Willem Lange: I Like Bats in the Great Outdoors, but Not as Household Guests
The windows in all our outside doors at home go down almost to the floor. So, too, do the openings in our storm doors. The most-used door in the house, the one onto the back porch, has become a sort of TV set for occasional stray or not-so-stray cats and dogs. They peek in at all hours to see what we’re up to, or to communicate with our cat, who clearly finds all of them interesting, but none of them attractive. When the storm sash is on – as it is for more than half the year here in Vermont — this isn’t a problem. The glass is soiled a bit with smears from noses and the occasional paw print. But once the screen is on, things get a bit livelier: barking, meowing and hissing, and now and then a cat climbing up the screen.
This can get expensive, so I leave the storm sash on as long as possible. But this past week, with the thermometer in the high 80s, the house was holding the day’s heat into the late evening, and whenever I opened the storm sash, I got a whoosh of warm air being blown out by the open windows on the other side. It was finally time for the change.
The storm sashes are heavy and large — about six by three — and go up the stairs with much more effort than they used to. I leaned the sash, when I got it to its summer resting place, against the other two already there, and pulled the screen out from behind the stack.
I carried it over to the top of the stairs. But just before I started down, I noticed a piece of black plastic, or a small rag, by my left foot. Then it moved. I looked closer. It was a brown bat. I looked up; there were three more still holding onto the screen. “Whoa!” I hollered down the stairs. “I’ve got a mess of bats up here!”
This was a message I had best not conveyed. Instantly there was more excitement downstairs than up. “Relax,” I advised, closing the attic door. “I’ve got this covered.” A few minutes later each of the visitors went out a back window, dropped a few feet, fluttered to earth, gathered itself, and flew off into the woods. Then I noticed that the screen would need a good scrubbing.
As I gently ejected the little brown guys from the off-limits territory, I took a good up-close look at each one. You’ve never seen a fiercer face than that of a scared bat. They bare their teeth in a silent snarl and lay their ears back. If looks could kill, you’d be done for. I just wanted to check them for any sign of white-nose syndrome, which it was unlikely they’d have, or they’d be dead in a cave somewhere. But they looked pretty robust — tiny, but robust.
We don’t see them very much — for which most folks are grateful — but bats are all around us most of the time. My earliest recollection of them is of my father back in the 1930s, chasing one of them through our high-ceilinged flat with a broom. He was the gentlest of men to small, defenseless creatures. A bee that flew into our car, for example, would not get swatted or madly shooed away. Instead, Dad stopped the car, urged the bee slowly onto one hand, and let it fly away. But bats have always for some reason evoked panic, so husbands often have to demonstrate a protective capacity with a long-handled instrument. A couple of years ago we had one in the dining room. After several fruitless and pretty comical attempts to catch it with a landing net, I finally did what the experts recommend: open an outside door and herd it toward it.
Even fishing can involve bats. Over the course of several years, Professor Shewmaker and I enjoyed many late evenings at a trout pond during the mayfly hatch. The flies always hold off appearing till the sun has been behind the trees for a while and the water is cooling. This means you don’t have much time to enjoy the phenomenon before it gets too dark to see anything. The cruising swallows and the blackbirds and kingbirds in the pondside willows were the first to get excited; they knew when the hatch was about to start. The next to get excited were the professor and I, casting this way and that as the mayflies rose to the surface and took off on their mating flight, to the accompaniment of slurping trout and fluttering birds. Finally, when it got too dark for the birds and almost too dark for us, the bats came out, whispering around our heads and picking white mayflies out of the air. Once I hooked one of the bats on my fly. Sadly, it did not survive. I owe the bats.
My favorite bat, whom I never really saw, was a church bat. I was reading A Christmas Carol at St. Thomas Church in Hanover, which was beautifully decorated for Christmas, the lights out, but illuminated by candles in the window alcoves all down the sides of the nave. I was right in the middle of describing the dramatic moment that Ebenezer Scrooge hears the chain clanking in the cellar, then the noise coming up his stairs toward his double-locked sitting room door: “On it came, without a pause, through the heavy door, and a specter passed into the room!” Just as I said “specter,” something occluded one of the candles in the corner of my right eye.
It had to be a bat. I couldn’t see it in the dark church, but a slight commotion at the rear reinforced the impression, as Mother, who has long been the usher, ushered out two terrified ladies. I don’t know how long the bat lingered; I didn’t see any more blinking candles. I’ve always thought that maybe it was Marley’s ghost, come back to make sure his role was recognized in setting up Scrooge for his eventual redemption.
As with Emily Dickinson’s snake, you never come upon a bat “without a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.” But they’ve been around much longer than we. I hope they survive their present troubles and will be here still to enjoy life after we’re no longer around to be afraid of them.
Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.