Tag Archives: wind in the willows

Books that Inspire, or Good Reads…

I was most recently tagged in one of those social media chain letters asking to produce a number of books that make my “good reads” list. I saw someone else post it the day before as the 10 (I think) books that changed your life. I think about these whenever I see them, even if I am not tagged, but being tagged with a separate set of list instructions really put me to thinking about reading, and the books that I have.

My library. Really choose only a handful? I have read completely about 75% of these.
Most of the rest are for reference.

   For me, at least, I find it hard to not say that every book you read has changed your life. That impact may be imperceptible, but just as you can never cross the same river twice, you cannot possibly be the same person you were after finishing a book. Whether you loved it or hated it, or even didn’t finish it, it has left its mark upon you in some way.

In an attempt to be reflective on my own reading experiences as well as subversive to the Facebook list chain letter that I am sure was started by a poor unfortunate Nigerian prince just before he set out on the ill-fated journey in which his car wrecked and he left a sizable inheritance to me, I will do both, but with my own rules and parameters.

There are the classics that I have read, because in my 5th grade mind, the classics were what everyone should know. I tackled Moby Dick because it was huge. (If Charlie Brown could read War and Peace, I could read Moby Dick) It was a herculean task for the summer between 5th and 6th grades. I had already read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because my grandfather had said it was his favorite book. I have read it at least twice since then and I find myself still sympathizing with Nemo. To be honest I was in awe of Captain Ahab’s blind ambition to a goal, damned the cost of life, limb, and/or money. I think that is because I never had anything that I was that passionate about. Even today, people that fuss over a certain show, a certain book series, or a certain pop culture entity both fascinate and on some basal level repulse me.

To this day The Wind in the Willows remains my favorite book. I have watched the identifiers change from the simple enjoyment of anthropomorphized animals to the underlying struggles of class and even race. But, at its heart it is really the talking animals that do it. The companion piece of animation produced by Rankin and Bass is my favorite animated feature as well, even if it does rearrange the characterization a bit. Don Quixote continues to be a favorite for Cervantes writing style and most especially for his humor and use of irony and dialogue. H. Rider Haggard’s stories of Allan Quartemain and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness were also books that are still floating around in my brain mixed with a more than healthy dose of Ernest Hemingway.

Once upon a time Wal-Mart ran a “complete and unabridged”series of the “classics” that were two for $1.00 in paperback. Since my mother worked there, I was able to get most of them and they certainly came in handy. Fred, Texas only has an elementary school and come jr. high and high school we were bussed about 16 miles to Warren. When school let out at 2:45 I still had an hour and a half before rolling in on our dirt road at 4:30. I read on the bus. A lot. All of them. I can distinctly remember reading Rifle’s for Watie, Johnny Tremain, and the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle as well.

One of the most influential books on my mind’s eye and judging the realism (real and imagined as I later found out) was a book in this series given to me by my grandfather. It was Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Ever since I read it and learned more about Crane’s life (what little there is to know) I have always had a kind of soft spot for him. But the vivid details he put into his writings still stands out to me. Of course, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells still come up again and again (to my utter delight) as characters influencing the history of science.

Geology AND geologic time

I made the same grown up transition that many do and read Michael Crichton starting with Sphere in 6th grade until I ran out of his books. Jurassic Park and Congo are still favorites, and forgetting the terrible movie version, Timeline is a surprisingly good book.

As far as the books that have “changed” my life in the sense that the questionnaire wanted to know so they could target my page with advertisements for things the algorithm relates to those titles there are two sets that I have that have influenced my particular path of education and study. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which I read not long after beginning college at Lamar was a beat up library copy of “the books that inspired Darwin.” They are actually beautiful pieces of literature aside from important technological geological ideas. I recently found a very nice leather-bound set pictured with the other set that has influenced my studies greatly.

Somewhere on either side of my birthday in the year 2000 my grandmother gave me a millennial edition of the Rand McNally road atlas of America and said “use it.” It took some time but I eventually took jobs that required travel, and when I finally went back to college used it all over the American southwest on geological field expeditions. Some time after that she gifted me the leather-bound set of the Lewis and Clark journals along with Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage.

I sat in the back yard this morning finishing up reading and some research on the Pacific Railroad surveys for one of the first (last) classes I will take before writing my dissertation. The challenge to list influential book has come at an interesting time as I see the list of names and contributions to American history that follow the geological pioneers that accompanied the first surveys west, including Lewis and Clark. Even re-reading Turner’s Frontier Thesis brought into focus several geological analogies that I had missed the first 5 times it was assigned in American History.

The history of the United States, especially the American West, is indelibly linked to the history of geology, and almost the entire nation has an inseparable link to the history of science. Most en vogue historians of American science begin our ascent with the Manhattan Project, ignoring the vast wealth of scientific history that predates the birth of their favorite emigrant scientists. The more diverse places that I look for our history, the more often I see familiar names, Hayden, Powell, the entire Peale family, Baird, and others with government reports being the largest body of evidence for their work. We cannot break the early ties of government and scientific expeditions, and somehow through a very winding path, all roads have converged to the point where that needs to be written, comprehensively as a historical work on science, art, politics, religion, genocide, and culture. That is where these two sets have led, and why they would be some of the most important works I have read.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Mole.

     My wife and I chanced to have dinner and a movie with some dear friends of ours.  Briefly, the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is far from the edge of your seat thriller.  My friend’s wife slept through it all, my wife tried to, and my friend said that he had seen many independent movies and that this was particularly hard to follow.  I enjoyed it for what it was. That being said, the movie was dreadfully slow and painfully precise.  Since I am neck deep in thesis material I haven’t had time to read the book so I called my grandfather.
     He said he had figured it out by the second or third chapter, and that it was incredibly slooowwww (the drawn out emphasis is his).  I had hoped the book would have been better but, alas, perhaps no. Now, I told you all that to tell you this: The premise of this story began my gears whirring anew. Why are spies within organizations called “moles” anyway? (I haven’t found out yet) For that matter why isn’t there more attention paid to moles in the natural world? And, why, oh why do I end up thinking about these things after watching movies? (I haven’t found that out yet either.)

An Eastern Mole.  Look at those hands.
Think how dramatic a molian facepalm would be.

     My first positive relationship with a mole was the fictional Moley in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, which is and forever will be my favorite book.  Of all the animated/action renditions my hat has always been off to the folks at Rankin/Bass for their portrayal.

Always have to appreciate it when he tells Ratty he
“Can’t say I really love duck poems”

A side note: Roddy McDowell’s Ratty is the reason that I have always pronounced the world ad-VERT-isment and not ad-ver-TISE-ment. But, back to Moles. I also tried Pate de foie gras once just to see.  I wouldn’t sing about it, but I tried it thanks to this song. I guess animation works on impressionable children. I tried pate, I never bought anything from Acme.

     But, back to moles.  My first relationship with moles were as pest in the yards of my grandparents.  They would burrow everywhere and destroy their garden.  They would set mole traps and if I was visiting I would go with them to check the traps.  Mole fur is incredibly soft, if you have never felt one.  I also remember being confused at my great grandparents calling moles “salamanders” but I never questioned them, I just quietly kept my knowing better to myself. (that was once the m.o. for all children)


      I don’t know much about the fossil record of moles. Given the little research I plinked through for this update, that may be due to the lack of an extensive fossil record.  You would think that a burrowing animal would be more likely to become a fossil since it was buried in its burrow upon death.  Apparently there is a burrow patrol among moledom that facilitates the removal of any deceased parties and rendering any extra chance at fossilization null and void.

     There is a late Miocene (somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 m.y.a) mole fossil from Idaho that shows characteristics similar to the modern coast mole. They are so similar in fact that they are lumped into the same genus: Scapanus.  Scapanus hagermanensis hails from the Hagerman Fossil beds in Idaho.

Scapanus hagermanensis

    There are also phylogenic complications within the realm of the mole. Oh, are there some interesting connections here. 
The Golden Mole:
A Golden Mole
The golden moles belong to the same branch on the tree of life as the tenrecs, called Tenrecomorpha or Afrosoricida which in turn stems from a main branch of placental mammals called the Afrosoricida. Not so scientifically interesting, but in the words of Hamlet, “Aye, there lies the rub.” This means that they share a closer common ancestor with such existing Afrosoricids as Elephants, Manatees and Aardvarks than they do with other placental mammals. Genetics. Wow. The Mole apparently falls a long way from the tree. 

The Marsupial Mole:

This has got to be one of the most awesome nature photographs ever. 

The marsupial mole’s awesomeness is two-fold. First and far most, this little critter looks more eccentric than anything that ever haunted George Lucas or Peter Jackson’s nightmares.  Secondly there is some genetic marsupial connection that make it interesting to other people. As marsupials, these moles are even more distantly related to true talpidae moles than golden moles, (think rich-great-granduncle twice removed) both of which are placental mammals. So what does this mean? This means that Marsupial Moles are more closely related to such existing Australian marsupials, kangaroos or koalas, and even to a lesser extent to American marsupials such as opossums than they are to placental mammals such as Golden Moles or Talpidae moles.

They may also be the Studebakers if their genus,
as it is difficult to tell the direction of travel based on their shape
    In 2010 the Marsupial Mole again stood some folks on their ears. A fossil find indicated that they likely evolved in rainforests than in the deserts they call home today.  That fascinating article can be be found in Australian Geographic.

Moles ran amok in Scotland for a time and would have been just another plague on the isle had Queen Alexandra not ordered a mole fur garment and set off a craze.  (Not unlike Kate’s wedding dress phenomenon.)  I am tempted to draw a parallel with my young life and that of the queen.  Did the queen, on visits to her grandparents wander with them to check the mole traps? Did she inspect the perished vermin intently, gently rubbing its soft fur? Did she in the back of her mind think, “when I am queen I shall have a garment of this?” Probably not.  I guess there is no parallel,  I never thought I would be Queen. 

   So, we leave the stately mole, with a passing mention of the Star-nose mole that can smell underwater by blowing air bubbles  and snorting them back in. Great little creature there too.  

The Star-nosed Mole. For obvious reasons. 

I doubt there will ever be a save the mole foundation, but I hope people will take it a bit farther to ponder on these creatures a bit. As more than mere infiltrating spies, nasty dangling growths on your aunt’s neck, or the namesake for the journals that so many of us use. There are greatly adapted for their environments and go unnoticed by some, cursed by many, and understood by few.  

General knowledge of the mole. From nps.gov