Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue

Return of the Bats

(Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

There was a cave across the river from the town my father grew up in, its entrance in an ordinary field. He went down into it once. As he descended, he could hear the muffled sound of the river rushing. In the damp and the dark, he leaned his back against a wall. It was furry — with bats. The bats were no doubt as upset by the encounter as my father, since he was several hundred times larger than any of them. Lacking wings, he could not leave as swiftly as they did, but he assured me he was quick.

So many of our associations with bats are negative. The least bad that I can recall is the folk song that begins, “‘Hi,’ said the little leather-wing bat, / ‘I’ll tell you the reason that, / The reason that I fly by night / Is I have lost my heart’s delight.’” This, although it is charming, is still melancholy. The bats of culture fall off sharply from there — bats in your belfry, the original dark superhero — landing with a thump at vampires. A little thought shows why this is so. Bats, as the song says, are creatures of darkness. When we do get a look at them, we puzzle over their ungainly design. They look as if they were stapled together from spare parts in a workshop. The German word, Fledermaus, and its English dialect cognate, “flittermouse,” describe their heterogeneity: They are rodents with, well, bat wings. Their wings are not even graceful, like those of birds, but stretched and sprung over struts like some design for human flight by Leonardo which, if he had ever built and tried to use it, he would have crashed and died. Propagandists for nature do bats no favors. The close-ups of their faces in wonders-of-the-world documentaries show nozzle noses, radar-dish ears, and tiny but extremely pointy teeth. Go ahead, hit fast-forward, I’m still here just waiting to chew on you. No wonder they are always flying around the cauldrons of cartoon witches: They wear Halloween masks all year.

Our lawn in the country is slightly concave, like a shallow bowl missing a side. Trees, some of them quite tall, ring it, giving it the appearance of an amphitheater. On late, late summer afternoons, after the day’s gardening was done, we would sit on a bench at the top of the rise behind the stone wall, drinking sparkling rosé (how urban) in our sweat-stunk Permetherin-infused gardening clothes (how country) and watch the bats. They would appear as the day birds were finishing up — swallows swooping, catbird anchors reading their evening news digest. (Hawks and owls observe a similar changing of the guard.) Their flight was unmistakable — jumpy, veering, like an out-of-control cursor on the screen of the sky. It was superbly adapted to the task at hand: snagging the maximum number of bugs. Since bugs can fly any which way, so must bats. Their wackadoo wings enable their sudden twists and turns. In the Eighties there was a retired Air Force colonel who gave a multi-hour briefing on combat operations based on the concept of the “ooda loop.” The acronym — observe, orient, decide, act — grew out of the experience of fighter pilots in the Korean War who, even though our planes had less speed and power than the enemy’s, shot them down because our planes could change direction more rapidly (they had, in briefing-speak, tighter ooda loops). Bats are nature’s aces. They would circle the airy upper story of the lawn, from mid trunk to treetop level, skipping, stuttering, flapping. In the descending sunlight they were not disturbing at all, rather, hypnotic, playing a kind of ragtime taps.

We liked watching them so much we thought to buy a bat house. It came in the mail, a rectangular box with an opening at the bottom. Doug patiently made a pole for it and hoisted it alongside the shed. It was a whim of new owners, like tapping the maples for syrup. The first pole snapped after a bad storm, and the house got remounted. We never saw a bat enter or leave, or any sign (such as droppings) of one having done so. They preferred waiting in caves for the next child like my father. These are our lairs, we’re sticking to them.

One spring day we did find a bat on our house, at the front door. A bat Jehovah’s Witness. He hung there for a while, then flew down to the pond, a hop of about 25 yards, then back. He did this several times, as if warming himself up, before flying off and vanishing. His presence in broad daylight indicated that he was a bit disoriented. That and a close-up view of his fur — not unlike ours — made him sympathetic.

Then there were no bats. A fungus, we read, decimated them. Without a scientific background, it is hard to know whether such a disease in the animal world is a cyclical crash, or, as journalism will have it, a sign of the eco end times. Even if it was only the former, it was a loss. We lose everything in this world eventually, which makes it sad when a piece goes ahead of time. For the last few years the bugs had the dusk to themselves.

So it was a surprise, and a delightful one, when, as I got the grill ready before dinner recently, I saw out of the corner of my eye, in a slice of sky beyond the deck, the familiar flight path. I stopped to observe. The bat was looping around the lawn, although from where I stood it seemed to cross stage left, then stage right, as if in a tree-trunk proscenium arch. In a moment it was joined by another. The sun was down, the moon was not up. Jupiter shone, and a few lightning bugs. I alerted my wife. We watched together. Back for now. Let us not forget to watch.

This article appears as “A Local Extinction Reversed” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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