Review: The Star-Nosed Mole

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the title of Isabel Bannerman’s new book “The Star-Nosed Mole” but have to confess that I was not only pleasantly surprised but also totally enthralled by this anthology of ‘scented garden writing’, writes Sandy Felton.

I think too many of us take ‘smell or scent’ for granted when we are enjoying the fruits of our gardens. The heady scent of the rose, the fresh smell of rain on pine or the distinct smell of damp earth. How many times have we thought to ourselves that a particular smell reminds us of something – the pinks in grannie’s garden, for example or the full-on aroma of the Great Pavilion at Chelsea. The particular smell of something constantly awakens our senses but too often becomes pushed away in the hectic speed of life.

Having published the acclaimed memoir ‘Scent Magic’, the author confesses that she couldn’t leave the subject alone and then she came across the star-nosed mole, a creature with a highly specialized sensory-motor organ, while writing about the riches of the soil kingdom. As she was trying to write about the impossibility of writing effectively about smell, she began to ‘nose around for great writers’ solutions to the problem. The result is this excellent book.

Here is a book to pluck and pick through, to find all this ‘juice, this joy’ in words and images“, writes Isabel in the Introduction. She asks us to think about what makes the heart leap and breathing quicken; twilight; the gone summers; butterflies; balance and ecology: “Read these pages of abundance and solace; imagine the nard, the ambergris – things most of us will never actually smell; remember jasmine, the balms, the incense from Arabic gums and all these miracles of nature, and wonder why do we so thoughtlessly plunder?” Why indeed?

Divided into the months of the year, each chapter has the most delightful and thoughtful collection of poems, quotations and musings on various flowers from John Keats ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘The Honeysuckle’. Snippets from books such as The Mill on the Floss and Emile Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, stimulate our imagination to think perhaps about languid perfumes and musky scents of thyme or perhaps the revisiting of a favourite place or memory where butterflies have danced and daffodils nodded their golden heads.(Right: Angelica)

The book is superbly illustrated by Isabel’s own stunning unique botanical photographs which are a sheer joy. Having started making images of plants on her flatbed scanner, she perfected her technique and as she admits, somewhat by accident, created images with an ethereal otherness, “a bit like scent” as she says in the Introduction. They are certainly magical and somehow mysterious and together with the variety and depth of prose, musings and personal comment, bring together a wonderful collection to help the reader re-connect with scent and smell, while at the same time, for me anyway, awakening so many memories that frankly had been relegated to the back of my mind.

This is an excellent coffee stop book, a book to cheer you up on the wet, cold days, a book to pop open and discover a beautifully written passage or poem and I loved it.

Garden designer Isabel Bannerman and her husband, Julian, have won Gold Medals at Chelsea and designed gardens for a wide range of clients, including HRH The Prince of Wales. Isabel began making her particular style of botanical images in 2003 and has had four solo shows of her work. She is the author of ‘Landscape of Dreams’ (Pimpernel Press, 2016) describing fourteen of the many gardens the Bannermans have created and ‘Scent Magic’ (published in 2019) for which ‘The Star-Nosed Mole’ is an excellent companion. (left: Daturas-three-pink)

‘The Star-Nosed Mole – An Anthology of Scented Garden Writing’ by Isabel Bannerman, is published in hard back at £20 and published by Pimpernel Press Ltd.,

A review copy of this book was kindly supplied by the publisher.

All images are strictly ©Isabel Bannerman/Pimpernel Press