The Prodigal Naturalist, Part Four: Cosmic Saunters and Rusty Bats

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By Jack Phillips

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for.... —Thoreau, “Walking”

I can usually tell what our Labrador retrievers have discovered by their body language and choreography. They aren’t much for standing point, preferring to dance around and stomp, dart, and lunge with hackles up, putting on ferocious airs. The possum dance, snake dance, baby rabbit dance, fledgling flicker dance, all follow the genetic remonstrations directed by some distant rubric of evolution. Deer and turkeys make them crazy. At such times one might imagine they descended from wolves. The fact that they have thoroughly confirmed their ancestry did not deter them from making that case once again for the edification of a very unhappy and wet bat.

Our everyday bats, often found grounded after heavy summer storms, are the little brown myotis (Myotis lucifungus). Their hostile demeanor makes up for their petite frames and thin membranes that resist driving rains poorly; waiting out weather in hollow trees and buildings mitigates the risks of saturation. When we find them grounded after storms, I assume they were caught unawares or were hungry enough to risk a foray. And they are very upset. Our rescue attempts are met with nasty rebukes. Twenty-five grams of angry bat can convince seventy kilos of happy dog to back off. Even when our rescue party sends them airborne, they fly away with the weight of a grudge.

Predictably wet and belligerent, this particular bat was nonetheless unusual. Our senior lab, Shaboo, made the discovery and was soon joined by Louie, the younger. They stood stiffly peg-legged and rhythmically cocked their heads, ears forward, back and forth in a puzzled interrogatory. The subject bat was not a little brown myotis. A frosted and glistening hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus), with gorgeous charcoal fur tipped in silver, lay prostrate before us—protecting twin babies clinging to her breast. The angry mother held the labs at bay with nasty hissing and an evil, elfish glare.

In that moment, domestication seemed to shift into reverse as Canis familiaris indulged the wolf within. The chasm created by embracing human culture had disappeared into a thin sliver; linear time vanished when turned on edge by the ancient insults of that angry bat. The couch-hounds became wild beasts, and the backyard, in the process of reverting to jungle on its own accord (under our disciplined regime of nonmowing), was in that moment a forest primeval. That magic bat, capable of punching holes in time and reality, empowered the raptly befuddled dogs to reclaim their place in the natural order. The frosted bat had transformed chocolate labs into chocolate wolves. Thoreau describes this wild transformation in “Walking”:

I love to see the domestic animals reassert their native rights—any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor; as when my neighbor’s cow breaks out of her pasture early in the spring and boldly swims the river, a cold gray tide, twenty or thirty rods wide, swollen by the melted snow. It was the buffalo crossing the Mississippi.

Like Thoreau’s neighborly cow, all the nonhuman creatures of my neighborhood seem to know what to do with the small portion of wildness they still possess. Primal personalities emerge on summer evenings at the woodland edge in our front yard. Hoary bats join more common bats in the flying circus. Chimney swifts and nighthawks perform feats of altitude, but bats steal the show with loops and scoops when they dive close enough to fan our faces as we recline under elm. Quacking katydids and screech owls accompany firefly pyrotechnics. Disinterested coons and possums causally trundle by. Deer watch from the ravine. Turkeys roost like they own the place. The next-door kitty becomes a hunting tiger as she stalks nearby. Our dogs keep vigil as wolves-in-waiting. Everyone attending the evening performance is plunged deep into our shared evolutionary past—right in the middle of town and just a few bat loops from our front door. We live close, but from nature we are still far removed.

Humans have created a deep chasm with nature on the other side, and we are unsettled by wild creatures when they get too close or stir our own wild feelings deep inside. We are also unsettled by boundary breakers, those who can go where we can’t. Diurnal creatures with ascribed human-like characteristics seem cute and friendly; we prefer daylight creatures that are safe, caged, tame, and subject to our designs. But those that defy our agendas and categories, or that might awaken something exciting and dangerous in the modern psyche, perturb us. We expect dogs to be obedient, neighbors to keep their cows in, lawns to be neatly mown, and hippies to wear shoes in restaurants.

Many people don’t like bats, and I suspect it is because they are boundary crossers—jumping the line between mammal and bird and navigating with fishlike sonar, having been built from leftover parts on the sixth day of Genesis. They have gargoyle faces and only come out at night. We know little about them, and what we do know is a little weird. But it is precisely these mysterious ambiguities that make them the perfect antidote to what Thoreau described as sitting with legs crossed, rusting in our chambers, stuck in the slime and film of habitual life, as relics of our desolate kingdoms waiting for our hearts to be embalmed. They could be the cure for a civilized society that has forgotten that “all good things are wild and free.”

In Thoreau’s parlance, bats might remind us of our vestigial selves, that “life consists in wildness.” He believed that ancient peoples invented weird creatures that expressed “a faint and shadowy knowledge of a previous state of organic existence.” These “fanciful embellishments of heraldry” were created by recombining anatomical parts from the fossil record and took the form of griffins and flying dragons. Bats would likewise be admitted to Thoreau’s bestiary if they didn’t actually exist. Thoreau affirms that nocturnal creatures know the way into primal worlds, but admits in “Walking” they had yet to show him the way. Native American writer Linda Hogan would have advised him to try bats.

Spending time with bats is good for us because they are mysterious nocturnal shamans, capable of breaking boundaries and traversing worlds. Hogan extols bats in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World because they live between worlds in the passageway between earth and sunlight. They are “people of the threshold, dwelling at the open mouth of inner earth like guardians at the womb of creation.” Bats can teach us to hear the “chanting of the earth,” to know what is alive around us, and to awaken us to “new mercies.”

Bats might be able to help us enter primal worlds and traverse the archetypal threshold between humanity and nature, but our troubles might be less cosmic. Maybe our chronic alienation from nature is just the mundane weight and sticky film of our daily lives. Maybe it is just too easy to delay a saunter with a load of laundry or an important meeting that could go on without us. We might recognize, with Emerson, that “nature is loved by what is best in us,” but it is a love that might inconvenience us even as it asks so little of us. Sometimes desire is too wild and the nature we love, too far. Maybe like Thoreau we get a little rusty by staying indoors too long.

I feel a bit better knowing that Thoreau in his day faced the nagging alienations of modern life. He is celebrated for living in the woods—often assumed to be a hermitage in an isolated wilderness, but in fact it was more akin to a city park. He made frequent trips into town, had lots of parties, and complained of uninvited interruptions. He confessed: “For my part, I feel with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only…” For my part, my familiar Loess Hills are a just short drive away. The woods at home are just a few meters from the front porch, and my wild Thoreauvian backyard is the distance of a doorknob. The womb of creation, attended by bats as Hogan would have it, is not a world away. It lies just beyond the thin layer of rust that I have accumulated since my last saunter.

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