Thinking like a molehill

“Thinking like a mountain” is such a resonant phrase that many people doubtless harbour their own notions about what it means without feeling the need to return to its source in Aldo Leopold’s eponymous essay1, or perhaps even knowing that Leopold is the source. But if you do go back to the essay what you get, in burnished literary prose, is mostly a rather persuasive argument not to mess around with ecosystems that you don’t fully understand. And in particular not to kill wolves if you don’t want to have problems with deer. You also get an argument that there’s something special about top predators: “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them”.

I agree with the first part of the sentence. In the admittedly brief periods I’ve spent in bear country, and in crocodile country, I’ve had an animal awareness of my surroundings – of what Leopold calls ‘the way shadows lie under the spruces’ – that I’ve never experienced in the bosom of human civilisation. Well…perhaps that’s not quite true, thinking of my occasional wanderings through dark urban alleys late at night. Still, I’m less sure about the mysticism investing Leopold’s notion of mountains and their secret opinion, what he calls the ‘mortal fear’ mountains have of the deer that, unchecked, will strip their sides of vegetation. In fact, I’m never very sure about mysticism, which is probably why I’ve been told that I’ll never understand permaculture by people who like to take their permaculture with a twist of the mystical.

Well, though I don’t know much about mystery, I do understand a few things about mountains, and also a few things about plants. So let me share some stories about both before coming back to Leopold’s famous phrase.

It’s been a pretty good growing season here in northeast Somerset – hot, dry weather for the most part, keeping the slugs at bay and affording the plants plenty of sugary sunshine. The only downside is that it’s been so dry we’ve had to irrigate a lot more than usual. Actually, there’s been another downside too, though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – productivity has been surprisingly poor, which is quite a problem in this of all years when we have to demonstrate to the powers that be that our business is a flourishing one.

The reason, we think, that productivity is down is because the irrigation has attracted worms, and the worms have attracted moles, who have tunnelled a veritable city subway beneath our vegetable beds. In previous years, moles have never been more than a minor irritant – in fact probably beneficial on balance thanks to their subsoiling activities. So we were slow to realise that this year they’re a problem. And when we did, we had to learn about the way they tunnel and feed so that we could place our traps effectively – resulting in two dead moles so far (incidentally, when I say ‘we’ here I must acknowledge the primacy of Mrs Spudman in nailing this particular issue).

We learned, in other words, to think like a molehill. Actually, no: much as I like the parallel with Leopold, and the implicit measurement of his achievement against ours, the fact is that molehills don’t think. Moles do. We learned to think like a mole.

I suspect one reason we were slow to figure this problem out is the way that thinking like Leopold’s invests our own thought. Traditionally, farmers have often been too quick to ascribe their loss to ‘vermin’ and to reach for the gun, the trap or the poison. Many of the organisms they wish to exterminate, like the mole, bring some benefits. So we’ve generally tried to avoid this ideology of the varmint, and refrain from too much extermination. But part of life’s art is surely adapting to present circumstances, figuring things out and knowing when to switch strategy. By which I mean to say that, if mountains have wise opinions, they’re surely contextual ones. It may not always be a good idea to pronounce something a pest and seek to kill it. But sometimes it is. Of course, part of the problem is that we’re under artificial external pressure to prove our productivity. Then again, most farmers historically have been under considerable and far from artificial pressure to secure theirs too in order, so to speak, to keep the wolf from the door.

I don’t want to recover old tracks in debating the ‘balance of nature’. Whether ‘nature’ is in balance or not in some larger sense, it’s never in balance during any given day or any given season on the farm. I still think the instincts of the organic farming movement, perhaps under the influence of figures like Leopold, are basically sound in promoting the idea of natural balance and seeing pest problems as potential indicators of system malfunction – being ‘plant positive’ and not ‘pest negative’ in Eliot Coleman’s terms. But only when it articulates them as rules of thumb, not as laws of nature. And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.

This is where Leopold’s mysticism troubles me. I’m all in favour of leaving well alone in the wilderness and not imagining that humans can manage it better. But on a farm you can’t leave well alone. Sometimes you can live with the pests. And sometimes you can’t. It helps if you learn to think like them. But if you do, I suspect it might overturn some fond notions forged in the safe, abstract abundance of modern life where it’s easy to let the shadows lie any which way under the spruces without realising the self-indulgence involved. If worms could vocalise their sentiments, would they claim to favour ‘worm positive’ over ‘mole negative’ policies, or worship at the altar of natural balance in the face of velvet-muzzled death? I don’t think so. If we, to use another of Leopold’s famous dictums, are indeed ‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community’, then sometimes perhaps we need to act like one by fighting our corner.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Snowdonia, that eroded stub of a mountain chain first formed some 480 million years ago. Now that is a long, long time. When those mountains were young, terrestrial life was not yet established and the age of dinosaurs was much further into the future than it now stands to our past. Nowadays, the wolves are long gone from Snowdonia’s mountains, which are stripped of their vegetation by sheep and hikers. But the succession from wolf to sheep and hiker is less than the blink of an eye in the mountains’ existence. Do they have a secret opinion about the sheep, or the hikers? No, I can’t make that leap. Mountains don’t think, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Humans need to care – but that is our problem, not the mountains’. So what I take Leopold to be saying is no more than this: our immediate concerns are part of a larger story unfurling across place and time, a larger story that we ignore at our peril. True enough, but we’re imperilled too if we don’t attend to the immediate story unfurling at our feet on the farm. We need to think like a mountain. We also need to think like a mole.


  1. Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here And There, Oxford University Press.

17 thoughts on “Thinking like a molehill

  1. I love this, I like the way you question things. I never realised that permaculture was supposed to be ‘mystical’! Bill Mollison doesn’t come across as very mystical to me! One of the things that struck me when I did my introduction to permaculture course was the idea that permaculture is pragmatic rather than black and white like organic. It worries me that so many people who pratice permaculture seem to go down the black and white route and not think. I feel the way you do about moles but in regard to foxes. I’m OK with foxes up to a point but when they take too many hens, geese or lambs they need to be kept in check. Last year I realised the importance of Holmgren’s principle ‘obtain a yield’ and put that against the ‘pure’ organic approach of never using weedkiller. I’ve gone down the sheet mulching and chop and drop routes to no avail when it comes to nettles, brambles and couch grass invading the veg beds from the edges. I’m getting older and don’t have the strength or energy to keep on top of things. If I seriously want to produce food I need to get on top of these perennial weeds. It seems to me that there is a big difference between using something routinely year after year and an occasional application of something, maybe once a year for a couple of years to clear the ground. Having been organic for about 40 years it did take 2 or 3 visits to the garden centre before I could bring myself to buy anything though, and once I’d bought something i smuggled it hime and hid it in the shed for a couple of weeks!
    Ever since I read Nathaneal Johnson’s excellent series on GM in Grist I’ve dropped my 100% anti GM stance too. I’m not particularly pro either. To me it’s one of those ‘It depends’ situations, not black and white. There are very few black and white situations in life but I suppose thinking this way is easier. I think the permaculture ‘movement’ is in danger of forgetting that it is about designing systems using a set of principles rather than a set of techniques (no dig, mulching, swales, herb spirals etc) and a list of ‘rules’. Sorry this is a long post but it’s something I’ve been think about for a while now and I’m afraid I don’t have the courage to post it on one of the main permaculture forums!

  2. Just one more thing, I live in the Snowdonia National Park and sometimes think about the concept of rewinding. I’m really glad there aren’t wolves in the mountains above us and I doubt the mountains care either way!

    • Thanks for your comments Louise – glad to be able to host comments where permaculturists dare not tread! I’ll try to avoid too much more permaculture-bashing here: yes, in principle it’s practical, but the movement seems to have accrued some religious trappings, both in terms of a turn among some of its adherents to the mystical and, more distressingly, in the ‘religious’ way that some of its adherents police its orthodoxies. I wrote about that here:

      I’m with you on the foxes & perennial weeds…and when it comes to those moments of guilt by the pest control shelves, I share your pain. I wrote a post called ‘organic glyphosate’ about such things a while back: . But easy now – it’s nasty stuff!

      Interesting that you live in Snowdonia – a favourite stamping ground of mine from climbing days gone by. As one of the aforementioned hikers, it’d thrill me to bits if there were wolves in its hills. But if I were a farmer there, hmmm, not so much…

  3. Nice post Chris. I especially like “And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.” How true.

    On Leopold, on agronomy; “In my own field, forestry, Group A is quite content to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic forest commodity. It feels no inhibition against violence; it ideology is agronomic. Group B, on the other hand, sees forestry as fundamentally different from agronomy because it employs natural species, and manages a natural environment rather than an artificial one.” I think he goes a bit far here in equating agronomy ideology with violence, although I am more and more inclined to agree with him that a farm successfully producing cabbages is an artificial environment, or maybe novel ecosystem.

    On wolves, we have them back in our mountains here. I have not seen one yet, but last year while backpacking solo, I heard them two nights in a row, the second night they seemed within 100 yds of my tent. Yes, hair-raising, but not the same as having Grizzly bears wandering around, as they are proposing their reintroduction (I am opposed for personal survival reasons). Now there is an animal that would change the whole feeling of going into the mountains. Black bears, of which they say our state has 20,000, are not near the predator, at least in regards to humans, as brown bears.

    • I’d be inclined to view the cabbage patch as not even a novel ecosystem, but the niche construction of a certain Homo sapien. If we can marvel at the beaver for building a dam, and leaf-cutter ants for feeding leaf material to their subterranean mold gardens, then why must we turn on ourselves for our own niche constructions. Granted, we can take things to extremes – even the mountain is not safe if we wish the coal in its belly. But if we are simply ‘fighting in our corner’, why must that be counted as somehow unnatural?

      As for solo backpacking among wolves vs. grizzlies… I suppose one can dance with wolves, no?

      • I like the niche construction idea – should we then expect this niche to work like a natural ecosystem?

        Maybe I am ignorant on this point, but wolves seem very wary of people, and when you surprise them (I am told), they tend to run away – not so with grizzlies, at least on the latter point.

        • See the ‘natural’ adjective is at the root of my difficulty. How is it not natural in any sense? If we are a naturally occurring organism, and we are merely constructing the environment for our interests, then it follows the same path as niche construction. Bee hives, termite mounds, beaver dams, and so forth… all fit the mold.

          I suppose a case can be made for defining TNT as somehow unnatural. So blowing the top off a mountain with dynamite so we can get to a coal seam might seem a stretch for niche construction. But other critters use tools, and in a sense TNT is just a tool. A chimpanzee poking a stick into a log to retrieve ants to eat – just a more primitive aspect of the same thing. Where can one realistically draw a line?

          I’m not trying to make a case we should be absolved from planet wrecking just because other animals makes messes. Indeed one might argue our significant powers might compel us to be even more responsible than other species. But I have a hard time with all the blame being cast as ‘unnatural’. There are plenty of ugly things in nature. But ugly, like beautiful, is in the eye of the beholder. Its a context thing.

  4. Yes, fight your corner. And let’s not lose sight of the dimensions. Stay in your corner to fight. If you fare well in the fight, stop or slow down and enjoy. Taking the fight beyond your corner is where trouble begins. And I think I’ve seen evidence of this sort of thinking in abundance around these parts.

    The commonly heard dictum “Think globally, act locally” treads in this general direction as well.

    If I may offer a subtle shading of Aldo’s mountain thinking aphorism it would be that I believe he considers the mountain the whole of the ecosystem, not just an enormous pile of rock with organisms adorning it. One can be forgiven considering the mountain as more ancient and less dynamic if the focus is on the enormity of it. And your comments in the first paragraph move in this general direction of the whole ecosystem. For the whole ecosystem then, wolves and foxes can be missed – at least for a time. If gone for too long the ecosystem evolves and moves on. Once an ecosystem has changed considerably there can be as much disruption in trying to go back as to continue on a particular course. This is where I sense ‘rewilding’ having difficulties.

    Landscape fluidity is a concept discussed about a week ago at Joern Fischer’s blog, and one I’m getting to like in many ways. -doesnt-work/

    To take off on a different direction, let’s look at our own place in the scale between mountain and mole hill. Certainly we tower over the mole hill and in turn are towered over by the mountain. And these relative relationships colour our thinking. To the worm trying to eke out a living in your garden… moles are mighty large. To continue the ecological paradigm… some lonely little bacterium is going about its business when the worm comes along and ingests it with the scrap of leaf it dines upon. To the worm and bacterium the mole hill may as well be a mountain. They seem happy to fight their corner, and if they avoid being eaten, life is good.

    But enough with the philosophical drivel. We want a positive outcome from mole invasions. And it just so happens I have a suggestion. I’ve heard one can make a sugary treat from the hind quarter of the humble little critters. Over here we call it molasses.

  5. I enjoyed both the philosophy and the wordplay in the debate above. Yes, I think Leopold is making some good points about ecosystems, scale and context in his essay which aren’t incompatible with what I’ve written – perhaps it’s just that there’s a danger of taking his metaphor a bit too literally, something that I’ve sometimes seen.

    The ethics of reintroducing grizzlies are interesting, and perhaps interestingly different from the ethics of protecting dangerous animals that are still in situ. The notion I heard when I lived in Canada was that black bears are basically forest creatures and so are inclined to slip away from trouble whenever they can, whereas grizzlies occupy more open habitats where there’s no place to run, so they tend to stand and fight – just wouldn’t want to be the person around when it decided it needed to fight… In Canada, the advice was to fight back if attacked by a black bear, play dead if attacked by a grizzly, and if you weren’t sure what kind of bear it was start off playing dead & then fight back if it was still mauling you after a couple of minutes. Those Canadians, such sang froid, eh?

    I guess neither wolves nor bears of any stripe are generally looking to prey on humans – now crocodiles, that’s another matter…

    • Re grizzlies I’ve been invited to visit at a couple of Canadian forestry institutions. I said that if we went into grizzlie country I wanted a squad of Mounties on hand armed with fully automatic weapons and ideally something in the RPG line. That caused great hilarity amongst the Canadians.

      We have a very healthy population of poisonous snakes on our block, redback spiders abound and we’re not far from the ocean with great white sharks and up the coast in Qld poisonous jellyfish, sea snakes, salt water crocodiles all the way across the top half of Australia and so on. All with their own dangers but there’s something about grizzlies …

      • Never been to Australia, and you’re not drawing me in David… Perhaps a debate is needed on most favoured animal executioner – I think I might put grizzlies higher on my list than sharks or crocodiles, but as with most things in life perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference…

  6. The discussion on wolves reminds me of a favorite Berry poem:

    …Or old Coyote may

    Become your supper guest,

    Unasked and without thanks;

    He’ll just excerpt a lamb

    And dine before you know it.

    But don’t, because of that,

    Make war against the world

    And its wild appetites.

    A guard dog or a donkey

    Would be the proper answer;

    Or use an electric fence.

    For you must learn to live with neighbors never chosen

    As with the ones you chose.

    Coyote’s song at midnight

    Says something for the world

    The world wants said. And when

    You know your flock is safe

    You’ll like to wake and hear

    That wild voice sing itself

    Free in the dark, at home.

    By Wendell Berry: from “The Farm”

    • Thanks Brian – nice poem. I suppose the tricky issues are around how to make the flock safe and judging the tradeoff between flock safety and predator control. But I agree with Berry’s sentiments…

      • No doubt. I’ve relocated a few skunks to the afterlife in my time. But, the sentiment is that we do our best to minimize the slaughter.

        Looking forward to reading the new post.

  7. Pingback: Thanks to the 2%, the farmers and ranchers. | CSANR | Washington State University

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