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Column: My morning: Coffee and a cloud of bats

  • Akron Beacon Journal illustration — Rick Steinhauser

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, August 17, 2019

In the summer months the pre-dawn light makes rising early feel natural, but now that our part of Earth is beginning to tilt away from the sun, it is my internal clock that wakes me in the morning.

I am an early riser. When I was a student I discovered how much more efficiently I could prepare for classes when I was fresh, and the discovery remained true throughout my years as a teacher. Now, getting up early is just a matter of habit. I like the quiet of a sleeping household and enjoy the ritual of making coffee, and I still do my best thinking in the early hours of a day. I’m not completely alone at daybreak because our dog, Lucy, is also an early riser. Her motive is food, not clarity of mind, and she knows she will get breakfast when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil. When she has eaten, she stands by the door until I let her out, and before I arrive at my desk with a steaming cup of coffee, she is back inside and settling down for a nap.

One August morning, at a little past 5, I opened the kitchen door to let Lucy out and overhead in the first light I saw a squadron of bats swooping and veering in tight circles in the sky over our house chasing insects, most likely mosquitoes. There had to be 10 of them executing individual figure eights, maybe a dozen, but certainly more than I had ever seen at once in a Vermont sky. Usually it is in the evening twilight that I can see bats when I take Lucy out for a walk, but in recent years never more than one or two at a time. I was startled by what I saw that particular morning, delighted as I watched them circle, and I wondered if they had been there every morning when I let Lucy out and I simply hadn’t noticed. I’m not a superstitious person, but this phenomenon felt like some kind of omen.

Like most people, I have read about white-nose syndrome and the decline of the small brown bat, but I couldn’t say for sure whether these were small or large brown bats. I think probably the latter, but large or small, our bats have been in some kind of decline in recent years.

When my children were young, we had a number of them living in a space under a loose clapboard just above the porch roof, and if we were sitting at dusk on the porch swing, we could hear them squeaking just before they took flight for their evening hunt. I could never be sure never sure whether the bats made the sound in their throats or with their claws as they took off from the metal roof. Later we experienced a span of years with no bats, a time when we were reading in newspapers and magazines about the decline of small brown bats. Then, in a 2009 we renovated our house and insulated it with foam to make it tighter and critter-proof, although at the time we were thinking about mice and not bats.

Three years ago the bats returned, just one or two in the sky at night over the house, and every so often I would have to sweep their droppings from the porch floorboards that abut the outside wall. They had found a new crevice, under the porch roof this time, and we were happy to have them back. I should admit now what must already be obvious — that I like bats. I have never worried about my personal safety when one ends up inside a house, and they are so easy to remove either by opening a window and waiting or by netting them with a towel. Beyond the notion that they will not harm me, I find them mysterious and wondrous, and their blindness is endearing. Like human beings, they are tragically flawed, but unlike human beings, they never complain.

The return of bats to our house seems to fit a pattern that includes the repopulation of turkeys and bears and coyotes, a phenomenon we have witnessed over the past decade. It makes me hopeful about the health of our ecosystem and our forests. My role as a human being is to stay out of the way and to serve as a witness.

For a week after my August sighting I checked the sky for bats each morning without success. I will continue to check, but now I believe my sighting was random luck, like seeing a bear cross the road ahead of my approaching car.

Recently I learned that the term for a lot of bats is a cloud, which makes me thing of a dark swarm at twilight coming from or returning to a cave in the Southwest. What I saw was more like a ripple than a cloud, and I imagine it included the two or three bats living under our porch roof, plus some of their neighborhood friends on their way home after a night of carousing. I thought of waking my wife that morning, but I reasoned that the bats would be there for her to see at another time. Now I wish I had because she would have been fascinated.

The woods around our house teem with wildlife, most of which we never see. Because the animals naturally avoid us, it takes something like a miracle for us to cross paths in such a large a space. But these miracles do happen, and I hope that one day I will look up from a book I am reading or from a cutting board where I am dicing vegetables and see a catamount pause briefly under an apple tree to look at me before disappearing into the woods.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.