challenging ideas for more naturalistic gardens.”
This will look at various aspects of wildflower hay meadows – their biodiversity, aesthetics, creation, ecology and management; and contrast this very briefly (since this is a time reduced zoom talk) with currently trendy “pictorial” meadows. Finally, it’ll consider how we can learn from wildflower hay meadows to develop more naturalistic and diverse plant-based communities in our gardens. This section mainly focuses on our grass free multicultural meadow terrace garden: how it’s developed over 20 years, is maintained, and changes through the seasons.
Anyone interested in joining us for free, can do so by emailing Fiona on this address:
So, we hope that after 4 months, we may soon be able to welcome a few folk other than all the fantastic delivery drivers, pellet stove repair guys and slaughterman, back to enjoy a little peace and quiet in the garden here, in the near future.
It’s the time of the year when one really notices moles. Or rather, indirectly, the evidence of their presence.
Particularly obvious if you have meadows, or pasture, and always more noticeable in early spring. I knew that this was mating time for moles, but what else did I know about these hidden mammals? What do I and others make of their (literal) handiwork? Does it drive us mad? Do we curse?
Do we yearn for the tiny amber glass strychnine pot, as I remember my G.P. father doing, carefully with gloved hands dipping worms into the crystals, before dropping them into the vertical shaft holes having cleared the molehill soil away, before covering them over again. Fortunately, strychnine use was banned in 2006, but that still leaves a huge range of methods employed to exterminate these hidden animals – traps of many designs, toxic gas pellets, other poisoned baits. But aside from the unsightly appearance of piles of soil, what are the downsides to moles?
Reasons mentioned mainly seem to focus on the aesthetic damage to lawns; or to cutting machinery blades for hay or silage making from the stony molehill soil; or from the risk of contamination of silage with soil present bacteria, like Listeria which can cause disease in animals eating the silage; as well as the potential loss of grazing, in pastures covered with many molehills.
But against these negatives, apart from the usually sensible in the longer term, live-and-let live approach to nature and ecosystems, are there any positives to having a local mole population in a garden, or pasture?
It’s actually quite difficult to find meaningful information on this. We seem so determined to exterminate them, and there are real gaps in our understanding of their ecology and lifecycles. With this in mind I bought one of the few books on the life of the mole – “Moles” by Rob Atkinson, in the British Natural History Collection of books. Well worth a read, and here are a few snippets to share about these fascinating creatures, which you may or may not know:
• Moles live almost entirely solitary lives, in their own independent system of tunnels, which is typically around 1.1 km in length, and will have required about 2,000 kg of soil to have been removed to create this, the mole’s territory.
• The area that this territory covers will depend on how many invertebrates there are in the soil it’s working through.
• Moles sleep in specially constructed nests, lined with dry material and located away from the edges of the territory.
• Mole tunnels lie anything from 5 to 150 cms below ground surface level.
• The tunnels are dug by alternating between the two huge hands, whilst the mole braces with its rear legs against the tunnel wall, using a shearing action on the soil at the tunnel face. The loosened soil is pushed behind the mole, using the rear feet and legs, and every so often the mole swivels around in the narrow tunnel, and pushes the loose soil spoil back down the tunnel in front of it, to an access shaft which it’s dug previously to the surface at an angle of about 45 degrees. The mole then pushes the soil up the shaft with one hand, and onto the surface as a mole hill. As much as 6kg of soil can be shifted in this way within 20 minutes. This is the equivalent of a man of average size, pushing an elephant out of an uphill tunnel, onehanded, within 20 minutes. This is hard physical effort for the mole, and bouts of digging usually last for less than 10 minutes.
• All this effort is fuelled by its diet based on earthworms and other invertebrates, and insect larvae which it encounters whilst digging, or more typically, fall into one of the mole’s tunnels.
• Sometimes moles will create larders where they store partially bitten earthworms, which may even be paralysed by some sort of venom, and these stores will help sustain a mole in times of food shortages, as can occur in periods of extreme drought.
• Most of the year, all moles live entirely independently and only rarely come within even one metre of another mole in their separate tunnel networks, but at mating time, from February to March, male moles will actively seek out females.
• Meanwhile the female mole’s body has been changing. They are unique amongst mammals in having an ovotestes, and not simple ovaries. For most of the year, the ovary is small and the testis large, producing testosterone which means that the female mole is perfectly capable of fighting a male which strays into her territory. Before coming on heat, the testis shrinks in size, the ovary enlarges, and the uterus begins to enlarge from its previously shrivelled state. Even more remarkably, as she nears mating time, she develops a new opening in her skin, which communicates with her vagina. For most of the year, no such access to the vagina and uterus exists. After mating, this opening in the skin heals up and leaves a small scar.
• Pregnancy lasts about 4 weeks and the mole pups are born with reddish skin and no hair.
• The typically 4 pups, grow phenomenally fast, fed by the lactating mother, and stay in the nest for the first several weeks. Their tiny eyes open around day 22 after birth, by which time they’re covered in silvery fur.
• The mother must leave them at regular intervals, hunting for food in her tunnels, before returning to let them suckle.
• After a month or so, the young moles will begin to venture into the tunnel system and over the next few weeks start to eat solid food.
• By week seven, the pups stop feeding on milk, but stay within the mother’s tunnel system, finding their own food, and beginning to venture onto the surface occasionally at night, eventually sleeping in separate nests, before finally being evicted and leaving the maternal territory of tunnels in early June.
• Each pup is now on its own, and travelling above ground at night, it must find either a new unexplored territory and begin to dig, or with less effort, an abandoned tunnel network, in which to set up its own territory and try to carve out its own independent living space. This transition is a risky time for young moles, and many will be predated, by for example, foxes, stoats, and owls.
Thinking a little more about the increase in their numbers here, does this reflect growing numbers of earthworms and soil invertebrates, as we gradually move our meadows back to more diverse plant communities?
Or is it linked to us not using any pesticide/vermicide treatments on our sheep for a few years, which has led to a greater number of worms and invertebrates?
Or because none of the fields have received any slurry, muck or NPK in recent years?
We’ve noticed in the light of these questions, how few molehills are ever obvious in slurry treated or intensively managed grassland, but is this because the farmers are killing all their moles anyway?
Finally, we’ve observed how we’re finding more molehills not just on our sloping fields, but also the valley bottom ones, above, where they’re pushing into peaty areas, which are still remarkably free of the all-pervasive Soft rush, Juncus effusus, which is steadily taking over our neighbour’s field just across the stream from the above image. Are moles providing an invaluable system of free, and self-maintained, below the ground, drainage channels with no need for heavy diesel powered equipment, to create them?
See what a British manufacturer of “The Magic Mole” writes;
Why Mole Draining is Important:
The TWB Magic Mole Drainer can play a crucial role in helping to achieve the potential of your soil. On the right soil type and when installed correctly, mole draining can help reduce waterlogging problems substantially. Heavy soils with low rates of water movement need regular drainage to improve soil structure and productivity. The aim of mole draining is to fracture and crack the soil and construct unlined mole channels at consistent depth and even spacing which allow flow paths for water to drain unhindered into gravel filled collector drains or dykes. The TWB Magic Mole skid design allows the leg to fracture and crack the soil without leaving excess surface disturbance, forming a mole channel to a smooth gradient evening out small surface contours and irregularities.
So to recap, the moles increase in numbers. The fields drain better.
But we HATE the moles. We want them gone. We kill the moles. We celebrate our wisdom.
The rain worsens, the fields flood more, the drainage deteriorates.
So we use a heavy tractor. The ground is compacted even more. With a mechanical “Magic Mole” we tunnel artificial mole drains.
To solve the problem.
We’ll try to play the long game here. Use a bit of mole hill soil for compost and deep beds. Rake out a few of the nuisance ones in the hay meadows well before hay cutting time. Value the exercise, and the extra soil aeration the tunnels will create, and seed exposure to light. And germination.
Watch the meadows change, and insects return, and try to leave the moles alone.
Come to think of it, is it a co-incidence that Ireland, which has had no moles since the last ice age, has a sixth of its land surface as peat bog of one sort or another? A greater proportion than any other European country apart from Finland. Click here for a fascinating insight into how Irish bogs formed – largely as a result of early Neolithic farmers making poor decisions about land management, or view the two graphics copied below, with permission from the excellent site http://www.irelandstory.com.
I think if I were a mole, I’d stay hidden.
And in my short sleep breaks and occasional rest from the hard graft of tunnel digging, I’d dream.
Of the ancient mole myths. Wisdom of old, passed down from mother to young pups in those fleeting weeks, before the family dispersed to necessary solitary lives of independence. The times when we were naked. Not just at birth. When our hands were smaller. We were a little bigger and more upright. Most of us couldn’t flex our spines as much, but we didn’t live alone. We were sociable little animals, and enjoyed sunlight and fresh air. And we had proper big eyes, wide open to see the glories of the world around us. We weren’t the butt of jokes, and other animals really liked us, and didn’t try to kill us.
And then I’d wake. And realise it was just a dream.
Or maybe not?