The Mole Problem: Why Good Animists Make Good Neighbors

This post is going to start out fairly innocent, and quickly veer into controversial territory. Or perhaps it will start there. I guess it depends on how you feel about moles.

If you’re one of those gardeners who wages a private little war on moles every year, furiously spending hundreds of dollars on poisons, chemicals and traps in order to maintain that perfectly manicured lawn, I have some bad news for you: not only is this post probably going to annoy you, but you’re fighting a self-defeating battle. You’re on the wrong side of history, dear reader — or rather, the wrong side of ecology.

Happy Mole

I, on the other hand, am a great friend to the mole people. When Jeff and I moved into our new house a few weeks ago, I was quietly thrilled to see a few molehills popping up in the newly-laid sod just outside our front door. (Have you ever seen a mole up close? They’re freaking amazing, miniature marvels of evolution!) Having spent the last several years living in a small apartment in a concrete condominium jungle, I was just happy to sink my feet into the soft earth and enjoy the company of my new non-human neighbors, even if they were mostly noisy steller’s jays and brazen gray squirrels. When people talk about wanting to attract wildlife to their yards, they almost always mean pretty little songbirds and maybe a few butterflies. Which are all well and good, of course! But I tend not to discriminate when it comes to wildlife — I’m just too excited to see all the wild and wonderful kinds of life there are — so long as I’m not encouraging the spread of disease or being irresponsible about my trash can.

When a friend visited our new home for the first time recently, he observed, “Looks like you’ve got a mole problem.”

“We’ve got a mole,” I said, “I don’t know if that’s a problem!”

“But it’s pushing up your flowers,” he pointed out.

“Well, they’re not really our flowers,” I said, feeling somewhat stumped on how to explain.

For one thing, the seller’s real estate agent had put the flowers there (along with the new sod) only a month or so earlier, to enhance the property’s curb appeal in online photos. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t have planted any delicate annuals in the shade and rain-shadow of the nine huge western red-cedars in our front yard, and I’m not sure how long they’ll really last before more drought- and shade-tolerant species (some folks call them “weeds”) start to reassert themselves.

But more than that, I find it difficult to think of the yard as something I “own.” The flowers — and the jays, and the moles — were all living here before me. At best, I am a new caretaker; still just a tenant, a guest on land that belongs to a whole community of beings who came before me, and those who will come after. Sweeping in and declaring my aesthetic taste to have some kind of authority just seemed… well, rude. As rude as leaving a note for the house next door complaining about their ugly patio furniture. (Side note: Our neighbors do not have ugly patio furniture. I’m just using that as a hypothetical.) Sure, I’ll need to dig out the English ivy that’s starting to creep over the fence into our yard and smother some of the Douglas firs — but that’s just basic maintenance. That’s just being a good neighbor.

I haven’t always called myself an animist, but this sense of living in a world full of non-human friends and neighbors has been with me since childhood. I can see it in my own stepkids, too — especially my oldest, S, who was equally excited to stalk ghost crabs and sand fleas as she was to watch the more showy dolphins and elegant gulls at the beach this summer. It’s almost a stereotype of idyllic childhood that kids can be perfectly happy spending the afternoon digging up worms and chasing pillbugs in the dirt, or getting soaked up to their knees wading through ponds looking for squirmy spring peepers. At some point, though, we grow up to become adults who think that cultivating a beautiful carpet of lawn shows how mature and responsible we are, dandelions and molehills be damned.

This is — if you’ll excuse my bluntness — an anthropocentric version of responsibility. The kind of responsibility that says, “Hey all you lesser beings, you couldn’t possibly know what you’re doing. Thank god I got here in time! Shut up and I’ll show you a better way.”

I prefer an animistic approach to responsibility: that is, response-ability. Before you can respond effectively and compassionately to the world around you, first you have to listen. (And before that, you have to get used to the idea that others — including non-human others — are worth listening to.) Before you declare that a mole is ruining your flowerbed, for instance, you have to wait and see what happens to the flowers. (And then you have to ask yourself how much it matters to you how pretty your flowers are — if your penchant for petunias is worth the life of a mole, and what kind of person that makes you.) In this case, my friend was wrong anyway: a month later, the flowers are doing just fine, still happily blooming.

I’m not surprised, actually. Because, as any good friend of the mole people would, I already knew that moles are good. We have this weird misconception that moles wreck gardens, but the truth is that having a mole or two in your yard is a sign that the land is in excellent health, that it has nutritious soil teeming with garden-friendly earthworms (a mole’s favorite meal). As insectivores and efficient underground predators, moles also eat grubs, slugs and other critters that we human gardeners might otherwise waste a lot of time, energy and money trying to get rid of. Their tunnels and molehills help to aerate the soil, keeping it loose and moist and excellent for sowing seeds. The savvy gardener can even take advantage of those unsightly molehills, harvesting them for free potting soil rich with nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible. Can moles disturb plant roots sometimes? Only if those plants have shallow root systems — but as folks in California are finding out, yards bursting with delicate ornamentals that require constant watering aren’t sustainable in the long run anyway, with or without moles.

Still want to get rid of those moles? Good luck! People with “mole problems” always seem to have it worse than people who have a live-and-let-live attitude towards our underground neighbors. Why? For one thing, moles spend almost their entire lives in the soil and are supremely adapted to getting around down there — unlike we human beings. They can dig down five feet or more (one resource I have says up to nine feet!), so no fence you build will ever go deep enough to keep them out. Plus, moles are territorial. Depending on the size of your yard, you probably only have one or two moles on your property, but if you do succeed in catching or killing them, all you’ve really done is create a power vacuum. And since nature abhors a vacuum, you’re inviting more moles to move in. More mole movement means more of those dratted molehills cropping up everywhere. No wonder people who have a problem with moles always feel like their lawns are under siege! Better to make friends with the neighbors you already have.

"This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learned to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them." - The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, Illustration by E.H. Shepard

“This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learned to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.”
– from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, Illustration by E.H. Shepard

And this is where this post is about to take a controversial turn.

Because it’s my strong belief that being a “good animist” helps us to be better neighbors — not just to the more-than-human community, but to our fellow human beings as well. Practicing loving attention and respect for the wildly diverse other-ness of the natural world teaches us to have humility and patience in the face of diversity of all kinds, including our own internal diversity as a species.

This might not seem all that controversial at first. But recently, I’ve been seeing a surprising number of comments online complaining that compassion for non-human animals distracts us from focusing on social justice for fellow human beings, particularly people of color.

The other day, someone on Tumblr reblogged a rant accusing “white vegans” of being racists because they use terms like “animal rights,” “abuse” and “oppression” to talk about the horrors of factory farming. Saying that animals are abused or oppressed draws a parallel, the blogger claimed, between “mere animals” and people of color, which is inherently insulting to the latter. Then just this morning on Twitter, I saw someone make a similar complaint in response to the outcry about the killing of Cecil the Lion, a beloved beast in a Zimbabwe national park who was lured out of his lair, shot with an arrow and then left to suffer slowly for two days before finally being skinned and beheaded. “Why are white people more upset about a stupid lion than they are about the oppression of PoC?” the Twitter user wanted to know.

First of all, as a white person, I do want to point out that I can be outraged about more than one thing at a time. Twitter cannot contain my rage.

But nor can it express the breadth and depth of my compassion. Unlike the 140 character limit on Twitter, compassion is not a limited resource. The more we have, the more we share with others, the more we are challenged to expand our circle of compassion, the more there is to go around.

That said, there is good reason to be concerned about drawing comparisons between non-human animals and people of color. Historically, these kinds of insults have been some of the most hateful and harmful in the language of racism. The abuse, oppression and enslavement of people of color have been justified for centuries by comparing them to “lesser” beings such as wild animals or livestock.

Still, it seems to me that the power of these insults would be lessened — and the shaky ground of these justifications for bigotry and prejudice would be shakier still — if admitting we were animals wasn’t seen as such a horrible thing. If, for instance, saying “I am an animal” was no more controversial than saying “he’s gay” or “she’s a Muslim,” because after all, it’s perfectly okay and even pretty awesome to be any or all of these things. Not something to be ashamed of. Not something to hide. Wouldn’t it be nice if, like the poet Mary Oliver writes, you could “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”?

When we were kids, we knew this — at least, in that idyllic version of childhood that none of us really had, we did. So what if Suzy loved board games, and Joey loved horses, and Leslie loved baseball and make-up and girls? Who ever said we all had to love the same things, and with the same intensity? When we were kids, it was okay to love simple things with the simple passion of children — and to know that, if you loved something deeply enough, that love connected you with everyone else in its own special way. But then somewhere along the line, we grew up to become adults who believed that being mature and responsible meant only loving the right things, only things really worthy of love, and to love them in the proper order, lest the love dry up and run out.

But between you and me, dear reader, I’m sick of a world that’s always trying to tell us we are wrong for loving who or what we love. I’m sick of a world where you can’t mourn a lion until you’ve finished mourning the whole of the human race, or where you’re only supposed to feel repulsed by the suffering of beings who walk on two feet and have the same number of eyes as you. It’s my opinion — and it’s not a very humble one, to be honest — that the cause of justice is never served by telling people they should cut themselves off from their own sense of compassion. I’ll say it again: Compassion is not a limited resource. The more practice you have in caring for others and working for their empowerment and equality, the better you get at it. The more you cultivate compassion, the more you see how it applies in every situation.

Not to mention how ridiculous it is to claim that care for the environment and the non-human beings who share it with us is a privilege only white people have. As if the marginalized, the oppressed and the impoverished aren’t the ones affected most by pollution and environmental degradation. As if people of color don’t also love their pets and enjoy watching the sunrise over the ocean. As if “urban” is an acceptable euphemism for “black.” As if fresh air, clean water and green open spaces — the chance to listen to birdsong, to smell the scent of rich humus, to see the stars at night — aren’t basic human rights that belong to everyone, no matter what color skin they have or what gods they worship.

Biophilia is a basic scientific fact of our species. We come alive when we see the natural world thriving, when we feel ourselves a part of it. Our connection with other animals is woven into our very DNA. We have so much in common with other non-human animals — especially other mammals — that our similarities far outweigh our differences. You can try to build a fence separating the human species from the rest of the planet, but you will never be able to dig down deep enough to keep the animal out.

And yes, people who love their cats but complain about the crows annoy me. Yes, people who are outraged by the death of a celebrity lion but scoff at giving a dollar to an anonymous homeless person because “they’ll just spend it on booze” make me want to bash my head against the wall sometimes. But you have to start somewhere. You don’t nurture compassion by pulling it up by the roots and trying to replant it in unfamiliar soil. You nurture compassion by deepening those roots until it cannot be uprooted even by the strongest forces of prejudice or the longest periods of doubt. You deepen those connections of love, respect and attention until they reach everywhere, into every corner of the world, into the heart of every being.

Then your compassion becomes a mighty oak tree, in a forest wide and wild enough for all kinds of love to take root and thrive.

mole_forest_photo_animal_hd-wallpaper-1582783

But you have to start where you are. You have to learn to love the neighbors you have (even the silly or short-sighted ones who think tweeting about lions — for or against — is going to change anything). How are we going to make it to the mountaintop, unless we learn how to love the molehills in our own backyard?


While You’re Wondering…

What’s biophilia? What began as a scientific term coined by the biologist Edward O. Wilson in the mid-1980s has been slowly creeping into our morals and metaphysics ever since. As Wilson himself said: “Without beauty and mystery beyond itself, the mind by definition is deprived of its bearings and drifts to simpler and cruder configurations.” Check out this article on the theological complexities of biophilia in modern Paganism.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

12 Comments

  1. Sheep
    Jul 30, 2015

    Thank you. I had many of these same thoughts this morning as my Facebook feed rolled by.

  2. Kevin Emmons
    Jul 31, 2015

    Allison,
    Good morning and thank you so much for this beautiful essay. The deeper I go into Druidry and Animism, the more obvious it becomes that we need to reintegrate ourselves back into Nature. We are all suffering from our separation from the natural world, which is at the very root of all our human troubles. We humans need to divest ourselves from any ideology, philosophy, spirituality, or religion that separates us from Nature. We need to flatten any hierarchy that puts us above the bumblebee. Blessings to the moles, mosquitoes, spiders, hornets, poison ivy, buckthorn, bitterweet, and all those other cousins/creations of Nature that we think are problems. And yes, the whole concept of “ownership” needs to go. Caregivers and Steward? Yes. Owners? No! Thank you again for expressing this much needed message so eloquently.

  3. Barbara Jean
    Aug 1, 2015

    What a wonderful article! Back to the animal at hand: I have moles all over my yard! I’ve never been able to see them, but the tunnels are there. There is 2 places I don’t prefer them to go: the flower garden and under the patio. I’ve found a solution! Put an upside down bottle into the soil, just a couple inches down, and voila ; no moles! They vibrate with the wind and that annoys them away. And they have plenty of lawn and plants to peruse! I only have 2 in my landscape, so the moles are very happy allover the yard!

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Aug 1, 2015

      What a great idea, Barbara! Thanks for sharing. :) Right now, our mole is hanging out in the “forested” part of our yard, well away from where we’re planning to put our flower and veggie gardens — so I think I’ll just let him hang out there! But if I ever need to, I’ll definitely give this a try!

      Another alternative I’m considering is to get creative with container gardening for any delicate plants. I’m hoping to have some chickens, and they can be rough on shallow-rooted plants anyway (not to mention nibbling on your edibles), but they’ll usually leave plants in pots alone, especially if the pot is large enough to keep tasty treats above hen head level. :)

  4. Celestial Elf
    Aug 2, 2015

    What a wonderful post thank you –
    you might enjoy my animation The English Worm which features a Mole and aims to show how important both are for our ecology and environment
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAeAL9ReOO8

  5. Stormwise Raven
    Aug 5, 2015

    “But you have to start where you are.” – I really like this simple perspective. And when it comes to moles, I always thought they were pretty cool animals … content to simply do their thing. They are better neighbors than the average street cat, in my opinion – they are at the very least more quiet at night. And you are absolutely correct when you say that they are a sign of healthy soil … they also contribute to that level of health by helping to mix air, water and nutrients into the soil. Then there is also the simple logic that moles have been around since long before we started erecting houses and lawns … to say they don’t belong isn’t just anthropocentric arrogance, it’s incorrect.

    As for lawns in California, I live in a place where there is enough rain and cool temperatures that you don’t have to water your lawn. And the grass stays green all year (but is kind enough to cease growing during the colder months). So I can understand why people really like vibrant, lush, green lawns. But the natural landscapes of California also have their own beauty … I have a hard time understanding why someone would move there and do anything other than try to mimic the natural scenery. It’s like all the green lawns in Phoenix … why?

    Controversial or no, I’m with you 100% on this; and considering this is my first visit here, I thought it was a great way for me to be introduced to you and your writing!

  6. Dee Romesburg
    Aug 6, 2015

    Amen sister! I can be outraged and compassionate at the same time and I can feel that way about Cecil and Sandra Bland at the same time. There is no limit to compassion and no one should try to put one on mine!

  7. Lore
    Aug 10, 2015

    I agree with you on everything, but I think it’s a little short-sighted on one aspect.

    When POC are talking about “you’re angry about a lion but not POC lives”, they’re talking about people who will be very vocal about say, animal rights, but then turn around and say “Mike Brown was a thug, if you don’t attack the police you won’t get shot”. The deep roots of racism are an evil in human society that can’t be ignored. Is compassion good, and necessary? Inarguably, yes. But this doesn’t address the issue at hand – White people can have incredible compassion for other animals, and not for their own species.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Aug 10, 2015

      “White people can have incredible compassion for other animals, and not for their own species.”

      Yes, this is very true, and I definitely won’t argue that point. But what I want to explore is: Why is this the case? And given this reality, how do we change it? What kind of change should we be working for? How do we encourage people to have more compassion for their own species? What best serves the cause of justice in this situation?

      Identifying this inequality between how people grieve animals and how they grieve other humans is not enough — especially if we allow our anger at this inequality to lead us too quickly to conclude that compassion for animals is “unfair” and therefore wrong. Pointing out hypocrisy and yelling “That’s hypocritical!!” at the top of our lungs, while accurate, doesn’t get us very far. I think it’s incredibly important to draw comparisons between people’s compassion for other animals, and their compassion (or lack thereof) for each other, in order to challenge them to think more deeply about where that compassion comes from and why. That’s what I’m trying to do in this post. When you start to ask those questions, you begin to uncover all sorts of unfounded justifications and complicated explanations that revolve around perceptions of guilt versus innocence, nature versus nurture, “civilized” versus “primitive,” authenticity versus artificiality, authority versus liberty, etc. Only by deconstructing those issues and revealing the harmful prejudices at the heart of how we categorize our fellow humans (and how those categories are so often based on our perceptions of the natural world) can we begin to understand how and why racism functions, systemically and psychologically. And we need that knowledge in order to dismantle racism more effectively.

      So I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t agree that it’s short-sighted to emphasize how our compassion and respect for other animals is related to our compassion and respect for each other. If anything, I think the problem is that my post runs the risk of being a bit too far-sighted. I know there’s a risk of losing sight of the very real and immediate suffering of people oppressed by racism right here, right now. We always have to strive to find a balance between the need to act now to respond to immediate suffering, and the need to act effectively, informed by the longer view of the complex history of how systems of oppression function.

      In this post, I’m trying to respond to specific claims that were made that we should shame people for caring for other species, and that caring for other species “distracts” us from “more important” issues. I’m trying to challenge the idea that these are separate issues. I think they’re profoundly related, and understanding how they’re related can help us act more justly, with more compassion and respect for all. But I’m just one voice trying to contribute in some small way to a much larger conversation, and this is just one blog post — it can’t say everything that needs to be said on this topic.

  8. Lark Arrichiello
    Aug 10, 2015

    I love the new name. I think it fits the persona of this page very well. I plan to follow this page more closely than the previous incarnation. The essay was wonderful. I found myself agreeing with your points, especially those that followed your “this might be controversial” warnings. Thanks so much for all you do to get these ideas ‘out there’ where hopefully they will take root, grow, and spread.

  9. Alexandra
    Aug 23, 2015

    I’m late discovering this post, but thank you for so beautifully articulating my own thoughts on the matter.

    I used to work at a natural history museum answering the wildlife information phone line. Most of the calls were frustrated homeowners wanting to know how to get rid of moles, garter snakes, squirrels, or raccoons. The answer, of course, was always the same–there’s no getting rid of them, learn to love them. (Especially the raccoons, I’m pretty sure they are smarter than we are.)

    Despite my animist ideals, however, I find myself wrestling with this issue when the plants being destroyed by critter-neighbors–ground squirrels, rabbits, and bagrada bugs in my case–are not ornamental flowers but my food. (I am willing to share, but the critters like to eat half of every single vegetable rather than just taking a few whole ones, or in the case of the bagrada bugs, destroy the entire plant). Ultimately, I imagine the coyote, feral cat, and rattlesnake populations will grow to match the squirrel and rabbit populations that have grown to match the growing garden population, and/or moved to follow the water and escape the destruction of their former homes. As for the bagrada bugs, they are invasive and have no predators here, so something will have to evolve to deal with them. But all that is assuming some of my fellow Homo sapiens don’t come along and eradicate the “dangerous” “undesirable” species that are actually the guardians of our crops. All of it is out of my control, and in the meantime I can only be thankful that I am not totally dependent on my garden vegetabless, or this would be a famine year.

    • Linda
      Oct 17, 2015

      Thank you. I am trying to love with some garden neighbours I have avoided so far – like spiders (eek!). They still give me the shivers but I have really been able to appreciate their beautiful and wonderfully constructed webs this year, tried not to disturb them, and courteously escorted any visitors out of the house to a safe place.
      But what about the slugs that creep out at night and eat my plants?! We are in the damp UK and only gave a small garden so they are a real issue. Any ideas anyone?

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