It was a walk that had already yielded plenty. I had ventured far enough from the road to stand on the shore of a lake of ferns, each cupped heavenward like a satellite dish.

Among my daily papers which I bestow on the public, there are some which are written with regularity and method and others that run out into the wildness of those compositions which go by the name of essays. As for the first, I have the whole scheme of the discourse in my mind, before I set pen to paper. In the other kinds of writing, it is sufficient that I have several thoughts on the subject, without troubling myself to range them in such order that they may seem to grow out of one another and be disposed under the proper heads.

—Joseph Addison, Spectator, No. 476 (Friday, Sept. 4, 1712)

It was a walk that had already yielded plenty. I had ventured far enough from the road to stand on the shore of a lake of ferns, each cupped heavenward like a satellite dish. I’d weighted my cardigan pockets with flinty gray and white striped rocks. I’d sloshed through a soggy ditch beneath 8-foot-tall reeds—part cattail, part tasseled corn—where I found the frogs I’d been hearing. I’d studied grasshoppers that bore little resemblance to the green ‘hoppers I’d chased in Iowa meadows as a child and held in my clasped palms until they spit tobacco. Vermont grasshoppers are black, gold, brown, and winged, and I couldn’t persuade them to spit for anything.

But then, on the gravel shoulder, I found a dun, mouse-like creature, dead, curled in a fetal position. It was a mouse with a snout, but no mere pig’s snout: This was a proboscis with a flair. It was piggish with two nostrils near the center, but from the outer rim sprouted fingers of pink flesh like the spokes of a rimless wheel, the petals of a sunflower or the tentacles of a branching idea.

This was too much to trust to my memory, so, I broke my rule of leaving wild things—even dead wild things—at peace, rolled the corpse onto a Kleenex with a twig, and carried it home. Once there, I laid it on my desk and sketched its fabulous nose in my notebook. Then I sketched its entirety with words: “A dun, mouse-like creature, dead, curled in a fetal position . . . .”

Since I hadn’t anticipated the need for a spade or shovel when I packed for my week and a half in Vermont, once my notebook was full, I flushed the creature down the toilet—the most respectable burial I could give under the circumstances.

For nature essayists, the subjects for our excavations fall at our feet like bread rained from heaven. A dead opossum. A flushed pheasant. An approaching cloud of mayflies. Bare branches studded with white-headed eagles. Consequently, when I was stopped short by a dead mole on the road, I knew I would write about her, though I wasn’t yet sure what I would write. Yet other gifts presented me with an angle, a handle, a purpose as soon as I beheld them. While driving back to Nebraska from Vermont, for instance, I was startled by a great blue heron standing stock still near a farm pond in the midst of a moving landscape so close to Interstate 80 that I questioned my own ability to see and name. In September, I only had eyes for flaming groves of sumac and spent all autumn reading and writing about their border existence while carrying sprigs of dried purple berries in my buttonhole. Next, two failed attempts at autobiographical essays which, above all, reminded me why I need to write about other living things than myself (more timely and timeless; less self-indulgent; more down-right interesting). Then, one January morning, it happened. I woke up as I always do with the desire to write, but on this day I had no subject matter. No circle of hell could be worse. So, I resurrected the mole.

Still, I wasn’t ready to write since I hadn’t a slant on my subject. Though I was a half a continent, a half a year away from that August afternoon when I found the mole’s body, I was no closer, no further from making an essay about it than I had been. I knew if I didn’t find some way to write about it, I’d turn its now warm body over and over in my mind in the middle of the night, fretting myself sleepless until I found an angle, a handle, a purpose. So, I did the next best thing to writing about the star-nosed mole: I went to the library and read about it.

Most of the facts I read—and the metaphors I glimpsed—pertained to the Condylura cristata’s two farthest ends: the tip of its blooming nose and what I discovered to be its not—so—rat-like tail. I learned that its nose (which I had not noted in such fine detail) was comprised exactly and always (barring accidents) of 22 pink flesh rays or tentacles, one-quarter to one-half inch long. These are arranged symmetrically, 11 on each side, the two topmost rays held rigidly forward while the others move continually in the mole’s search for food. Once it nabs a succulent earthworm with its shovel feet, it removes all distractions by retracting its rays so it can work, chewing down the length of the worm as if it were spaghetti. A nose with manners.

While mole experts Terry Yates and Richard Pedersen claim the exact function of the nasal rays isn’t yet known, it’s apparent that this nose, like the weird snout of the anteater, the tapir, or the elephant is a highly specialized sensory device. Each of the 22 rays, in fact, is covered with papillae (David Van Vleck saw 15 to 20 on just the base of a single ray under low magnification), and each papilla bears one to three sensory organs named after T. Eimer, the German scientist who “discovered” them in 1871.This means that the mole’s pointed nose isn’t an earthmover as we might expect (the feet do that), but a sensitive instrument that directs the forepaws in their work. The nose, then, is a locator of the mole’s prey and its position in the world.

Almost as interesting as the mole’s remarkable nose is its tail. In August, it looks like that of a rat or mouse: a long whip about half the length of the creature’s body from tentacle tip to tail base. But in the winter or early spring, that tail is quite a different story. Then, it is constricted near the base, swollen with stored fat near the middle like that of a snake who’s just swallowed a small animal. Most swollen tails are as big around as a No. 2 lead pencil, some are as large in cross-section as a dime and, curiously, some tails never swell.

Apparently, moles use the stored fat during breeding season or other times when their food intake cannot meet their energy requirements. Eadie and Hamilton learned that the great majority of star-nosed moles of both sexes had swollen tails prior to and during the breeding season, but once the season was over, their tails were rat-like again. In addition to acting as a portable pantry, this tail functions as an antenna of sorts. In his study of the European mole, Godet states that the characteristically erect tail acts as an organ of touch, maintaining contact with the roof of the tunnels rather like the overhead pick-up of an electric train.

Some other noteworthy facts about Condylura crístata. Weight: three ounces. Length: six inches. Habits: diurnal, nocturnal, active year-round. Preferred habitat: damp, boggy soil near streams or in swamps and meadows in New England and southeastern Canada. Food: insects, worms, small fish, vegetable matter. Tunnels: deep and permanent where nests are built; shallow surface runways where food is gotten. Breeding: one litter per year of two to five molelets (my own terminology, I believe). Since other small mammals produce three to four litters per year, the mole’s low replacement rate suggests few predators: an occasional hawk, owl, skunk, fox, coyote, snake, raccoon, cat, dog, big fish or golf-course owner.

Joseph Wood Krutch says that to the essayist, a fact is “at best a peg to hang something on.” A typewritten page-and-a-half of facts about the secret life of the mole only takes me a little closer to an essay about it. Now I have pegs. But what shall I hang upon them?

Some facts are so taut and humming, I could hang onto their tails and be carried into the heart of an essay. Consider this simple fact from Victor H. Cahalane: “Few people have ever seen a mole.” Not exactly an earth-moving revelation until I add it to the following list: Few people have ever seen a miracle, the heart of darkness, an exploding star or birds mating in mid-air. Therein lies the focus and the motive for an essay about a mole: why and how those of us who have witnessed the extraordinary should communicate our experience to those who haven’t.

Julian of Norwich, an essayist of sorts, received 16 “shewings” or revelations of divine love during her 30th year while on what she and others believed to be her deathbed. Julian survived, but had no other revelations and so spent the rest of her anchored days writing and revising the substance of that one extraordinary night: “ … and truly charity urgeth me to tell you of it,” she confessed. The nature essayist’s reason for witnessing is often more mundane than soul salvation. Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, for instance, observed two snakes engaged in mortal battle, their necks wrapped twice around each others, their tails lashed around hemp stalks to obtain greater leverage so it appeared that the two stalks were playing tug-of-war with the twined reptiles. Crèvecoeur felt compelled to relate the anecdote simply because the circumstances were “as true as they are singular.”

Another fact, another promise of an essay: “Relatively speaking,” write Yates and Pedersen, “little is known scientifically of these mammals …. Moles are probably the least understood major component of the North American mammalian fauna.” Even though we’ve lost our hankering for moleskin caps and purses, even though tiny baked moles don’t grace our tables as do tiny baked quails, and never do moles make good house pets, rarely living a year in captivity and requiring dirt and worms and all, nonetheless we should be interested in any creature capable of moving our foundation. Because moles sometimes eat what we’ve planted or move the soil away from it, we’ve devoted more attention to their eating habits and how best to exterminate them from our lawns than any other aspect of their biology Still, there’s more to the mole than what it does and does not eat.

This assertion leads me to speculate about how much else is so unstudied. Once I read that approximately 700 arachnid species have yet to be discovered. Initially, my fascination with this statistic lay in that so much remained to be named in a world chin deep in nouns—common, proper, colloquial, scientific, vulgar, euphemistic and so forth. But then, I began wondering how such a fantastic and unsubstantiated figure was reached. In other words, how could anyone even roughly estimate the breadth of what she does not know? Do experts in all fields—archaeology, astronomy, linguistics, music— possess similar statistics about their respective unknoiwns?

If the mole is so unstudied, I suspect there is an entire essay on the curious few who have made it their life work. T. Eimer, for instance, the first known to have studied the star-nosed mole’s “schnauze.” Or W. R.. Eadie, who researched everything from skin gland activity and pelage differences to male accessory reproductive glands and unique prostatic secretions. What type of passion and audacity does such life work demand? A little biography could reveal a lot not only about those who study moles, but about any naturalist with an all-consuming passion. After all, I suppose the moody, aristocratic John James Audubon is wilder and rarer than any of the birds and mammals whose biographies he wrote. Second-generation violaphile, Viola Brainerd Baird, scaling Mount Olympus in search of a rare violet species or raising hybrids to maturity with her father Ezra Brainerd (husband of Frances Viola) delights me more than any of the careful paintings and descriptions in her “Wild Violets of North America” (1942). So, too, Charles Darwin’s final work, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observation of Their Habits,” leaves me more intrigued with the habits of this particular scientist (he shined a bull-lantern in the worms’ eyes to determine if they could see; he chewed a plug of tobacco near their noses to test their sense of smell; he placed their earth-filled pots on his piano and banged away to see if they could hear) than it does about the humus-creating annelids. Darwin suspected that readers would be much more interested in his theory that humans “descended” than they would be in how worms had formed the rich topsoil in which humans planted their crops and so, in an addendum to his autobiography, he apologized: “This is a subject of small importance; and I know not whether it will interest any reader, but it has interested me.” An essay about those who shun the popular and profitable for that of seemingly small importance is an essay I want to write; it is an essay I want to read.

Though little is known of the mole, the few passionate researchers who have excavated its hidden life have provided enough facts to refute widely held misconceptions. (If these assumptions cloud our ability to see the mole as it really is, then this essay could be another meditation on the same, earlier fact: “Few people have ever seen a mole.”) “Looking at the mole, we would expect the animal to be rather slow and somewhat methodical,” observed Richard Headstrom. “But surprisingly, the speed with which it can tunnel through the earth is almost incredible.” Headstrom reports that the star-nosed mole has been clocked tunneling a distance of 235 feet in a single night. How much else do we incorrectly assume about the mole? (At this point, I expect an essay full of appearances and realities). For instance, I expected the mole to wear a ratty, mangy coat living in dirt and leaf litter nests the way it does, but I’ve observed that its coat is velvety soft, the hairs lying smoothly and willingly in either direction. While I would expect it to be nearly deaf since its outer ear is all but invisible, the structure of the middle and inner ear are relatively large; therefore, its hearing may be quite keen. Neither is the mole mute. Godfrey and Crowcroft report that moles emit at least two sounds distinguishable by the human ear: “a soft twittering made when feeding or exploring, and loud squeaks made singly or in succession when fighting.” Because the mole’s nasal passages are longer than those in most other animals, we would expect its snout to be extraordinarily sensitive, able to smell an earthworm at 50 paces, but it is not. The nose is sensitive, but as a feeler, not as a sniffer. Finally, because the mole has few predators to escape and breeds so seldom (once a year, three-year life span), we might expect it to sleep its life away since there is so little to stay awake for. But in truth, the mole works around the clock, snatching sleep only occasionally. Because the mole works so much and because it has such a fast metabolism, it must eat one-third to one-half its body weight in food each day just to stay alive. Imagine how many waking hours it would require for an average-sized woman to eat 40—60 pounds of food per day. So, too, the mole. At this point, my essay about appearances and realities could take a sharp, argumentative turn and persuade the reader to elect the industrious, sensitive, unassuming mole as our national symbol instead of the lazy, thieving fish vulture.

Illustration by ANna Hall

The same topic of appearance and reality approached from another direction: how different mammalogists reach different conclusions about similar data. In 1927, Fred Stevens of Ithaca, N.Y. presented William John Hamilton Jr. of Cornell University with a male and female Condylura (the female was not pregnant) which Stevens had taken from the same minnow trap. Hamilton offered two interpretations for the presence of two moles in the same place: either they were together for an early courtship prior to mating or they exhibited a tendency for companionship. Hamilton places more weight on the latter, concluding that the star-nosed mole is not only gregarious, but colonial. Cahalane’s position is more moderate: While no mole will ever win a congeniality award, the star-nosed and hairy-tailed are more tolerant of their kind than are other mole species. Moreover, it is not uncommon for them to use a community system of runways. Yates and Pedersen agree that moles may be found together, but believe this curiosity relates more to food supply than to need for companionship. Similarly, Leonard Lee Rue III portrays the star-nosed as a recluse. “Although this species is more sociable than the common mole, most moles lead a solitary existence. Only rarely are several moles found inhabiting the same tunnel, and these usually are females and their young of the year. The female does not tolerate the male after breeding, but raises her family by herself.” Colonial? Together out of necessity? Hermits? I am curious about how the mammalogist s own attitudes towards companionship and solitude influence his reading of the mole’s behavior. “What we observe is not nature itself,” says Werner Heisenberg, “but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” What questions were each of these scientists asking about the mole? What questions am I asking about the mole and those who study it?

At this point, í pause to re-read what I’ve written. I am struck by my own metaphorical loose ends. In paragraph five, I state that the mole is like the subject of an essay (“For nature essayists, the subjects for our excavations fall at our feet like bread rained from heaven”) which is to say that our subjects are at the same time sought, uncovered and sometimes brought forth; prayed for, waited upon and sometimes received. The metaphor is accurate if you don’t think too long about where moles come from. A few paragraphs later, I suggest that the movement of moles and essayists in their search for prey or their way in the world are each guided by a felt or intuitive sense. A few pages later, I say that the essayist s method is like the method of those who devote themselves to studying the homely form of the mole instead of something more glamorous (wolves, cranes, whales) involving more exciting methods of discovery (dog-sleds, blinds, wet suits) in exotic parts of the globe (Siberia, Japan, California). Not all mammalogists, not all essayists have to leave home to find their subject matter: Just this week, I’ve seen three common Eastern moles within blocks of my house.

Too, I am struck by my reliance on metaphor to reveal the act of essaying. But this is fitting. Trying to capture the essay or the act of essaying in words is like “trying to catch a fish in the open hand,” says Elizabeth Hardwick. The essay is too protean, too slippery, too edgeless for definitions and parameters. The only recourse is to capture it partially through metaphors or, better, to demonstrate essaying in an essay that doubles back on itself, self-consciously reflecting on the method that produced it.

Which leads me to my next topic: an essay whose sole subject is form, an essay about preliminaries. The star-nosed mole introduces itself fringed nose first, typically tubular body next and barometric tail last. Other creaturely introductions include: hard, toothless seed case crackers; fatty, velvety, neighing muzzles; rooting, rip-snorting snouts; twitching, pink buttons; neat reptilian pin pricks; sharp-pointed blood suckers. Like the introduction to an essay, noses usually proceed the body even if only by a nose. Like any first impression, they can be deceptive (the remainder of the star-nosed mole is quite dull compared to its elaborate fanfare). Just as an introduction only positions the essayist for her excavations, the dinner guests for the meat of the conversation, the mole’s nose only locates the place where the feet will begin digging. My essay about introductions would not only explain their similarity to noses, but would itself be a series of posi-tionings. An essay that is pure preface. An essay that introduces nothing. An essay, like this one, that never leaves the ground.

If the mole’s nose is like an introduction, perhaps the body of the mole s work is like the body of the essayist’s work. (Or different than.) An extended analogy could shed light on the dark burrowings of both. Again, the facts speak. While excavating, the mole uses every last hair and muscle. It turns its body 45 degrees to the right if it is pushing dirt with its left forepaw, 45 degrees to the left if it is pushing dirt with its right spade. Thus, it creates a back and forth spiraling motion like that of an electric borer. Nature essayist Richard Rhodes identifies the spiral rather than the circle or line as the movement of the essay itself and, for this reason, he says the essay is the most extemporaneous written form and, by definition, always unfinished.

Just as snow plowed from the road has to go someplace, so, too, the shoveled earth. When constructing deep tunnels, the mole throws the loosened soil under and back, then uses its hind feet to kick it to the rear. When a load has accumulated, it literally somersaults, then pushes the dirt ahead until it spills out forming the mountain we call a molehill. From the upstairs window we can imagine or deduce the process that produced the pattern just as surely as the best essays bear hints of the process that produced them. But when the mole tunnels near the surface, evidence remains that leaves nothing to the imagination—soft raised ridges wrinkle the lawn or pasture. One reading tells it all.

The essay’s path is cut not with big clawed feet, but through “the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way; it is the mind in the marvels and miseries of its making, in the work of the imagination, the search for form,” as William Gass explains. The essayist s cutting claws are also the words she chooses. In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard observes: “The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wrood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself in a new territory . . .You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. . . “

Not so different from the way the mole works. “Apparently, it digs wherever fancy or food takes it without thought of any definite plan, so that ultimately it ends up with an intricate system of many- branched tunnels,” Headstrom observes. Zoologist David Van Vleck terms it the “hit-or-miss path of the mole.” While a rare essayist such as John McPhee cuts a certain path (“I want to get the structural problems out of the way first, so I can get to what matters more … the story …”), most essayists set out “with no predetermined path or destination, no particular aim in mind, save the discovery of reality,” according to R. Lane Kauffmann in his essay on the essayist’s methods. Most essayists, then, in their search for form, use what Walter Pater called an “un-methodical method.”

Finally, there is a sharp contrast between the world where excavations take place and the world one finds upon re-emergence. “Once well underground,” reports the Mole in “The Wind and the Willows,” “you know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. You’re entirely your own master, and you don’t have to consult anybody or mind what they say. Things go on all the same overhead and you let ‘em, and don’t bother about ‘em. When you want to, up you go, and there the things are, waiting for you.” Predators, weather, shadows, nesting materials and nosy mammalogists. The essayist opens the door of her study to find hungry children, dirty laundry, a ringing telephone and an empty bank account.

Nature’s other gifts present a single focus or one focus sharper and more engaging than the rest as soon as I perceived them. The mole, however, is too full of essay-worthy possibilities. More coats than pegs to hang them on. Too many directions in which I could dig my path. So many slants, I can’t handle my subject. Too many tricks in this bag. With a little more time, a little more paper, and someone to tend the children just a little longer, I’d have a dozen more angles. But enough is enough. All these speculations have brought me no nearer to an essay about the mole than when I began.

“I do not see the whole of anything,” Michel de Montaigne assures me. “Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to pick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone.” For Montaigne, it was a matter of picking a course and following it, accepting that some paths must remain untraveled, some members and faces, undeveloped. So, too, for me. If I’ve come this far, I have selected a path and pursued it. But whose furry surface have I brushed? What creature have I tried to pinch to the bone?

I examine my own meanderings. I walk beside raised ridges. I remember how my excavations connect one mountain to the next. From this distance I see that what appeared to be an essay about the mole in reality was—from the papillae on each tentacle to the tip of the sleek tail to each clod of earth moved—an essay about essaying.

About the Author

Lisa Knopp

Lisa Knopp was born and raised in Burlington in southeastern Iowa, and received her education at the University of Iowa, Iowa Wesleyan College, Western Illinois University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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