Mole Story


(This 1063rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 7, 2011.)



My friend James Collins, currently associate dean of the University at Buffalo School of Education, is retiring at the end of the summer and moving south so that he and his delightful wife Rhoma can live nearer their children. As a going away salute to the Collins, I reprise a column I wrote about Jim twenty years ago.


Recently my university colleague and friend, Jim Collins, told me about his garden problem. I am certain that his story will resonate with many of you as it did with me.

It seems that Jim's lawn was attacked by a mole this summer.

Now Jim knows that the generally beneficial mole was after the larvae of other invaders like Japanese beetles, but that didn't make his lawn any less unsightly. Long ridges trailed in uneven paths across open areas. They raised the ground high enough that his lawn mower dug dirt as it passed over them.

Like any other suburban dweller, Jim's first response was to rush off to the nearest garden store where he would ask the experts what to do.

"Moles?" the clerk responded, "We have just the thing. These will drive moles or shrews from any yard." And the young woman led Jim to a shelf on which lay dozens of what she called "sure-fire mole removers": in less imperative terms, smoke bombs.Jim bought one of these overpriced firecrackers.

As you might expect, the result was not as advertised. The tube, carefully inserted into the tunnel and ignited, did produce smoke. Billows of it escaped, clouding the yard and for a short time leaving Jim as well as on-looking family and neighbors coughing in the acrid blue haze.

The next morning a dozen additional feet of tunnel announced the effect. Jim envisioned the mole smiling to itself as it tunneled on.

Angry now, Jim decided to give the experts one more chance. He returned to the garden store.

Another clerk this time: "No, those don't always work, but we have something here that will." And Jim was shown a vicious looking steel trap that would drive nail-like prongs into "any mole that continues to tunnel," the young man assured him.

In thinking back on the sequence afterwards, Jim realizes that he was manipulated. The smoke bomb serves to get the customer embarrassed and angry. Only then could he be convinced to use such a medieval torture device.

But feeling pressed to do something, anything, he bought one of these instruments, took it home, and, carefully following instructions, set it over one of the trails.

It was, he admits, with some relief that he found, day after day, no results. Not entirely unhappily, he added this iron maiden to the other useless devices on the upper shelf of his tool shed.

The trails continued to extend. His yard looked like a U.S. map with superhighways crisscrossing the nation. And the neighbors no longer laughed out loud: they simply smiled.

Resigned to his fate, Jim told his story in a phone conversation with his father in Massachusetts. His dad suggested what Jim was certain was a ridiculous answer to his problem, but he decided in his extreme circumstances to try it.

Following his dad's recommendation, he bought a large tin of tomato juice, served the contents to his family (not part of his father's plan), and carefully buried the empty can in one of the mole's tunnels, its open top at the level of the tunnel floor. His dad had told him that the nearly blind mole would simply drop into the pitfall and be unable to climb up the slippery sides of the tube.

Sure enough, the next morning there was the mole at the bottom of the tin busily scratching at its cylindrical prison wall.

Although Jim told me that he was sorely tempted to deliver the little burrower to the yard of one of his more condescending neighbors, he freed the mole in a distant woodlot.

Cost of expert lessons and equipment: $21.58. Cost of solution (including the healthful drink): $1.15.

Now Jim says, he's tamping down the ridges in his lawn, waiting for the bare spots to appear where the remaining beetle grubs do their root damage, and hoping that starlings will solve this problem free of charge.-- Gerry Rising