Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Jerry Williams, Tricia Carswell, and How to Catch a Mole

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“I’m not sure I will choose my old pace on the other side,” says Tricia.

“I’m surprised by how easily we gave up some of our personal freedoms, like freedom of assembly, though there’s nothing like a pandemic to get one’s attention,” says Jerry.

“We won’t ‘unshelter’ perfectly, but overall I like what I see,” says Tricia.

“Well, I’m in awe of Dr. Birx’s scarves,” says Jerry.

I’m thrilled to feature two smart, thoughtful women at Bacon today, co-chairs of the Nashville Public Library’s April fundraiser that didn’t happen.

Today’s post conveys the spirit behind the event and some thoughts on the featured book, How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature by Marc Hamer (one of my favorite books of 2019, one of my favorite books ever).

Please read further to hear from event co-chairs Jerry Williams and Tricia Carswell plus two of the speakers, Rabbi Laurie Rice and Vanderbilt professor and poet Mark Jarman. I’m sorry to have missed the chance to moderate a conversation between Laurie, Mark, and noted landscape architect Ben Page.

Here’s a different conversation that I’m happy to share with everyone…

*      *      *

Hi Jerry and Tricia! I loved working with you on the Library event and have missed our meetings at Whole Foods with Claudia Schenk, Elizabeth Sherrard, and Shawn Bakker.

What is your daily life like right now? What is your state of mind? Do you feel like you’ve settled into a good routine?

Jerry: My life is quietly chaotic. Quiet with cancelled meetings, events, appointments and lunches, dinners and gatherings that aren’t happening, and chaotic because I’ve been trying to housebreak and train an English Springer Spaniel puppy who is the most energetic and headstrong dog I’ve ever lived with. He’s sleeping through the night now but we have a long way to go on leash training. Ever the optimist, I get up every morning, determined that today will be the breakthrough day.

As for the confinement, I’m constantly reminded of A Gentleman in Moscow’s Count who was not resigned to his situation but reconciled to it. So that’s how I’m approaching this time, and am grateful that I have the luxury of staying home. There are so many who are working in jobs that can’t be done at home. Thank goodness for the wonderful people who’re keeping the economy going – harvesting crops, driving trucks that deliver the groceries, stocking the shelves at Kroger and Publix, repairing a broken water line in the yard, and especially, those caring for the sick.

Tricia: Nearly 5 weeks in now I do have a routine. My work for Furman University continues remotely so there are self imposed routines associated with that. And, my husband, Ben, and I are forcing Peloton routines given our immense amount of cooking and new recipe exploration. I am also scheduling time each day to check on close friends and even others I seem to never find the time to talk to but would like to. That part of the new routine has been a gift.

Do you get out? Where do you go?

Jerry: If you mean out of the house, I’m in the yard about 15 times a day! And several times a week I take Zeke to charge around large, flat backyards of two generous friends. I’ve been to a garden center twice and venture out to the grocery store about once a week. I just saw a joke that asked, “Is anyone else getting about 3 weeks to a gallon of gas?”

Tricia: I go to the grocery store for our family and for my mother at least once a week. I have really missed being able to walk at Radnor (state parks closed!) and at Cheekwood. My father is in long term care here in Nashville and we had planned several outings at Cheekwood that we obviously can’t make happen for him. Sad. Ben and I also cancelled a few trips, one for my 60th that we wish we could have kept on the calendar. Frankly, there are a few routine doctor and dentist appointments that I have NOT been sad to miss. And, I don’t miss the traffic when I do get out. I wish I could go to my hair stylist to attend to my crown of glory! The root police are going to arrest me!

Jennifer: They’ll stop by my house first! I’ve found a pretty good spray-on product. If you need SOS help, message me separately…

How worried are you to leave your house? How worried are you about catching the virus?

Jerry: Not worried generally, it’s just that there’s nowhere to go. Everything is closed. I’m not cavalier about the virus by any means and am careful to sanitize everything that I touch after an outing. I’m really worried about the economy and hope that we can get things back open, people back to work and the stock market stable. And I’m worried about the viability of families, businesses and all the nonprofits whose fundraisers have been cancelled this spring. We’ve never intentionally shut down an economy so we’re in uncharted territory.

Tricia: I am actually not too worried about catching the virus now that I know our home is virus free and that if we wash our hands as soon as we enter our home we are good to go. Early on when there were more unknowns, I definitely had some fear. I just remain so broken-hearted for those who have lost loved ones and for those healthcare workers who walk into the line of fire each day.

What keeps you sane each day?

Jerry: Reading, definitely, plus I’m also looking at more blogs. The online tours of the Frist’s Turner Exhibit, Cheekwood’s gorgeous gardens, the Symphony’s videos and the Country Music Hall of Fame’s songwriters series remind me of what we’re missing. I haven’t made it to the Library’s children’s story time yet but if this confinement goes on much longer, I may test drive every digital platform the Library has. I’ve also been Zooming friends for virtual cocktail parties and my great nieces and nephews have convinced me to join them on Houseparty. For someone who tries to avoid social media, I’m seeing some of its benefits.

Tricia: My faith, my family, music, TV binging… and of course a good book. I’m loving my gardening and noticing the new growth each day… being home to really see it. And, my golden doodle granddog, Willie, provides 85 pounds of snuggle when he comes to visit. Can’t imagine COVID life with no Wille.

What has surprised you in the Time of Corona – about yourself, others, our city?

Jerry: How easily we gave up some of our personal freedoms, like freedom of assembly, though nothing like a pandemic to get one’s attention. Our willingness to accept confinement is self preservation to be sure but it’s out of concern for others as well. Nashville’s finances were in trouble before this Time of Corona began and now that the tourism and convention business have evaporated we are in an even more serious situation. I’m surprised by how quickly and totally everything just stopped. Downtown streets are eerily empty. Remember the NFL Draft down there last April?

image from fox 17.com

Tricia: I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve actually adapted to a slower pace. I am not sure I will choose my old pace on the other side. I’ve found new ways to show friends and loved ones that I care. I was zooming with a friend to wish her a happy 60th birthday and when I asked her how she celebrated she described a long mid-day nap and a bowl of ice cream while zooming her grandchildren. I don’t think a nap would have been her preferred birthday present before COVID19! Expectations are an interesting thing and when we alter our expectations, new outcomes can bring about a change in what we value. I am spending a lot of time with my family discussing what this might mean for us and this city we love so much.

How do you feel that we have responded as a city? How has your neighborhood responded? Your friends?

Jerry: My friends, neighborhood and the city have responded brilliantly but that’s who Nashvillians are. It may be in the water but there’s an innate desire to pitch in and help even if it’s just a phone call to check on others. During the 2010 flood and the March 3 tornado Nashville volunteers were outstanding. The challenge with this virus, however, is that we can’t enjoy the camaraderie of working together in person. Digital is the format for a while. The Community Foundation’s Big Pay Back is May 6th and I’m hoping that everyone will pull together digitally to help more than 800 Middle Tennessee nonprofits who need our generosity. They’ve been hit hard.

Tricia: I think Nashville responded relatively early and positively and without too much friction or hostile discourse. Our neighbors have stayed at home and our friends have distanced themselves appropriately with respect for how differently we are all responding, even in small ways. I’ve seen so many working creatively to take care of others around them. We won’t ever respond perfectly to these situations; Nashville has become too large in that regard. We won’t “unshelter” perfectly either, but overall I like what I see.

What has been hardest about this time? What do you miss most?

Jerry: The uncertainty… not knowing when it will be “over”… and being patient for American industry, medical labs, research institutions to swing into action… to find some answers.

And I definitely miss the ease of getting together with others, to travel, shop, entertain, worship in person. I miss the innocent days when others were just people, not potential virus carriers. And I miss the opportunity to be with friends such as the amazing Tricia in person. Working with her on the Carnegie Society has been fun and gratifying.

Tricia: I miss worshiping at my church, First Presbyterian Nashville. There is something special and renewing about the power of active, group worship that includes singing, praying and concentrating on something collectively that is bigger than ourselves. I miss freedom… the freedom to be where I want to be and with whom I wish.

And, it has to be said. I miss seeing Jerry Williams and the library staff with whom I have spent so much time this year as we raised dollars and awareness for the Nashville Public Library. What a joy it has been.

What simple (or complicated) pleasure do you especially appreciate in the Time of Corona?

Jerry: Well, I’m in awe of Dr. Birx’s scarves, of course. A few years ago someone gave me a book on how to tie scarves and I can only think of one that she hasn’t used… the halter. Seriously, I am enjoying the gift of time with Ernie and the frequent calls and emails from family and friends who’re checking in to say hello.

Ernie and Jerry Williams

Tricia: With less of a schedule, I am enjoying real quiet time with a cup of coffee each morning… not manufactured, organized quiet time but, stream of consciousness quiet time where I can watch a bird make a nest and just let my thoughts flow. (We have loved watching a robin build a nest in an espalier right outside of our den window and a woodpecker take on an evergreen just outside our kitchen.)

What are you reading, watching, or listening to?

Jerry: I’ve been using the Library’s Libby App and have read about 20 books during this confinement. Listening while I’m exercising the dog or cooking extends my reading time substantially. There’s no rhythm or rhyme to what I’m reading. I get suggestions from friends and from this Bacon on a Bookshelf blog. Last night I finished the Sandra Day O’Connor biography and this morning I’m taking on Titan, Ron Chernow’s 676-page biography of Rockefeller. Ernie just finished the book and highly recommends it.

Others I’ve enjoyed are The Fish that Ate the Whale, Spying on the South, When Breath Becomes Air, My Promised Land, Before We Were Yours, The Rosie Project, The Storyteller’s Secret, Behind the Beautiful Tomorrows, Nothing to See Here, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and even Joanna Trollope’s update of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility.

We’ve just checked out the Belcourt Theater’s virtual screening of “The Booksellers”. As for television, Ernie and I are enjoying PBS’s “World on Fire.”

And waiting for the afternoon Corona press briefing to begin, I’ve been mesmerized by Judge Judy. Who knew that there were so many clueless people out there? I guess we’re all doing the best we can.

Tricia: I have enjoyed listening to all kinds of music but James Taylor’s new album in which he covers American classics is outstanding. We are watching some amazing history channel TV as well as an old favorite, “American Pickers” – so fascinating.

Ben and I and our grown daughter, Mary Lindley, are jointly diving into Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo DaVinci and David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.

How do you think you will be changed by Life in the Time of Corona? Our society?

Jerry: Personally, I’ll be more aware of keeping an inventory of essentials. My mother grew up in the Depression and now I understand why she had shelves full of paper towels, toilet paper, canned goods. As a society, there will be less handshaking and hugging for a while. And there will definitely be more video conferencing. I wonder what impact this will have on Nashville’s convention business, restaurants and airport traffic I’m not sure how quickly folks will return to music concerts but I’m betting that the college football crowds will be back to tailgating and stadiums this fall.

Tricia: I’m going to invite more mindfulness into my life. I want to be more intentional to give time… real time…to the things I say I care about. It will be interesting to see how quickly we all morph back into previous trajectories. Every generation seems to be called to a “life moment” when much is required and when vulnerability leaps before us as a teaching tool. I hope we will all become sufficiently schooled in looking inward to a faith that shows us how to MOVE outwardly… to think of others first and even sacrificially.

What did you like best about How to Catch a Mole? Does it convey any wisdom for our particular moment in time?

Jerry: The book is a fascinating blend of practical knowledge of moles – anyone who has had a mole problem will want to know this – and wisdom gained from Hamer’s “life lived in nature.” The fact that he led a solitary life in search of contentment makes it a great read for right now. When we selected the book for the Nashville Public Library Carnegie Society reading, we had no idea how perfectly it would fit the current situation. We were just looking for a small, thoughtful book that would appeal to men and women. Isn’t it interesting how things in life work out?

Tricia: This memoir speaks beautifully to what the author calls “the becoming” – that necessary path to wholeness that lies before those who live long enough and/or wisely enough to see it. I enjoyed reading the parallel strands of his mole catcher journey and his more meaningful personal journey to “freedom.” I was not always sure which informed the other which made the book even more poignant. I especially enjoyed his poetry! His poem on page 193 is a keeper; a quick read of some of the poems is what made me vote for this book as Nashville Public Library’s choice. This book speaks to the power of awakening and to new beginnings. Both stare us all in the face as we enter a post-COVID19 world. Will we see the best path forward for all it can mean in our lives? Marc Hamer hopes we will.

Jerry, and Tricia, I’m not sure how to tell you how much this interview means to me. You convey the wisdom of women in their prime. 

And now, let’s turn to Rabbi Laurie Rice and poet and professor Mark Jarman for their thoughts on How to Catch a Mole

From Laurie Rice:

In reading Marc Hamer’s How to Catch a Mole, I found myself thinking of Adah Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, who admits at the end of the novel that she does not view it as her work [as a scientist] to vanquish the viruses that she studies; rather, she admires these creatures, believing that they have as much right to the earth as human beings. In a similar vein, Marc Hamer’s How to Catch a Mole teaches us to look at the natural world anew, to develop eyes for the overlooked or the unseen. He writes early on, “Things break, things scar, and scars are healed, but they twinge from time to time. Every small step we take on this earth has consequences.”

Hamer’s words seem almost prophetic as we sit here today in the spring of 2020, quarantined and social distancing as humanity endures a global pandemic. It feels as though the earth is rebelling against an extreme unbalance, righting itself over the past year or two with continental conflagrations (fire), and now the coronavirus (air). Shall we expect uprisings of water and earth to come next?

One of the most tender aspects of How to Catch a Mole is that Hamer clearly loves the animals whose lives he has ended. But Hamer became a molecatcher to assure himself the work was done humanely. “I had to work to depersonalize the moles, because if, as I believe, all living things have equal value and we are all the same, then I was killing myself.” Hamer recognized that moles are “tiny, they are cute, and like the rest of nature they do not care what we feel.” And yet he understood that there was much to be learned from the mole.

Could it be that humanity – that we – come to see this time of pandemic virus as a gift rather than a nuisance? Not the death and the anxiety and uncertainty, but perhaps the reprieve to the environment, to consumerism, to unworthy and empty priorities? Is it possible that we, like Adah Price, might come to see this virus as a natural part of the lifecycle?

“Life is rarely as neat and tidy as we would like. I prefer it that way.” Indeed, Mr. Hamer, indeed. I prefer it that way, too.

From Mark Jarman:

photo from plumepoetry.com

As he tells it, Marc Hamer was forced to leave home at a young age and fend for himself. Out of that fending, living by hook or crook on the road, along canal banks, in England and Wales, he developed a sense of the natural world that led him curiously but perhaps inevitably to the ancient profession of mole-catching. How to Catch a Mole almost casually relates his journey, the lore he learned, the way he educated himself, and how he came to his trade. That casualness, that offhand way of storytelling, seems to be a particular gift of British writers like Edward Thomas and George Orwell, though I have to add that Henry David Thoreau is our great American example. The point of engaging a reader in a book like this – How to Catch a Mole is as engaging a book as I have read in awhile – is to remain always something of an amateur, someone who has learned a few curious things in passing and can relate them simply, without literary pretensions. After all, the writer, forced while young to live by his wits, alone, simply followed his nose through life and found a destiny. The charm of his tale, though I want to say the enchantment of it, is that the subtitle of the book, Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature, tells us what the book is really about. Yes, we learn how to catch a mole, at least the techniques Hamer has employed, but it’s the meandering through life, living close to nature, even as a part of nature, that the book tells us about. All kinds of animals and plants abound. Marc Hamer’s is the story of a kind of Thoreauvian gypsy, who learns a useful trade and practices it for years, even while settling down and having a family. Then he retires and writes a book about it, a memoir in fact. Writing seems to be a new trade for him and I hope he keeps practicing it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and continue to be haunted by passages of this lucid yarn and its poetry. He asks, in one of the poems that closes each chapter, “are antlers pressing through my bald cold skull?” Whether or not that’s true, you know he knows the feeling.

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