books conservation

The Golden Mole, by Katherine Rundell

There are lots of ways to advocate for nature. There are lots of ways to write about nature. Sometimes writers focus on the problems, explaining human impacts on the environment and the consequences for wildlife. Sometimes they focus on what it is that needs protecting. In The Golden Mole, Katherine Rundell invites us into wonder, celebrating the planet’s ‘living treasure’.

The book is a series of short chapters introducing a single species. Each one gets a portrait from illustrator Talya Baldwin, and lovely works of art they are too. There’s the narwhal, the hedgehog, the seahorse. I was pleased to see lemurs included, naturally. Also hermit crabs, which intrigued me as a child. And of course the golden mole of the title, the world’s only iridescent mammal.

Some of the animals featured are bizarre, like the Greenland shark, which can live for 500 years. That means there are sharks circling the chilly northern waters that were alive in the time of Shakespeare – “the closest thing to eternal this planet has to offer.” Others are more easily found, such as swifts or bats, but no less extraordinary. All the animals featured are endangered or have endangered subspecies.

Rundell shares facts about the animals, and notes on what they have meant in different cultures – creatures misunderstood or feared, celebrated as curiosities or prized for their curative properties. There are anecdotes from history and mythology. We read about the Victorian painter who bred wombats and wrote loving poetry about them. Or the supposed magical properties of narwhal tusks. Or how early naturalists were convinced that the giraffe was a bona fide hybrid animal, like a griffin or a centaur: “being made of the leopard, buffalo, hart and camel.”

This is natural territory for Rundell, whose last book was a biography of the poet John Donne, and whose bestselling children’s books draw equally from history and from nature.

The Golden Mole is a beautifully written book with a real richness of language and a sly sense of humour. But it’s a book that directs our attention outwards, “to reckon with the beauty of the world, its fragility, its strangeness.” It’s a book that invites us to behold.

“This book is offered to you in the guise of a circus ringmaster, with top hat and whip and painted-on moustache” writes Rundell in the introduction. “He is not himself very remarkable, but his job is to point at that which is, and his job is to say: dear friends, would you look, only look, at what is here, and would you agree to astonishment, and to love? For love, allied to attention, will be urgently needed in the years to come.”

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