Great Uncle Mole was a great one for rituals. Come hell or high water, every morning he would emerge briskly from his bedroom in a tartan dressing-gown and head straight for the kitchen. He’d fill the kettle and put it on the stove. Life was not worth living without an early pot of his own special blend of Irish Breakfast and Russian Caravan. The tray, or trays (should there be any other creatures staying in the burrow) were set up the night before, complete with a linen tray-cloth, a small tin of digestive biscuits, and a flower in a vase arranged just as his Mama had done many years before. This ritual was a solitary occupation, and if any small creature, up with the larks, ever dared follow him, they were scowled out of the kitchen and told to go back to bed. Nonetheless there were times I watched him from the safety of the hallway. There was something about the precision of every move, its quotidian invariability, that suspended time. One could not believe that there would not always be a Great Uncle Mole making morning tea.
While the kettle was occupied with the task of bringing the water to the boil, Great Uncle Mole pootled along to the vestibule where (in amongst the mufflers and sou’westers and oilskins, capes and ulsters, berets and flat-caps and gumboots, walking-sticks and snowshoes, straw-hats and umbrellas and badminton racquets), a pair of weather instruments, encased in oak, bravely stood their ground. He would tap the barometer first, and tap it again if he didn’t like what he saw. Then he would squint at the thermometer. The vestibule was dark and Great Uncle Mole’s eyes were weak. Sometimes he had to guess, but nevertheless, what ever he said he saw would hold for the day, the weather outside be damned.
One of the best things about this method was that the temperature was seldom more than a few degrees below and never, ever above 50F (or 10C) because it was Uncle Ratty who had attached the instruments to the wall and Uncle Ratty was a good inch or two taller; 50F was what was level with Great Uncle Mole’s eyes. Down in his burrow it was usually cool, and little could be seen of the world beyond, so it might as well have been true.
As the temperature heads for the 80Fs on this old imperial thermometer, and a hot spell is forecast for the next week, I wish Great Uncle Mole were here to fool me. I contemplate fooling myself by merely raising the thermometer higher on the wall, and removing my spectacles before taking a reading, but the sun penetrates this burrow of mine, fills it with heat and light. An extraordinary sleepiness overcomes me at this time of year. The days go on for ever and the short dark allows no time to restore and recover. Although the solstice heralded a welcome turnaround to shortening daylight, here in the southern hemisphere the evenings continue to lengthen for a further 29 days.
I look at sunflowers, daisies, marigolds and geraniums sturdily holding their own in the sun, while I wilt in the shade. In the mornings I can barely raise myself. Where is the mole who leaps out of bed on those dark winter mornings, striding up Knocklofty while others creatures are hibernating?
Am I alone in this desire to hide away from the bright heat? Very nearly but not quite. I find that rather than hibernate in the winter my friend the Malagasy fat-tailed dwarf lemur aestivates in tree-holes for the seven hottest, driest months of the year, but perhaps even closer to my heart is the only other known aestivating mammal, the nocturnal and solitary four-toed East African hedgehog. It has its very own mechanism for hiding away from the too-bright world. Its obicularis panniculi, the circular skin muscle in its soft belly contracts into a bag, a blissful dark place, into which the hedgehog withdraws, its spines erecting themselves protectively in the same movement.
Oh to be an East African hedgehog.