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Katherine Rundell's world of animals

This book has 22 short essays on wondrous animals, of which either the entire species or a sub-species is endangered

An indi lemur in Madagascar. Courtesy Istockphoto

By Yashodhara Sirur

LAST PUBLISHED 05.12.2022  |  11:14 AM IST

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For those who love and are curious about nature, there is nothing more perfect than a compendium of essays on the most wondrous animals on earth. But The Golden Mole And Other Living Treasure isn’t meant for them. The book of short, tight essays, with the sparkling, exuberant sentences, is intended for those who have not been in the great outdoors much—it for those of us walking around concrete jungles, divorced completely from the natural world, with our noses pointing into our phones, and who have forgotten their links with nature.

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For such people, author Katherine Rundell takes on the role of a circus ringmaster, who she says is not himself 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?"

Rundell takes this role seriously. An acclaimed children’s author and academic, she is earnest and excited in inspiring awe through 22 short essays on wondrous animals, of which either the entire species or a sub-species is endangered.

Each essay starts by introducing the animal in historical, mythical, or literary context—sometimes with a poignant anecdote, sometimes an amusing myth or fanciful misconception, and other times by borrowing from the greats like Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway. The narrative gently segues into the realm of science and points out that myths and fairy tales aside, the animal is indeed weirdly wonderful—and that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance To See, the book reads like a short revamp of the old classic—but in a good way. While her turn of phrase is almost as quirky as Adams’, what shines is Rundell’s immense love of animals.

The Golden Mole: And Other Living Treasure: By Katherine Rundell, Faber & Faber, 208 pages, 1,464.

Sample, for instance, how Rundell describes a wolf’s howl: “They rock backwards, and just before they call, they look exactly like a child about to blow out the candles on a birthday cake." Her writing is a potent mix of passion, wit and childlike wonder. On meeting an Indri lemur, she says, “(T)he stare of this indri resembled that of a chemically enhanced young man at a nightclub who urgently wishes to tell you about his belief system, but her fur was the softest thing I have ever touched."

Out of the 22 chronicled in the book, there are a few commonplace animals, too, like the spider, crow and the bat. We don’t think of them as endangered, particularly when there is a spider or two taking up residence in our homes, and crows are ubiquitous in most cities—but even these animals, commonly viewed with scorn, are wonderful in their way. Worse, some of their sub-species are in fact endangered. It is a sobering thought.

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The Golden Mole is not so much a call-to-arms (there is little by way of practical solutions for the way forward) as it is a call-to-love—a short and easy read made more pleasing by Talya Baldwin’s gloriously golden illustrations. But the message remains that of care inspired by wonder. As Rundell, most wonderfully puts it, “…love, allied to attention, will be urgently needed in the years to come."

Yashodhara Sirur is a Mumbai-based part-time writer, full-time IT professional.

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